Ke­neally the his­to­rian serves up an idio­syn­cratic stew

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Frank Bon­giorno

Aus­tralians: Flap­pers to Viet­nam By Thomas Ke­neally Allen & Un­win, 624pp, $49.99 (HB) THOMAS Ke­neally has pro­duced the third vol­ume of his Aus­tralians se­ries. Although it was orig­i­nally pro­jected as a tril­ogy, it seems nei­ther Ke­neally nor his read­ers have yet reached the fin­ish line, since this book ends with the dis­ap­pear­ance of Harold Holt at sea in 1967. Ke­neally is work­ing on a fourth vol­ume, news that arouses mixed feel­ings in this re­viewer.

As you would ex­pect with the Booker Prize win­ner, in his lat­est ef­fort he crafts a nice sen­tence and spins a good yarn. There is also a recog­nis­able voice through almost 600 pages, no mean feat in view of the of­ten over­whelm­ing de­tail — his 13 pages on Aus­tralians’ re­sponses to the Span­ish Civil War be­ing per­haps the most bla­tant case of overkill.

He is at his best in the chap­ters on World War II, where the ma­jor cam­paigns pro­vide him with a thread to be faith­fully fol­lowed, oc­ca­sion­ally in­ter­spersed with com­ments on home­front hap­pen­ings. The pas­sages in which the 79-yearold draws on his child­hood rec­ol­lec­tions of the war are among the most vivid and mov­ing in the book. It is war — and es­pe­cially bat­tle — that con­tains the grav­ity and ex­cite­ment that Ke­neally seems to need to be able to pro­duce

Novem­ber 29-30, 2014 his most en­gag­ing prose. It is in th­ese chap­ters, too, that we en­joy some­thing more than a brief en­counter with the ma­jor ac­tors. The por­traits of John Curtin, Thomas Blamey, Dou­glas MacArthur, and es­pe­cially the great wartime cam­era­man Damien Parer, are the out­stand­ing ex­am­ples. Ke­neally is able to make us care when Parer and Curtin lose their lives be­cause he has al­lowed us to get to know them, tak­ing us a lit­tle way with each on his wartime jour­ney.

Here, Ke­neally brings to the ta­ble a nov­el­ist’s con­cern with character. His ef­forts at em­plot­ment, on the other hand, ap­pear to have been less suc­cess­ful. The open­ing chap­ter on War’s After Shad­ows be­gins with a sec­tion on se­cret armies of the 1920s, and moves on to the Ir­ish ques­tion, re­turned sol­diers, flap­pers, avi­a­tors, beauty con­tests, artist and au­thor Nor­man Lind­say, army com­man­der and politi­cian Pom­pey El­liott, the the­atre, the Com­mu­nist Party, prime min­is­ters ‘‘Sir’’ Stan­ley Mel­bourne Bruce (knighted by Ke­neally rather than the king) and James Scullin, ge­og­ra­pher Thomas Grif­fith Tay­lor, Abo­rig­i­nal ac­tivist Wil­liam Cooper and the Com­mu­nist Party again, fin­ish­ing with agri­cul­tural set­tle­ment in Western Aus­tralia.

The chap­ter con­tains nei­ther an in­tro­duc­tion nor a con­clu­sion: we are pre­sum­ably meant to see what it all sig­ni­fies by the mere ac­cu­mu­la­tion of de­tail. The chap­ter that fol­lows is hardly less be­wil­der­ing: we move none-tooseam­lessly from the right-wing para­mil­i­tary New Guard to Dou­glas Maw­son’s ex­plo­ration of Antarc­tica, which is fol­lowed by a sec­tion on Aus­tralian fears of Ja­pan. If there is any logic or pur­pose gov­ern­ing this se­quence, it es­caped me.

Then there is the prob­lem of se­lec­tion. Gen­eral his­to­ries — es­pe­cially when they run to sev­eral vol­umes — in­evitably per­mit the au­thor enor­mous free­dom in this re­gard. Yet when, like this book, there ap­pears to be no guid­ing prin­ci­ple beyond what the au­thor finds in­ter­est­ing, we are left with a bit of a stew, one as­sem­bled ac­cord­ing to the cook’s idio­syn­cratic tastes. Don­ald Brad­man, for in­stance, does even­tu­ally make a cameo ap­pear­ance in a sec­tion on sport in the fi­nal chap­ter, which is oth­er­wise con­cerned with the 1950s and 60s. Phar Lap, how­ever, doesn’t gal­lop into sight.

Nor do we find much about how or­di­nary Aus­tralians’ lives changed across the pe­riod. There are a few sen­tences on the eat­ing habits of Ger­man-Aus­tralians be­tween the wars, but hardly a word on what ev­ery­one else in the coun­try was putting into their mouths and bel­lies, then or at any other time. The first Holden is men­tioned in pass­ing, but not how Aus­tralians’ lives were trans­formed by the car. There are plenty of ref­er­ences to trade unions and their pol­i­tics, yet the world of work barely fig­ures at all.

Ke­neally, like most popular au­thors writ­ing his­tory for a mass mar­ket in Aus­tralia, is es­sen­tially a sto­ry­teller. He doesn’t seek to break new in­ter­pre­ta­tive ground and wastes few words paus­ing over mean­ing or sig­nif­i­cance. When he does of­fer anal­y­sis or in­ter­pre­ta­tion, or re­flects on de­bate among his­to­ri­ans, his con­clu­sions ap­pear based as much on in­tu­ition as any­thing recog­nis­able as his­tor­i­cal method: that is, the weigh­ing up of ex­ist­ing schol­ar­ship and orig­i­nal ev­i­dence. He op­er­ates on hunches — for in­stance, that the in­doc­tri­na­tion about the White Aus­tralia pol­icy might help ac­count for Ja­panese wartime cru­elty — rather than sys­tem­atic test­ing of ev­i­dence or schol­ar­ship.

It is true that most of Ke­neally’s au­di­ence — who will read this work be­cause of his pub­lic pro­file and rep­u­ta­tion — are un­likely to be in­ter­ested in ar­cane ar­gu­ments be­tween aca­demic his­to­ri­ans about how many an­gels hap­pened to be danc­ing on this or that pin.

Yet the ap­par­ent thin­ness of the schol­ar­ship be­hind this book is disturbing, and must have ham­pered any ef­fort on the au­thor’s part to move beyond the retelling of sto­ries al­ready avail­able — if in a scat­tered form — in other pub­lished works. There is an early sec­tion, for in­stance, on Louis and Hilda Es­son, lead­ing fig­ures in the early 20th-cen­tury ef­fort to cre­ate an Aus­tralian the­atre, but Ke­neally’s list of ref­er­ences fails to men­tion the most im­por­tant work on this cou­ple, Peter Fitzpatrick’s su­perb Pi­o­neer Play­ers: The Lives of Louis and Hilda Es­son, pub­lished in 1995.

Ke­neally writes on Aus­tralia and ap­pease­ment with­out any ref­er­ence to the three book­length stud­ies of the topic, two of them

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