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Interview by Thomas Keneally with Laurie Hergenhan
SOURCE: An interview in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 12, No. 4, October, 1986, pp. 453-57.
In the following interview, Keneally discusses the function of history in his fiction, the significance of his non-Australian settings, and his fictional use of historical facts.
[Hergenhan:] A number of your novels have been concerned with history and war They have been set wholly or partly outside Australia often with no overt Australian element [Keneally interpolates: 'the sin against the Holy Spirit']. How would you account for this, do you see any recurrent concerns and associated aesthetic problems?
[Keneally:] The whole business of historical novels is that for a time I found history an easier model—paradigm to use that fashionable word—to work with than the present is. Unfortunately though, the reading public have problems with working out what sort of historical novel a novel is. As I said in an article in New Republic when I was reviewing Gore Vidal's Lincoln the best sort of historical novel is not the tempestuous sagas of bygone ages or the bodice-rippers that you see in newsagents. These have certainly a great commercial value but ultimately many of them debase history. The best sort of historical novel is the one which is really about the present and uses the past as a sort of working model for the present. Or, to put it another way, the best sort of historical novels are novels in which the human issues are the same as those we have now, and have always had to face. I went through a phase in my writing when the model I worked with was the past in one way or another. Mind you I have to say that of course there are a number of my novels which are contemporary and set in Australia as well. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith wasn't one of them because it was set in the year of Federation but such novels as Three Cheers for the Paraclete, The Survivor, Passenger and Family Madness are all Australian centered though in Family Madness you see the interest in history again, in European history, specifically the history of Belorussia during World War II. Notice that there is suspicion there that Australia is twice as interesting if placed in that rather vivid historic context. The migrant is more interesting if you know the history he comes from and it may be an ancient history, of course older than World War I, older than Joan of Arc. We see such a history operating in Australia in 1984 on a family of Belorussian migrants. If you take a book like Gossip from the Forest which is about the signing of the Armistice in 1918, it admittedly has not a lot to do with Australia and yet on the other hand it has. There had been for Australians between 1788 and my generation a tendency to look upon Europe as a place where the other half of your soul was, particularly to look upon somewhere in the British Isles as the place where the other half of your soul was. But one of the greatest 'future shock' sort of events of our lifetime has been the decline of Britain and the decline of Europe. My grandparents used to look upon Britain as something admittedly satanic but enormously powerful, ramified, megalithic, as something that was immutable. There was a great comfort both for the English and the Irish in that picture of things and to my amazement in the space of my early adolescence Britain virtually withered and became an increasingly impoverished nation and I suppose in Gossip from the Forest I am looking at some of the causes of this withering. I imagine that I write both as an amateur historian and as an Australian of my generation who used to sit in my childhood round family gatherings where uncles would show the shrapnel wounds in their legs, or would be visibly affected from gassings which had happened more than a quarter of a century before at Paschendale or Ypres or some such place. It is inevitable that that war should seem to me to be the event which signaled the end of innocence and the end of freshness and power for Europe.
Now about recurrent concerns I think there is a recurrent concern in the novels in men of decency, the central characters often being men, fighting historic causes on which they can't quite get a grip. It happens with Erzberger in Gossip from the Forest, the German politician who tries to bring sanity to the negotiations and who has a sense of being the only one there who can foresee the ultimate results for Europe in what is happening in that railway carriage, and you see it too in Delaney an innocent Australian lad, quite charming, who is trying to rescue a girl he loves. Danielle from White Russian history—a history he doesn't understand and whose power he is ill equipped to deal with.
About associated aesthetic problems that run through the novels: I am not aware of any, although every novelist has enormous aesthetic problems to deal with. I'm not aware of any to be honest that arise specifically out of the historical aspects of the work I do. The continuing aesthetic problem is to make the human being real and immediate and that is not the problem which the bodice-ripper type of historical novelist has. His main aim is to make the person exotic either through dress, speech, preposterous wealth, preposterous cruelty, etc. A distancing mechanism is quite deliberately employed in the Gothic romance and the historical romance. The opposite is true of historical novels which wish to pass as novels as such, but that observation is true of all serious writing.
How would you relate these novels to those set in Australia?
I find that the work is pretty well a continuum. You have in say Corporal Halloran in Bring Larks and Heroes of long, long ago, or in Delaney in A Family Madness, the same sort of pilgrim voyager though I like Delaney rather better than Corporal Halloran because I think he's more fully developed than Halloran, not more fully developed as a character but certainly as a human being. I suppose the critical debate about the body of my work if there is one or if there is to be one would be concerned about this question of whether the body of work is a continuum or whether it is a set of jerky new directions continually embarked upon. I hope it won't seem special pleading if I say that the historical novels, the ones set outside Australia, were the equivalent of the Australians' trip overseas which in my youth was generally sanctioned by the dictum that you could only get perspective on Australia by seeing it from outside and I think that is the case, I think that we have been so little subject to outside scrutiny that we have got to do it to ourselves, we have been so little objects of interest and there has always been this gulf peculiar to small countries and ex-colonies, I suppose, between what seem to be eternal verities and important issues here and the way those same issues and verities look when they are reviewed from a distance of 12,000 miles. So if those historic novels like Gossip from the Forest, Confederates and so on were my sort of literary overseas trip then of course the difference between them and my Australian preoccupations are more apparent than substantial. I remember a publishing executive a few years ago advising me to stop being a literary bikie, thundering off down unexpected and unprecedented alleys and dragging my readership with me like a semi-willing bikie's moll. But I think that some writers are simply like that temperamentally, they prefer to jump about. There is more of this in the American writing tradition, in Mark Twain or Gore Vidal or others than there is in the Australian tradition. Just the same you have it in a nascent way in Blanche D'Alpuget who has written about Asia and now about Israel. Continuity comes from the perceptions and values of the main characters, so basically, I see my work as a continuous and relatively homogenous thing, although it can't ever seem to be as homogenous as the work of those novelists who generally write out of intimate personal experience.
Do you think your fiction about war stands apart from other fiction about war written by Australian authors?
The different settings go without saying because we have the south in Confederates and we have the signing of the Armistice in Gossip from the Forest and in that other book Season in Purgatory we have Croatia, but I think theme and treatment are more or less the same as those in such works as 1915. You are dealing with innocents trying to prove their honor against the background of massive movements of history and massive items of technology and out of that comes the poignancy of most of this sort of fiction. When I am writing that sort of book, whether it be Confederates with the central character, Usaph Bumpass, or whether it be my favorite work, Cut Rate Kingdom, in which a labor politician deals with the realities of Australia's position vis-a-vis Asia in 1942, whichever it is, you always show the myths that the individual takes with him into the fray and the way these are ultimately swamped and overwhelmed by (I have probably used the phrase before) the realities of history. The myths that Johnny Mulhall takes into his dealings with the Americans in Cut Rate Kingdom have to do with Australian socialism, Australian utopianism, the Australian warrior—whether, that's a political or a battle field warrior as the gamest, the flashiest, the one with the most panache; and of course such local and tribal mythologies get gobbled up by forces vaster than them. But that's something that I think all writers about war and history also deal with, so that apart from the mere differences of the settings, once again I see a continuity in terms of theme and treatment with other fiction written by other Australians on this sort of theme. Perhaps there is a greater stress on those forces of history moving in the background, and perhaps there is a greater stress on that rather than the mere comradeship or the intimate events of the group of men who are undergoing this experience.
I think one of the reasons Australians write about this sort of subject, particularly Australian males (it's very much what your feminist would call Anglo-Celtic and rather sexist) is that most of Australian life has been fairly safe and that, for Australian males anyhow, it is quite obvious that the battles they experienced are the supreme events of their lives. Maybe this says a lot about the impoverishment of male experience. I think that may be too glib a judgment but that there is none the less a great deal of truth in it. I am pleased to be out of that phase of my career now and moving onto other matters.
Would you care to comment on the use of fact as a basis or departure point or whatever in your fiction?
The only book I have written which purported to be based to a strict degree on fact is Schindler's Ark. The reason it had to be so written was that I had a duty to the people who gave me interviews and who had been Schindler's prisoners which no doubt accounts for this or that small error of fact in the book but the point is that these errors do not occur for any aesthetic or technical reason but are a mere lapse. In an historic novel errors can be deliberately courted. By error here I mean the deliberate imposition on an historical character of a vision he or she may not have had or of a particular linking of events which may not have taken place but which has that prevailing artistic truth of something which should have happened.
Let's talk about that terrible word 'faction'. Schindler's Ark was such a book and I thought it an appropriate mode to use since it had been used so well by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff. The writer of 'faction' has a great deal of artistic liberty in interpreting what the events mean, in finding their linking symbolism, in the use of language and metaphor, in providing a piquancy to the characterization. It is a valid genre, again much more honored in the United States than it is here, though Bryson's Evil Angels was a fine example of it and it is in a way technically easier to write, though in research terms it is more demanding. Why it is technically easy is that the recurrent flaws and strengths of a personality such as Schindler's give his life an artistic form of the type you have to make up for a fictional character. The most remarkable coincidence between life and art lies in that phenomenon, that lives often have what appears to be an artistic neatness to them. The same faults that do us in during youth become terminal in age. The only reason that lives aren't quite as neatly arranged in the real world as they are in a novel is that in the real world accidents occur which are genuine accidents whereas in a novel accidents should only occur if they have already somehow been caused by the action and by the excesses of the characters. The point about 'faction' though is that it is in some ways too limiting. You are bound by the realities of the exterior world. You cannot have an essential inventive experience which goes with writing true novels like Family Madness. You certainly can't have what you have in A Dutiful Daughter, an adolescent girl who turns her parents into cattle creatures, and you can't have a journal-keeping foetus like you have in Passenger. So 'faction' is one decent direction for writing to take but the fantastic is another. I think in my future work I shall veer towards the fantastic.
This section contains 2,363 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)