Thomas Keneally | Critical Essay by David English

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Thomas Keneally.
This section contains 4,105 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by David English

SOURCE: "History and the Refuge of Art: Thomas Keneally's Sense of the Past," in The Writer's Sense of the Past: Essays on Southeast Asian and Australian Literature, edited by Kerpal Singh, Singapore University Press, 1987, pp. 160-69.

In the following essay, English examines the subjective bases of the authorial consciousness that informs Keneally's novels, emphasizing specifically the textual connections between his own biography, his sense of history, and other written texts..

In every aspect of his published writing and commentary, Thomas Keneally presents a consistent and uniform consciousness: he lives in a world of unresolved dualisms. The primary dualism is that which distinguishes the sacred potential of the will from the profane, finite betrayal of all bodies, or forms, most importantly the human body.

Keneally presumes that to be an author is to accept the task of eliminating these dualisms. He regards himself as a mediator in the eschatological struggle. He venerates and translates what he regards as authoritative, and he attempts to consecrate what he regards as mere form. He doesn't regard himself as a source or an authority. He once said "Order is beyond me" when referring to his research techniques, which is fortuitously emblematic of his total state of consciousness. Keneally is unable to accept the idea that truth, or analogues for truth, in the form of literary structures, might emanate from him and live independently of him in a life of their own. Such a situation would imply that we are alone in a fatherless universe and, since our product can live independently of us, mortal as well.

His need for what he himself calls "repositories of immortality" manifests itself as a general inability to relinquish authorship. While the "author" is in communication with the product of his imagination then finitude, an ending, is temporarily deferred. He remains an omniscient, self-conscious writer and his product becomes a self-created momentary order with which he can have a reflexive dialogue. With Keneally there can never be a created reality existing beyond the narrator's consciousness—there can be no true characterization, no arbitrary fate, no "past" if that means an entity existing in its own terms to which he must subject himself.

It is a commonplace paradox that the dualistic uncertainty of an author like Keneally which prevents him from relinquishing control, terminating his art, or accepting reminders of mortality, is the same uncertainty which prevents him from being truly an "author", if that is taken to mean the origin of authority. Patrick White, for example, is not self-conscious. He submits himself to his own vision with no idea of the outcome and no attempt to retain authority over the significance of what he says. As a result White is repetitive, or insistent as Don Anderson has put it, but he is truly original, an origin, whereas Keneally who avoids repetition because it becomes an analogue for the pointlessness of life, also remains profoundly unoriginal.

Keneally finds certitudes, or origins beyond his unresolved consciousness, in three major areas: (i) his own biography, and immediate experience, and the act of writing, because in this subjectivist world one's self is the most tangible entity, and the words on the page are miraculous objects which have precipitated in a sea of subjectivism; (ii) what he calls "the past" because it seems to have a neat order; and (iii) other written documents or literary works, because they offer, like one's own language, a defining point or authorising agent which calls out a reaction and relieves consciousness from the burden of finding its own literary-creative direction.

Keneally's reliance on the certainties of subjective experience has resulted in two novels which are obviously autobiographic, The Place at Whitton and Three Cheers For the Paraclete, as well as two novels which revisit the themes and text of previous works of his own, A Victim of the Aurora and Passenger. Perhaps more significantly, Keneally's reliance on his own vision or subjective perception for authority leads him to resort to surrealist fantasy of the sort in A Dutiful Daughter, which breaks out from time to time in otherwise realist narratives like Confederates, Blood Red, Sister Rose or Schindler's Ark.

The condition which constantly eludes Keneally is ordinariness, both in terms of event and narrative stance, because to sustain a created sense of ordinary reality requires him to engage in illusionism, to erect an analogical edifice which suggests the real through the intangible. The unseen is a threat for a consciousness like Keneally's, so that he is able to engage directly only with his own language, or alternatively to produce convulsive surreal fantasy, another version of subjectivism. As he puts it himself:

I've been reading Marshall McLuhan, and I've come to realise that print is only the most artificial repository of immortality—and that's what we're involved in, immortality. I'm wondering whether to cast off into a sea of pure fantasy.

One of the happiest outcomes of Keneally's need to use himself as an authorised source of information is the portrait of Phelim Halloran in Bring Larks and Heroes, his second historical novel. It is a brilliantly confessional novel, and a true autobiography. The unrecognised achievement in this novel is how, with sentence-by-sentence precision, Keneally fits Halloran into a biographic scheme or proposition. The imagery, logic, vocabulary and event-sequence around this personality never deviates from the thesis that authoritarian belief systems produce a personality which is self-conscious, irresolute, fearful, dualistic, marginalised, morbid, fatalistic, powerless, superstitious—the complete victim.

All of Keneally's characters are framed inside this master-victim dualism, and he has broken no new ground in characterisation since Bring Larks and Heroes, because, I would suggest, he is not interested in being informed by the world beyond himself.


It should come as no surprise to find that a writer with Keneally's preoccupations should find the past more congenial than what he calls "the perilous moment in which we live". The "perils", of course, lurk in the uncertainties of the present. With the exception of the autobiographic and surrealist novels, along with the highly self-conscious Passenger, all of Keneally's novels are "historical" if that means set in the past.

Certainly the idea of the past is very reassuring for Keneally. As he said in 1975 when referring to the perilous present:

Writers will always be attracted by the past, it is less confusing than the present. Historians have already reduced it to some understandable unity for us. Their gift is beyond estimation.

He goes on to make another characteristic dualist claim that the past is merely "the present rendered fabulous", that is, the past offers a rock-like certitude against which he can project his irresolute consciousness; it is he as author who constructs the fable.

There are three aspects of Keneally's sense of the historical in his novels which are consistent with his own formulation. Perhaps most obviously, there is no sense in Keneally's historical novels that any one period is different from another, nor could there be if the past is merely the present, (that is, Keneally's present), rendered fabulous.

Keneally's portrayal of life in the past automatically, almost obsessively, dismisses the intractable, the foreign, the social structure, the determining context, in favor of an anachronist, knowing-humanist view in which all men and women of all nations and times have the same personality. The victims, Halloran, Jimmy Blacksmith, Jehanne, Usaph Bumpass, Poldeck Pfefferberg have mental processes, even occasionally speech mannerisms, which are indistinguishable: as do the masters—Major Sabian, Dowie Stead, Stonewall Jackson, or Sir Jean D'Aulon in 1422:

D'Aulon: They call me honest Jean. By that they mean I'm the poorest knight banneret in the army. I'm not married because no girl's old man is very interested in estates that have been in the keeping of the Goddams for the last eleven years….

Jehanne: Sir Jean, this is my page Minguet.

D'Aulon: Hello Sunshine!

Of course this passage has many elements familiar to readers of Keneally. There is the knowing compound allusive-ness available to an author with time to construct it, (but not to a participant feeling his way through the perilous present), and the verbal play ("honest Jean"), and the outrageous piece of triumphalist authorial wit ("Hello Sunshine!"). However, while there may be a respectable view of History to suggest that "there's nothing new under the sun" and all people in all cultures are the same, or while the Christian view of man, which Keneally presumably represents, might presume that there is an a-historical integrity of the individual soul before God and therefore historical periods are only constructs, there is still the possibility that Keneally needs to invade and demystify, or appropriate "the past", since the existence of the past indicates transience. If an event, an entity or an order of things is allowed to have existed beyond the narrator, then the narrator himself is threatened with mortality.

One only need think again of Patrick White's sense of the past, by comparison, to understand what Keneally finds difficult. White, the illusionist, traces out in The Twyborn Affair a series of intensely nostalgic sketches of the Edwardian South of France, Australia between the wars and London in the blitz. The places and periods are allowed to have existed and then relinquished.

If the first aspect of Keneally's sense of history is that he won't permit the past to exist outside his own consciousness, then the second is that his historical novels only ever concern themselves with war and violence. There may be a view of history which relates war to key social and economic changes, but this is not Keneally's reason for always writing about war. For him the intensities of acts of violence and military behavior are the extraordinary modes which he hopes will give meaning to the ordinary.

War or Civil Disturbance is one of the great certitudes. While a country or district is under arms the imponderable ordinariness of peacetime can be shelved. Action is required by the circumstance, life has a purpose and a given order. As a writer Keneally can take voyeuristic sustenance from the immediacy of the event without being threatened as he might have been in real life. From the tranquillity, the refuge, of his armchair and his omniscience, he can imagine his way into the bush with Jimmie Blacksmith, or into the Confederate army, or the carriage in which the Armistice is signed. He can be a General, fantasizing about rolling an army up this way or that, or he can think of the timely expedient of hosing down the hot cattle trucks carrying Jewish prisoners on their way to Auschwitz. It was actually a character called Sandie, but it could just as easily have been Keneally in Confederates who thinks, as he rides out behind Stonewall Jackson, "This is what it is to live … with a man who sees his job as being to whip history into shape".

Keneally also tends to behave as the omniscient repository of technical details, terms, and incidental observations which are placed, almost precipitated, into the narrative, presumably to add authenticity. The effect however, is often a voyeuristic fetishism, a suggestion that his fascination with the caliber and names of guns, the branches and anabranches of rivers, the precise ranks and army equivalents of officers of the S.S., compels in him an ambiguous boyish fascination. When Oskar Schindler is watching from what is literally his refuge, the shade of trees on the hill overlooking Krakusa Street, he notice that:

An armed S.S. man intervened. Beside the nondescript mass of Ghettomenschen, such a being, in his freshly pressed summer uniform, looked superbly fed and fresh. And from the hill you could see the oil on the machine pistol in his hand.

Of course Oskar could not have seen the oil, it is Keneally who imagines it, just as in Blood Red, Sister Rose it is not Sir Jean D'Aulon but Keneally who is interested in the precise place in the hierarchy occupied by a "knight banneret."

However, it is Keneally's specific obsession with violence that allows him to make what I think is his real contribution to historical understanding. Keneally is not one who wishes evil, pain or suffering on anybody; his interest in violence is merely one version of a larger morbid preoccupation with the relationship between significant and insignificant form, and in particular the moment of transgression, or violation, when the secrets of that most significant of forms, the body, might be revealed.

Keneally is an acknowledged master of the art of representing violence. His "technique" is not as deliberate as the term implies. His automatic and unvarying way of representing violence is to separate physical cause from conscious effect. Invariably the subjective consciousness learns, by observing that its mortal vessel the body is no longer intact, that it, the consciousness, is a function of another agent, the body. Keneally sees an act of violence as an eschatological experiment, a search for the essence in the form. Often, as in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, a ripeness is split. Often death is administered by a probing bayonet, as it is by Terry Byrne in Bring Larks and Heroes who is enthralled by "the barbarous fluidity of his bayonet going in". The same bayonet is run into Albert in Confederates although Usaph Bumpass has, like Terry Byrne's victim, turned his buttocks to Albert expecting his own end. The murderers of Navaille in Blood Red, Sister Rose also have delving swords and later in the novel Jehanne wonders how she'll feel "When—to use Messire's phrase—the steel went in". It's Keneally's phrase, of course, but then Messire is also a deity.

In preparing this present study I've become conscious of how important a trigger for Keneally's imagination has been Joseph Heller's Catch-22. While he was researching Schindler's Ark he suggested that Schindler's Ark would be the Jewish version of Catch-22. Oskar Schindler is certainly the Axis answer to Milo Minderbinder, but the more urgent metaphor in Catch-22 that "The spirit gone, man is garbage", the message in Snowden's entrails, is one that infects Keneally like a disease; it may be that each of his novels is a version of Catch-22. Hunter Maguire in Confederates gets off his horse at the Culpeper pike to attend to Snowdon Andrews. He lifts the blanket to find that a "great mess of Snowdon's viscera was tumbled into the dust", and when Jehanne comes across an Englishman al Orleans whose "guts flopped red and grey out of a long belly wound", she wonders about how to tuck them back.

However it is perhaps Keneally's more general morbidity which helps him and his reader to fantasize into events of the past. Keneally gravitates towards the moment of "transubstantiation", when significance or essence leaves or enters a given form. The wider dualism at work in his military historical novels is the balance between the rarefied diverting abnormality of a civil emergency and the unsanctified ordinariness of everyday life.

Schindler's Ark, for example, is a monumental and thoroughly engrossing treatment of the Second World War because, thoroughly in accord with Keneally's minimalist smart-aleck view of historical cause and effect, most of the creative energy is spent establishing that the shooting and battlefield maneuvering has only a small place in the texture of the routine life of a country at war. Keneally replaces our adventure-film view of war as shooting with another kind of fantasising detail—what it was like to walk down a Cracow street in 1943, go shopping, catch a tram. How running a prison camp meant procuring permits for this that and the other, installing machinery, buying food, dealing with the Armaments Inspectorate. What Keneally in fact does is force together the two modes—decisive violence and everyday details of life, so that author and reader alike become engrossed by the obscenity of the process whereby something as horrendous as the final solution can be expressed in terms of supply and demand, train timetables, consignment notes.

A third aspect of Keneally's representation of history is that he does remain omniscient, not simply as the ordering intelligence which any historian will bring to his narrative, but as an all-knowing arbiter or deity. He enjoys the sense that as author the outcome is in his hands. He regards his novel as a world of his own creation, and his characters as beings whose lives are terminated at his will, not by the workings of an independent fate. Keneally enjoys being the repository of the future; he likes the suggestion that he has the prescience of a God when in fact all he has is the privilege of being the narrator. For example, in Confederates Horace Searcy, who is a journalist and spy, both attributes that make him an author-figure in this novel, is leaving on his mission to steal army battle orders, and we're told that:

… he and young Angus were riding through the shuttered town. It looked finally shuttered now, as if it knew the army and all its needs were going to vanish overnight, as if it were now money-counting time and time to take thought about what attitudes to strike whenever the Union army should arrive, as it would surely soon do, pursuing Lee.

And it is in Bring Larks and Heroes, the Keneally protonovel which is at once an analysis of the victim personality, the product of the dualistic self-conscious narrator, and the literary "mesh of sunlight and shade" from which the artist can conduct his arcane craft, that Halloran feels "above himself and Ann, the mercy of a story-teller".


Which brings us to the third of those experiences offering Keneally a resolving authority beyond himself. If his own subjectivity and "the past" each in their own way free Keneally from the burden of true authorship, he also relies heavily on a received order from other authors and documents. There is in fact a level of engagement in the historical novels which has nothing to do with the past al all. Keneally engages directly with his historical and literary sources because they at least are tangible; in the end however, he finds it difficult to take any received structure seriously.

In the 1975 statement in which he claims that the past "is less confusing than the present" Keneally also remarks of the past that it is the historians who "have already reduced it to some understandable unity for us", and he goes on perhaps archly to say that "their gift is beyond estimation". "Their gift" is certainly important for Keneally. It seems to me that his historical research is not directed towards finding out "the truth" about the past—it often seems superficial and too reliant on popular interpretation. What Keneally seems to need is a range of actual texts to play off as a kind of latent model: they provide the pre-existent order which allows him to achieve his tone of easy omniscient matter-of-factness. As he puts it himself:

With Jean and Blood Red, Sister Rose I had both the notes and four very good biographies of the lady to chart my course by. Anatole France, Regine Pernoud, Viola Sackville-West and Andrew Lang were continually consulted and read—I hope not for the purposes of plagiarism but because they provide ideas to expand or fight against.

Keneally is not a plagiarist, but he does enter into a dialogue with the source text to the point where its ordinary content and purpose can no longer hold his attention. The ironic suggestiveness of the French pronunciation of "Jean" which allows him to coin the phrase "honest Jean" is one example. Another is the growing suspicion in Blood Red, Sister Rose that Jehanne, having been called a duckling right through the novel has become in the epilogue a roast duckling for Keneally. And yet another is the unexpected insistence on the phrase "It's time" in Blood Red, Sister Rose, published in 1974, two years after the Australian Labour Party swept to power under the famous slogan "It's time." He certainly cannot sustain serious engagement with sober human reality for too long, as Veronica Brady points out when she accuses Keneally of being Apollonian, shrinking "from the Dionysian spirit" and points out that in Blood Red, Sister Rose "Novelist and reader stand off, voyeurs of decay, not participants in the human drama involved …".

The examples with which I'm most familiar in which Keneally practises a secret art and engages with neither the past, nor the ostensible story nor the historical documents are Bring Larks and Heroes and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. For each of these novels he has a "profane" literary model which he "reacts against" to give himself a sort of naughty-boy's minimalist joy in consecrating them.

For Bring Larks and Heroes the "profane" model is Hal Porter's The Tilled Cross and for Jimmie Blacksmith it is Frank Clune's Jimmy Governor. He derives much of the basic story for each of his novels from these two pre-existing models, but he also enters into a dialogue with them. Frank Clune's stolid misunderstandings of criminality, and his genteel evasiveness, are corrected and satirised time and time again by Keneally. Similarly while Porter's Queely Sheil has most of the characteristics of Halloran, Porter's rococo flights of fancy are mercilessly sent up either by being rewritten or alluded to. He also, with both sources, relies on them to define the parameters and referents of each story, choosing himself often only to vary, invert or otherwise comment on the detail.

Interestingly, too, for each of these novels there is a second antecedent model, one which in each case Keneally feels is worthy of appropriation, veneration or, to use his own term, is something "to expand". For Jimmie Blacksmith it is Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and for Bring Larks and Heroes it is Nabokov's Lolita. In this case he relies heavily on the thematic and metaphoric structures of the antecedent novels. Crime and Punishment lends Keneally in Jimmie Blacksmith a ready-made kit for discussions of "madness", "guilt", and identity, not to mention the axe-murder itself. It also offers things like the surreal school teacher McCready, who is modeled on Porfiry, plus the opportunity for jokes about Napoleon, Wellington boots and Dulcie, who in Jimmie's dream is both mother and religious sister, and finally the observation from Mr. Hyberry, (who is having trouble with his Grand Master) that "sewage was less contingent than crime and punishment" which makes sense if it is realized that while "CRAP" might only be the initials of a book title, it can certainly make its presence felt.

Similarly, Lolita provides Keneally with themes about authorship, identity and authenticity, the nature of art, the artist as voyeur observing from his refuge, the concept of two selves and the idea of the omniscient author being the deity who can both terminate life and the novel. It also provides some specific metaphors and events which otherwise give the novel an unspecified density. The surreal involvement of the Blythes in the hanging of Halloran and Ann derives much of its creative energy from the confrontation between Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert at the end of Lolita. Halloran "has the illusion of closing the door on so many rooms" in his life just as Humbert "lucidly insane, crazily calm" goes about trying to close the doors in Quilty's house. The Blythes and Humbert and Quilty argue about potency. Mr. Blythe and Humbert are both toting pistols, they are both locked out and manage to get in, they both cause their better halves to rise up; while Clare plays the piano and dances in the air Mrs. Blythe hears wet leaves outside "tinkling with chandelier music" which she wants to dance to, and so on.

All this is what Veronica Brady might think of as a profound disengagement from the ordinary realities of events in an actual historical past, or for that matter the present. Keneally, like Jean Farlow in Lolita, gravitates towards "a place of green concealment, spying on nature," where he joins the robed author Quilty, and his own squadron of author-prophets, Hearn and Halloran on their wooded hills, Gilda's baby and McCreadie in Jimmie Blacksmith, both in hoods, Private William Hood up a tree in Confederates spying on the Union army, Joan of Arc in her red thigh cloak, or Oskar Schindler watching from the woods as the toddler in Krakusa Street "dressed in a small scarlet coat and cap" makes a "scarlet node" in the street. But then in this case as Oskar watched from the woods above the ghetto, and as we might expect if the tranquil safety of a Breughel canvas suddenly came to life:

Everything seemed speeded-up, difficult for the viewers on the hill to keep pace with. Those who had emerged were shot where they stood on the pavement, flying out over the gutters from the impact of the bullets, gushing blood into the drains.

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