Keneally the historian serves up an idiosyncratic stew
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