Our Tom still a work in progress
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