Our Tom still a work in progress

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ger­ard Wind­sor’s

cen­tury ago there was a mi­nor lo­cal lit­er­ary move­ment that pro­posed that if you wanted to por­tray a typ­i­cal Aus­tralian, you started off with an Ir­ish­man. Or, in the case of the once very pop­u­lar Mrs Brid­get McSweeney, an Ir­ish­woman. (Brid­get was a quick-wit­ted ter­ma­gant from Syd­ney’s Surry Hills.)

The propo­si­tion seems to re­tain some va­lid­ity. Let’s say we’re look­ing for a rep­re­sen­ta­tive Aus­tralian writer, one whose achieve­ments are enor­mous but who we can feel is also one of us. Pa­trick White’s no good: a cranky gay pa­tri­cian with a cou­ple of toy dogs. And HH Richard­son and Christina Stead are non­starters: re­mote, for­bid­ding fig­ures, and ex­pats in any case.

Whereas a man named Keneally might be just the thing. More a lep­rechaun than an Ado­nis, the child of bat­tlers, gre­gar­i­ous, gar­ru­lous, fond of a drink, an anec­do­tal­ist, a La­bor man to his boot­straps but a prodi­giously hard lifter and, as a re­sult, mod­er­ately wealthy, a diner with the Clin­tons at the White House, a chum of Steven Spiel­berg, yet never hap­pier than when yelling his heart out at Brook­vale Oval for the Manly Sea Ea­gles rugby league team.

That’s the boy we want, surely, to put in the niche marked “our great Aus­tralian writer”.

This is not to be face­tious. Tom Keneally, 80 ear­lier this month, has done the state much ser­vice, both through his writ­ing and his gen­er­ous sup­port for in­nu­mer­able causes. Aus­tralia has ev­ery rea­son to be grate­ful to him and proud of him. His con­tin­u­ing in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion and read­er­ship has him a whole straight’slength ahead of any other Aus­tralian writer.

While be­ing ut­terly Aus­tralian, and in love with Syd­ney, he’s an in­vet­er­ate cos­mopoli­tan, not least in his choice of sub­jects. Since 1964 he has pub­lished 48 books and 10 plays, has writ­ten umpteen ar­ti­cles, sto­ries, speeches, es­says, pieces of re­portage, and left, like all writ­ers, a large wake of aban­doned or un­fin­ished work. More than a book a year over a 50-year pe­riod is as­ton­ish­ing. It’s also a rea­son his crit­i­cal stand­ing has been wob­bly. Few read­ers are go­ing to keep up with such an out­put and there’s an a pri­ori as­sump­tion it must be un­even.

Yet the gen­eral na­tional feel­ing to­wards him is one of af­fec­tion. The ex­cep­tion would be el­e­ments of the hard po­lit­i­cal Right, which gave him a tum­ble in Quad­rant in 1977 over a mat­ter of pla­gia­rism. Now, in a con­text where there is both homage and some hos­til­ity, Stephany Steggall has writ­ten a bravely fair-minded and very read­able book about him. To call it a bi­og­ra­phy, how­ever, is to draw a very long bow.

The ti­tle In­ter­est­ingly Enough ... seems to be a favourite phrase of Keneally’s. And yes, Steggall’s book is re­plete with good anec­dotes, many of them in Keneally’s own words, but the un­miss­able fact is that they’re nearly all about his pub­lish­ing his­tory — specif­i­cally his deal­ings with agents, pub­lish­ers and re­view­ers.

Steggall’s book has no crit­i­cal dis­cus­sion of either the con­cerns or the qual­ity of Keneally’s writ­ing. In the light of his mas­sive out­put this is a rea­son­able op­tion. She starts con­ven­tion­ally but thor­oughly with his ge­neal­ogy, his re­la­tions with his par­ents (close to his mother, not so to his fa­ther), and then sat­is­fy­ingly can­vasses his deal­ings with his school­mates (rather more than with his teach­ers) and the cir­cum­stances of his en­trance to the sem­i­nary and his life there. Then sud­denly the book swerves right away from a tra­di­tional tra­jec­tory.

In the space of half a page Keneally meets a nurse who’s at­tend­ing his mother in hospi­tal, buys the en­gage­ment ring, goes to con­fes­sion and has his wed­ding break­fast in 1965 at the func­tion cen­tre he’d pre­vi­ously booked for his or­di­na­tion break­fast. End of treat­ment of the mar­riage, apart from a tact­fully men­tioned tem­po­rary sep­a­ra­tion in 1973. A reader who looks up Keneally’s wife in the in­dex is re­ferred to an en­try un­der her maiden name, and at the end of the book Steggall writes that Keneally’s wife “has been in most of the scenes of his life, al­though her pres­ence is not ob­vi­ous in this bi­og­ra­phy ... [she] guards her pri­vacy fiercely ... [her] copy­right over her life with Keneally has, at her re­quest, been re­spected in this book”.

Steggall adds, by way of ap­par­ent com­pen­sa­tion, that “at a din­ner in 2014 Keneally paid her a uniquely Aus­tralian com­pli­ment: she is ‘an ab­so­lutely top sheila’.” Oh dear, this is CJDen­nis stage stuff. So we have a bi­og­ra­phy that goes no fur­ther into Keneally’s home than the pool room where he writes. Steggall has been given her rules of en­gage­ment, and she abides by them. Yet she can’t re­sist one preg­nant com­ment: “Read­ing Keneally’s books con­sec­u­tively, the reader can­not help but no­tice how much he ob­serves and com­ments on mar­riage.”

In short, Steggall has had to con­fine her­self to a very nar­row band of Keneally’s life. So the ques­tion arises, why do such a ham­strung bi­og­ra­phy? It’s never made clear whether the ini­tia­tive was Keneally’s or Steggall’s. Cer­tainly Keneally was very co-op­er­a­tive, and an ap­par­ently bright pres­ence at the launch. Yet the book’s ef­fect is cer­tainly to tar­nish his pre­vi­ously be­nign im­age.

Bi­ogra­phies of liv­ing Aus­tralian writ­ers are very rare, and very fraught. Pe­ter Alexan­der’s 2000 bi­og­ra­phy of Les Mur­ray also sup­pressed fam­ily ma­te­rial, but nev­er­the­less ran into ob­jec­tions from lit­er­ary op­po­nents of Mur­ray and the first edi­tion was pulped be­fore pub­li­ca­tion. In the present case any op­po­nents Keneally might have don’t need to raise a fin­ger be­cause the only ca­su­alty of the book is Tom Keneally him­self, and the wounds are self-in­flicted.

Frank ad­mis­sions can be win­ning. In the grow­ing cli­mate of open­ness about men­tal ill­ness it’s noth­ing but salu­tary to know that Keneally has been prone to de­pres­sion all his adult life and has teetered on the edge of al­co­holism. De­mons have been squat­ting be­hind that bub­bly en­ergy and prodi­gious out­put. We can only ad­mire him the more. On the other hand, we feel less sym­pa­thetic to­wards other traits. For ex­am­ple, care­less lo­g­or­rhoea, from both tongue and pen, has got him into trou­ble. One mi­nor aside in his con­ver­sa­tions with Steggall raised my own hack­les. He says he was de­liv­ered, in 1934, by “a fa­mous old pa­tri­ar­chal ob­ste­tri­cian called Dr John Hon­ner”. My great-un­cle’s name was Dick Hon­ner, the word “pa­tri­ar­chal” nowa­days is sim­ply a slur, and in 1934 Hon­ner was only 37; he had rep­re­sented Aus­tralia in the long jump at the Paris Olympics 10 years ear­lier.

More sig­nif­i­cant, and alien­at­ing, is Keneally’s prick­li­ness. It’s well-nigh im­pos­si­ble to fol­low his switches and ma­noeu­vres be­tween dif­fer­ent agents, pub­lish­ers and ed­i­tors. Al­most all writ­ers have para­noias about their ne­glect by those who should be sell­ing their work, but Keneally has had a par­tic­u­larly vir­u­lent dose of the af­flic­tion. Steggall re­marks mildly of one sea­son of ar­gu­ments that “the dis­putes did not re­flect favourably on him”. Nor for many years could he re­sist the urge to write fierce, even abu­sive, let­ters to re­view­ers and aca­demics who crit­i­cised him. And th­ese are quoted at fruity length. To make things worse he was too ready to use the line that he was a prophet ne­glected by the en­vi­ous and dimwit­ted in his own coun­try but lauded by for­eign­ers. Not a good move, least of all for a writer who had won the Miles Franklin Lit­er­ary Award twice by his mid-30s.

Yet he gave Steggall ready ac­cess to all this com­pro­mis­ing cor­re­spon­dence. What’s go­ing on? One ten­ta­tive ex­pla­na­tion is sug­gested by the fre­quent re­cur­rence of apolo­gies from him to those he’d stormed at. Is the book a form of vi­car­i­ous con­fes­sion?

Which rather leads to the ques­tion of his reli­gious po­si­tion. Steggall’s ac­count of his rea­son for turn­ing away from the priest­hood is in­com­plete. She makes it clear he had scru­ples about his suit­abil­ity and wor­thi­ness, and was ex­hibit­ing some ob­ses­sive traits. But she doesn’t ex­am­ine the cen­tral mat­ter of his reli­gious be­lief.

Did he cease to be­lieve in God, in Chris­tian­ity, in the Aus­tralian Catholic Church? Maybe he didn’t know him­self. Near the end of her book she quotes a 2001 state­ment of his po­si­tion. “In a way Aus­tralia is like Catholi­cism. The com­pany is some­times ques­tion­able and the land­scape is grotesque. But you al­ways come back. I still feel the pull to med­i­ta­tion and prayer … but I have been un­able to find my way back to reg­u­lar ob­ser­vance and obe­di­ence, past the stric­tures, the fol­lies, and the hypocrisies of the of­fi­cial church ... I can­not re­turn to the gen­er­ous mys­tery of my boy­hood faith.”

That’s an enigmatic last clause. The man is nobly a work in progress. And so too, in a way, is Steggall’s fine book. When­ever free range across the whole Keneally ter­rain be­comes pos­si­ble, she should be the one sent out to sur­vey the full­ness of this ded­i­cated life.

books in­clude an ac­count of his sem­i­nary days, Heaven Where the Bach­e­lors Sit.

The pro­lific and pop­u­lar Tom Keneally

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