World Literature

Thomas Keneally

 

BORN: 1935, Sydney, Australia

NATIONALITY: Australian

GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, drama

MAJOR WORKS:

The Place at Whitton (1964)

Blood Red, Sister Rose (1974)

Schindler’s List (1982)

A River Town (1995)

 

 

Thomas Keneally. Keneally, Thomas, photograph. AP Images.

 

Overview

Thomas Keneally (also known as William Coyle and Thomas Michael Keneally) has evolved from one of Australia’s best-known and most prolific writers to a novelist with a worldwide following. Even before The Great Shame, his recent historical work, Keneally had worked extensively with material from Australia’s past. But, his body of work is noteworthy for its range of material. He has written on subjects as varied as Joan of Arc, the American Civil War, the Holocaust, and contemporary Africa. However diverse the material, Keneally brings to it a consistently humanistic point of view, an eye for accuracy, and a knack for engaging storytelling, all of which account both for his wide readership and critical acclaim.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Preparing for Priesthood. Keneally was born on October 7, 1935, in Sydney, Australia, to Edmund Thomas and Elsie Coyle Keneally. The son of Roman Catholic parents of Irish descent, he was educated at St. Patrick’s College in Strathfield, New South Wales, and later studied for the priesthood from 1953 to 1960. Although Keneally left the seminary before being ordained, he later drew on his experiences as a seminarian in his early novels The Place at Whitton (1964) and Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968). He taught high school in Sydney during the early 1960s, and from 1968 to 1970 he served as a lecturer in drama at the University of New England in New South Wales. During this time, Keneally gained recognition as a historical novelist with the publication of Bring Larks and Heroes (1967), a consideration of Australia’s early history as an English penal colony.

Early Career. While he began to write, Keneally supported himself in various jobs as a builder’s laborer, clerk, and schoolteacher. Keneally’s first published work, the story ‘‘The Sky Burning Up Above the Man,’’ appeared pseudonymously in the Bulletin magazine on June 23, 1962 under the name ‘‘Bernard Coyle’’ (the surname was his mother’s maiden name). Two years later, his first novel, The Place at Whitton (1964), was published.

In 1966 Keneally was awarded a Commonwealth Literary Fund grant of four thousand dollars that freed him temporarily to write full-time. On November 15 of that year, his first play, Halloran’s Little Boat, was performed (published in 1968). Commissioned by the National Institute of Dramatic Art, the play was an initial working of the material given fuller and richer shape in Keneally’s third novel, Bring Larks and Heroes (1967). Set in a penal colony at the ‘‘world’s worse end’’ at the close of the eighteenth century, the book was Keneally’s first popular and critical success, not least in securing the first of successive Miles Franklin Awards for the best Australian novel of the year. He crafted a complex tale of the origins of his country, one that involved the British or Irish ancestry of the characters, the transplanting of their traditional antagonisms, religions, class divisions, and tribal memories. Now, for the first time in the southern continent, voice was given to ancestral European oaths, creeds, and betrayals.

Keneally’s next novel, Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968), also won the Miles Franklin Award. This work, his second fictional account of Catholic religious life in Australia, tells of a priest—Father Maitland—who has pseudonymously written a revisionist view of the historical and political appropriations of God that his church has countenanced. When discovered, his punishment is to be placed by his bishop under an interdiction to publish no more. The terror of such a sentence for the fertile Keneally can readily be imagined.

Between 1968 and 1970, Keneally lectured in drama at the University of New England. He also continued to write plays—Childermas (1968), An Awful Rose (1972), Bullie’s House (1980, published the following year)—in addition to writing a section of the motion picture Libido (1973). His time at the university furnished the ‘‘campus novel’’ parts of his next book, The Survivor, which has for its other main setting Antarctica, which Keneally had visited as a guest of the U.S. Navy in 1968. This novel won the Captain Cook Bicentenary Award in 1970 and was made into a television movie the following year. Keneally found the frozen continent so congenial to his imagination that he used the setting for another novel, A Victim of the Aurora. While the latter is historical fiction, set at the beginning of the twentieth century, each interrogates the heroic elements of classic Antarctic narratives of exploration and survival; each transposes the search for the nature and identity of Australians from their country to Antarctica; and each is a deft and satisfying murder mystery, which reflects Keneally’s extension of talents into yet another genre.

After a time living in London in the early 1970s, Keneally returned to Australia. In 1972, one of his most popular and best-selling novels was published. Based on the true story of killings committed by the part-Aboriginal Governor brothers in New South Wales at the end of the nineteenth century, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is the novel in which Keneally deals most angrily with the white settlers’ treatment of the Australian Aborigines. He has argued that ‘‘the snake in the garden is that we have not recognised the prior sovereignty of the Aborigines.’’ Keneally has been neither blundering, sentimental, nor too credulous in his engagement with relations between black and white Australians. Nevertheless, he became the subject of virulent, often self-interested criticism from experts in fields other than literature. For Keneally, however, the story allowed another unfettered review of matters of conscience in an Australian historical setting that still speaks urgently to the present. Nearly two decades later, he returned to Aboriginal affairs.

War. Two novels dealing with twentieth-century world wars, on the other hand, display considerable insight and power. The diplomats in Gossip from the Forest, gathered at Compiegne in the fall of 1918 to negotiate an armistice, are compelling characters. The cultured German delegate, Matthias Erzbergen, finds himself in an impossible political bind as he tries to deal with the imperious Marshall Foch, who takes full advantage of his superior position. The tenuous political alliances of the period are reflected in the negotiations at Compiegne, with the tragic realization that an opportunity for lasting peace is lost and another war becomes inevitable. Of greater scope is Schindler’s List, the true story of a Catholic industrialist who ran an arms factory using Jewish workers from concentration camps.

Honors. In the decade from 1972 to 1982, from The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith to Schindler’s List, Keneally concentrated on historical fiction, and especially on war. He spent the years from 1975 through 1977 living in the United States, lecturing for a time in Connecticut. The American connection was strengthened in the mid-1980s when he became writer-in-residence at the University of California, Irvine. Later, he became a Distinguished Professor for Life in the University of California system.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Keneally's famous contemporaries include:

Peter Hoeg (1957-): Danish novelist who has received international acclaim for his works of magic realism.

Ted Koppel (1940-): American journalist and novelist who was a prominent figure in the media until his departure from the news program "Nightline" in 2005.

Roald Dahl (1916-1990): English novelist famous for his children's stories, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG.

J. M. Coetzee (1940-): South African novelist and winner the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Tony Blair (1953-): English politician who held the office of prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 until 2007.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

The mass murder of millions of Jews and other civilians by the Nazi regime, a horror known as the Holocaust, is a frequent topic for novelists and authors of all types. Here are some works that focus on this tragedy:

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (1952), a diary by Anne Frank. This book recounts the life of a girl and her family hiding from the Nazis.

Night (1955), a memoir by Elie Wiesel. The author was sixteen when World War II ended and he was released from a concentration camp. Night recounts the horrors he experienced during the Holocaust.

Apt Pupil (1982), a novella by Stephen King. Later adapted into a film, this novella analyzes the long-term effects of having participated in World War II as a Nazi.

 

Works in Literary Context

Historical Fiction. Keneally’s work can best be understood as historical fiction. In this genre of writing, historical events are reimagined with artistic liberty in order to breathe life into the events of the past. However, it is important to note that although usually considered fiction, works like Schindler’s List are painstakingly researched and include only events the author established as factual, though small details such as specific conversations may have been created by Keneally. In this way, they blur the line between fiction and nonfiction. Schindler’s List is a good example of such writing, but in many ways Keneally’s entire oeuvre seeks to find connections between the past and the present both to enlighten and to entertain.

In some ways, one can link Keneally’s historical fiction with writers like William Shakespeare, who spun the five-act play Julius Caesar out of the actual death of Julius Caesar at the hands of Brutus. The form has become increasingly important in recent years, and its popularity can be seen in both film and literature. One example is the film Memoirs of a Geisha, which is an adaptation of the Arthur Golden novel of the same name.

War Novels. In addition to the balanced portrait of Joan of Arc, Blood Red, Sister Rose drew critical praise for its realistic depiction of the brutality of medieval warfare. In a number of subsequent works, Keneally approached the subject of war from varying perspectives, including the thoughts of a World War I peace negotiator in Gossip from the Forest (1975), the activities of a doctor involved with partisans during World War II in Season in Purgatory (1977), and the preparations of American Civil War soldiers for battle in Confederates (1979). The Cut-Rate Kingdom (1980), set in Canberra in 1942, considers the moral character of military and political leaders in wartime Australia.

In Gossip from the Forest, Keneally offered a concentrated fictional presentation of the peace talks that took place in the forest of Compiegne in November 1918, focusing on the highest-ranking German negotiator, Mattias Erzberger, a liberal pacifist. According to the New York Times Book Review’s Paul Fussell, Gossip from the Forest ‘‘is a study of the profoundly civilian and pacific sensibility beleaguered by crude power ...it is absorbing, and as history it achieves the kind of significance earned only by sympathy acting on deep knowledge.’’ Robert E. McDowell of World Literature Today concluded that ‘‘with Gossip from the Forest Keneally has succeeded better than in any of his previous books in lighting the lives of historical figures and in convincing us that people are really the events of history.’’

Confederates is counted among Keneally’s most ambitious historical undertakings with its faithful representation of the military life of a band of Southern soldiers preparing for the Second Battle of Antietam in the summer of 1862. Covering a range of characters, including slaves, farmers, and aristocrats, the novel, in the opinion of Jeffrey Burke of the New York Times Book Review, ‘‘reaffirms Mr. Keneally’s mastery of narrative voice.’’

 

Works in Critical Context

Although Keneally has received a fair amount of both critical and popular acclaim, he has also been involved in a number of controversies. At one point, for example, Keneally was accused of plagiarism in his novel Season in Purgatory. Indeed, controversy even surrounded his astoundingly popular Schindler’s List.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Racism and violence, two social issues that figure prominently in many of Keneally’s works, are closely examined in his acclaimed early work The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972). In the novel, Keneally depicts an incident that occurred in New South Wales in 1900 in which a mixed-race Aborigine exploded into a murderous rage following persistent racist treatment by white settlers. Reviewer Anthony Thwaite wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the novel blends ‘‘history, psychological insight, and an epic adventure with great skill. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith echoes in the head long after it has been put down.’’ The novel, which is based on contemporary newspaper accounts of the tragedy, is also considered an early expression of Keneally’s antiassimilationist views of race relations. It won the Heinemann Award of the Royal Society of Literature in 1973.

Blood Red, Sister Rose: A Novel of the Maid of Orleans. With Keneally’s Blood Red, Sister Rose: A Novel of the Maid of Orleans (1974), he turned from writing local history to world history and introduced a recurring interest in warfare into his oeuvre. Critics noted the novel emphasized Joan’s everyday qualities within the uncommon context of fifteenth-century warfare. A. G. Mojtabai, in the New York Times Book Review, commented on Keneally’s unusual choice in retelling such a well-known story. According to Mojtabai, ‘‘We all know the story, the big scenes: the Voices, the Dauphin’s court, Orleans, Rheims, Rouen, the pyre. ...It would seem foolhardy to attempt to revive these worn tales again. Yet Australian novelist Thomas Keneally has done it and carried it off with aplomb. St. Joan lives again, robustly, in a way we have not known her before.’’ Comparing Keneally’s portrait of Joan with the religious presentation of her as saintly and with Bernard Shaw’s dramatic rendering as earthy and pragmatic, Melvin Maddocks noted in Time that Keneally ‘‘thoughtfully reconstructs a whole Joan, less spectacular than the first two but decidedly more convincing and perhaps, at last, more moving.’’

Schindler’s List. Booker Prize judges wondered whether Schindler’s List was a novel at all. Only a few years before, Keneally had been embroiled in accusations of plagiarism concerning Season in Purgatory. Now he was the subject of speculation as to whether he had written a work of nonfiction that was by definition ineligible for the prize. In the end, the judges decided that Keneally had deployed the skills of his fictive craft in the interest of a work at once compassionate, astonishing, and surprising in its contents and compass. More strife arose when director Steven Spielberg’s version of the novel, the Academy Award-winning motion picture Schindler’s List, was released in 1994. In Le Monde, for instance, the self-interested Claude Lanzmann (director of the Holocaust movie Shoah) called Spielberg’s effort ‘‘kitsch melodrama.’’ For his part, Keneally could take pleasure in the fact that no other Booker Prize-winning novel had sold so many copies as his. In 1994—the year the movie was released—the novel sold 873,716 copies in Britain and the Commonwealth alone.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Do you feel that director Steven Spielberg’s representation of Keneally’s Schindler’s List in his film of the same name is ‘‘melodramatic’’ compared to the original work? Use examples from the book and movie to support your position.

2. Keneally was criticized for seemingly taking facts about Oskar Schindler and presenting them as fiction. Recently, other authors (mostly writers of memoirs) have been humiliated for presenting fictional events as fact (James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, is one example). Using your library and the Internet, find out more about the controversies surrounding recent memoirs that were later shown to be partially or substantially fictional. Also find out more about what writer Truman Capote called ‘‘faction’’—a literary blend of novelistic elements and facts. Why do you think critics and readers react negatively to books that seem to blend fact and fiction? Do you think writers should have the freedom to create the texts they want to create, or should they stick to one genre or another?

3. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is written from the point of view of an exploited Aborigine. Keneally has since remarked that he would no longer choose to write from the point of view of his Aborigine protagonist, as it would be ‘‘insensitive’’ of him. Do you think writers should be discouraged from creating characters of a race or gender different from their own? Why or why not?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Brown, Susan Windisch, ed. Contemporary Novelists. Detroit: St. James Press, 1997.

Pierce, Peter. Australian Melodramas: Thomas Keneally’s Fiction. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1995.

Quartermaine, Peter. Thomas Keneally. London: Edward Arnold, 1991.