The Face of Irish Australian Literature

Two Book Reviews by Frances Devlin-Glass, and an invitation to read and share….

Paul Sharrad: Thomas Keneally’s Career and the Literary Machine, Anthem Press, London and New York, 2019.

ISBN: ISBN:9781785270970

RRP: $125 (ebook also available $40)

Thomas Keneally: Crimes of the Father, Vintage Books, Sydney, 2016.

ISBN:  9780857987129

RRP: $22.99

I reviewed recently for an academic journal a work on the career of Thomas Keneally by Paul Sharrad. It’s a rare genre of scholarship in Australian literary studies as it’s not a work of criticism per se (though it’s written by a knowledgeable critic), but rather a study of Keneally’s career. And it tells a powerful and disturbing story of a writer who has made an impact globally but who occupies an uneasy niche somewhere between ‘literariness’ (a can of worms definitionally) and middle-brow moral seriousness (a blow to Keneally’s sense of himself as a serious literary writer).

When I examined my own reading history with Keneally, I realized I fitted a stereotype: like many of my peers, I was wildly impressed by Bring Larks and Heroes (1967) and Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968) (both Miles Franklin winners in successive years) and The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith.  After that, I cherrypicked my way through his oeuvre, tending to focus on the Irish works like The Playmaker and The Great Shame. It is a huge body of work with Keneally producing big, heavily researched books at the rate, often, of two per year for 50 years, and he is still working.  He was hard to keep up with, but that wasn’t the reason.

Sharrad makes the case, convincingly, that Keneally, in attempting to become a professional writer and having no money to his name (he didn’t inherit wealth like Patrick White) when he left the seminary just short of ordination, was forced to seek readerships in the competing copyright jurisdictions of the UK and the US and wrote books with more international appeal – on, for example, most famously, Schindler’s heroic attempts to save Jews during the holocaust, Joan of Arc, the American Civil War, or the famine in Eritrea. Sharrad had access to various business and personal archives and tracks his business affairs: the struggle with increasingly corporatized publishers for better contracts and frequent changes of publisher, the impact of major prizes, and the issues confronting a super-productive writer, especially one who changed from being a poetic into a straight-talking communicator. 

Even more interestingly, he maps the responses of both mainstream press reviewers and academe, and finds them more hostile in Australia even than anywhere else. Why is this? He argues that Keneally was punished for not being Australian enough, for making his living out of historical fiction (and compelling found stories), a genre often considered sub-literary, and for becoming populist and middle-brow. The man who was originally hailed an an antipodean James Joyce was by mid-career, turning into an airport novelist.   I knew all of this without consciously knowing it and was complicit in being responsive to the zeitgeist which saw him drop off courses (mine included). He further posits that Keneally never ever ceded his claim to be a serious writer and a literary one, and Sharrad provides much evidence of this. I must say I recognized the case, and the disquiet raised by this book has led me on a joyful journey back to Keneally’s fiction to test Sharrad’s theory. 

Keneally is undoubtedly the face of Irish Australian literature (judging by his ‘relevance’ score as a novelist who, more than any other on the online scholarly database AustLit ( AustLit , (www.austlit.edu.au), St Lucia: The University of Queensland, 2002-), foregrounds his Irish heritage (might this be another unstated mark against him outside his Irish-Australian clan?) Sharrad does not say so. His high relevance score is not only because he’s prodigiously productive (he is a turbo-charged writing factory who appears to do most of his own extensive research on the wildly disparate topics he tackles), but also because he’s given himself generously to many Irish-identified causes like the Republican Movement, to the press as a commentator on any manner of ethical (sometimes liberal catholic) and ethnic and writerly causes. Additionally, he has racked up a series of literary awards as well as membership of scholarly academies in three continents. He is not only talented but also a worthy and generous citizen with a warm heart.

As part of my journey back into the works of Keneally, I plan to read and reread some of his novels (I want to focus on ones in which the matter of Ireland and his heritage looms large), in the hopes that I can persuade others who share my interest in Irish-Australia to come on a journey with me. I warmly invite others to join in the quest to retrace the steps of an elder of Irish-Australia and Tinteán would welcome offers of reviews on Keneally’s work. My sense is that he is ripe for rediscovery and re-evaluation. What does his fiction offer to Irish-Australia?

Let me begin with the novel that most recently blew me away (I’ve read four in the last two weeks) ­‑ Crimes of the Father (2016)First, some background: as mentioned above, Keneally trained for the priesthood at the diocesan seminary in Manly (NSW) to the point of becoming a deacon, and left just before ordination. In his earliest novels, he drew on this rich vein of the moral dilemmas arising out of his deep and ambivalent involvement with Catholicism, winning prizes and rapturous accolades, and possibly cementing his place in the minds of readers as a catholic writer in company with luminaries like Grahame Green but with more gravitas than Morris West.

He makes clear in Crimes of the Father and in other works that he was as a younger man in the 1950s, like many of his generation, innocent of knowledge of clerical abuse. This novel is his long-considered response to the crisis that has dogged the church for decades. He was certainly aware of the toxic and corrosive power of guilt, however, and the ways in which achieving full maturity within the structures of the priesthood was imperilled by celibacy with its attendant puritanism and refusal of sensuality and its potential to lurch into misogyny. He is careful not to condemn celibacy outright.

This novel is a very readable account of a clerical abuse scandal spanning decades and generations from the 1950s when the church reached the apogee of its influence, and culminating (against the odds) in a (fictional but credible) court case in Sydney set in 1996.  This is not easy material to marshall, or to do so in an upbeat way, and I rejoice that it can happen at all. 

What impresses me most about this novel is the breadth of his vision of his church, and its attempt to be honest about the cost of change after Vatican II, the varieties of kinds of Catholicism on offer, and the fragmentation of power to which it points. Published in 2016, one senses that Keneally is keen to inform a wider non-catholic readership about the ways in which, compared with the society within which it operates, some elements of the church have not yet relinquished their hold on power or their strong drive to protect reputation at all cost. We see that struggle playing out still – between victims and the church hierarchy.

I’ve no idea about Keneally’s real-life affiliation with the catholic church (and whether it is as stated), and it hardly matters, but there is no doubt in my mind (based on reading his novels) about his commitment to social justice, and that extends to a church where many fine and principled priests still operate (and as the acknowledgments make clear, cause him ‘to retain a belief in the authenticity of Catholic spirituality’). At the heart of his novel is a character (Fr Docherty) modelled on one of the decent ones (whom he identifies), one Fr Pat Conner, Society of the Divine Word, who was exiled to the United States for his lifetime for expressing political views at odds with his bishop. In the novel, he’s a clinical and academic psychologist, expelled from Sydney and working in Canada, who has specialized in helping survivors of abuse. Counterbalancing decency are the clerical abusers, generations of them, with their nose for vulnerability (kids from violent or alcohol-sodden homes)

The novel opens promisingly with a feisty female cab-driver who baulks violently at the sight of a Celtic cross on an institutional building and who angrily refuses his fare in her anxiety to leave the precinct. She is, of course, an early ’70s victim as Chapter 2 makes clear (relieving me of the need to for a spoiler alert). From this point the novel ratchets up, via a failed court case, to the promise of a successful one, on a premise articulated in the author’s preface (and Docherty’s lecture), ‘if the Church did not face up to the problem, the civil arm of society would … force it to do so’.

As much as anything, Keneally has his eye on the impact on ordinary catholic families of the changes that education made to religious observance: Docherty’s brother who slowly loses the will to practise because of uninspired sermons, but whose background in industrial relations galvanizes him when he becomes aware of abuse; or Maureen and Damien Breslin whose response to Humanae Vitae, the Pill encyclical, in the context of ‘the free-range orchard of love that was the 1960s’. The trajectory from John XXIII to Paul VI and the theological shifts entailed are explicated in ways few catholics who lived through them need, but Keneally is not just writing for them. However, the material is masterfully organized as narrative for maximum clarity, and it will enlighten even the cognoscenti. He writes as a knowing and well-informed critical insider for outsiders. 

Keneally is not above what are considered sub-literary moves — putting before the reader his own reading trail: books on how the church has had to guard against abuse occurring in confessions since the middle ages, or even a commissioned lecture which compares progress in Canada in successful prosecutions implicitly with lack of same in Australia. A fragment of evidence is that my brother, an ex-Christian Brother who has subsequently supported many victims at the Royal Commission, recently told me that while in service his order here in Australia was never informed about the case in Newfoundland against the Christian Brothers.

Keneally provides a crumb-trail for those minded to follow up and read further.  Moreover, using more traditional literary methods in the narrative, he is clear-eyed and unsentimental about how the system worked: how some priests retained their popularity and standing by ‘seeming to harbour liberal opinions while remaining every inch the cleric’; how for some, the rituals which bring ‘majesty’ into the dreary lives of the faithful were a mainstay of their abusive modus operandi, but mostly how chequebook law and ‘stygian’ confidentiality clauses were advantageous to the church at the expense of damaged victims.

This is a book that is measured, wise, documents an era or three meticulously, and is skilfully plot-driven to keep you engaged. More importantly, it’s a humane book rendering the variety of catholic experience and explaining, without at all condoning, the mindsets that fostered a culture of covering-up of life-threatening practices. 

Frances Devlin-Glass is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective and has taught literary studies since 1970.

You are warmly invited to join me in a Tinteán-led revival of reading and re-reading Keneally’s fiction. Submissions are welcome at info@tintean.org.au

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