Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 19, 2015

Three Cheers for the Paraclete, by Thomas Keneally #BookReview

Three Cheers for the ParacleteThree Cheers for the Paraclete is the latest in my quest to read and review all the Miles Franklin winners; it was Thomas Keneally’s second win, in 1968, and that win remains remarkable for being the only time the judges have awarded the prize to an author two years in succession.  (Keneally had won it the previous year for Bring Larks and Heroes, see my review and the opening lines.)

But what makes Three Cheers for the Paraclete intrinsically remarkable is its theme.  The blurb puts it better than I could do it myself:

Set in a Roman Catholic diocese today [i.e. the 1960s] Three Cheers for the Paraclete is about the dilemma of the rebel who knows that established authority is wrong but doesn’t know how to put it right because he is himself too much a part of it.  It is also about a critical religious issue of today – the conflict between a new generation which sees religious truth as something that must change with the world, and an establishment which sees it fixed and immutable.

Half a century later, can we imagine any young Australian novelist daring to tackle the clash between dogmatic ideology and modernity within another major world religion? And can we imagine Miles Franklin judges having the courage to reward it?  It’s a different world today…

***

Anyway…

It’s a measure of the genius that Keneally has gone on to show throughout his long career as a bestselling author of literary fiction, that he was able to make an entertaining book out of this theme, a book that is still interesting today.  Who would have thought that a book interrogating Catholicism could be so intriguing?

The author places his errant priest in the claustrophobic community of a monastic ‘House of Studies’, poking fun at its gloomy corridors and low-wattage light-globes, its disagreeable food and the grubbiness of its hidden corners.  It’s not demeaning the novel to say that it’s plotted somewhat like a boarding-school story with Father James Maitland finding himself in one scrape after another.  He’s a feisty young priest who’s come back to Australia after studying overseas.  While he was there, he privately wrote and published – without asking the necessary ecclesiastical permission – a book which in the course of covering the history of the Catholic Church, challenges the issue of modernising some of its orthodoxies.  The book is called The Meanings of God, and it has created a bit of a splash.

Now, because he’s published this book under a nom de plume and no one knows that he’s the author, he gets himself into more difficulty than he ever anticipated.  He’s already under a cloud with his superiors because he wrote a provocative article about Luther for an English review journal, in which he suggested that Luther’s early work wasn’t so heretical as to justify the schism.  He exacerbates the opprobrium when a crafty journalist baits him into defending a sacrilegious work at an art show: it’s difficult enough for the priests who have to block the Couraigne Prize from being awarded to any painting that’s blasphemous or obscene (because the church funds the prize) without Maitland going against the party line in the papers.   But when a debate erupts in the newspaper about his own book The Meanings of God – and his superiors ask him to defend the criticism of it, he is in a quandary…

The characterisation is excellent.  Monsignor Nolan represents the conservative forces – he even takes umbrage when Maitland lets his homeless cousin sleep overnight in his room. Brendan and Greta are recent arrivals in town and have nowhere to go – but Nolan is livid because … a-hem, they are young marrieds … and their inevitable ‘nocturnal activities’ breach the rules.  The House of Studies has been a celibate house since its foundations were laida matter of eighty years.  Nolan demands that the sheets be changed the very next day and sends the housekeeper up with fresh linen while Brendan and Greta are still there.  The scene is set for conflict when Maitland sends the sheets away…

He is a complex character: thoughtful and kind, but intemperate.  He has to guard himself against the arrogance that annoys him when he finds it in others, and he doesn’t always succeed.  He finds it hard to settle in and makes few friends among the men.  Confronted by social injustice he will take on a cause like a bull at a gate, as he does when he finds that another cousin has been ripped off by a land development company.  He makes personal representations on his behalf, and when that doesn’t work he preaches a fiery sermon from the pulpit – alas, unaware that not only is a prominent church supporter on the board of the company but that the church itself has shares in it.

Keneally builds to a fine conclusion when Maitland’s only friend, Egan, makes a ham-fisted attempt to be released from the priesthood to marry.  In the wash-up, Maitland has to face up to his profound dilemma: how much does he want to be a priest?  It’s the same issue that exercises anyone whose faith is torn between orthodoxy and modernity, and it’s central to the novel, recurring in a variety of ways and set out clearly in an early exchange between Monsignor Nolan and his widowed sisters on the topic of contraception. (The Pill had just come onto the market back at the time this novel was written but this is still a live issue for contemporary Catholics, and to anyone who cares about birth control in developing countries with large Catholic populations).

Mrs Lamotte and Mrs Clark  congratulate Maitland on being a popular priest for confession, especially in the case of Helen Simmons who has been given a commonsense solution and no claptrap when she sought his advice after “Four Caesarians and the doctor wouldn’t take responsibility for the fifth”.  Monsignor Nolan demurs because he thinks that “Telling people that they are still bound by the same laws as ever is a marvellous reassurance to them”.

“The same laws as ever,” Mrs Clark harked back.  “Since all the doubt began-”

Nolan gave a small litigious giggle. “No doubt has begun.  The church’s stand on these issues is identical with its stand in the first century A.D.”

“Oh, go on!” said Mrs Clark, whom Maitland was beginning to like.  “The Pope’s waiting to make up his mind.  How can anyone have a stand in the first century on drugs that weren’t discovered till the twentieth?  I ask you. “

Though the third person narrative tells the story from Maitland’s point-of-view, at times the narrator has a broader perspective, as when the topic of abortion arises one evening:

[Maitland] felt cheated when their legalism transformed them momentarily into ciphers.  Such as the night Costello introduced for discussion a question he had been asked that same afternoon.  A girl had been walking home the evening before when a man attacked and raped her.  A doctor had telephoned to ask Costello whether a person was justified in treating the girl in such a way as to prevent a possible pregnancy.

“Of course, I referred him to Monsignor Nolan, who happened to be out.  But I told him I was sure that, however, unfortunately, the answer was no, he couldn’t treat her in that way.  Agreed?”

He made an adenoidal noise and stirred his coffee, and the gentle lighting of the parlour was trapped in each crystal of his glasses.  Anguish did not penetrate their cheery rimlessness; he had no notion of the stew of heartbreak he stirred with his coffee-spoon.  Like any specialist, he could not afford adverting to such things. (p. 111)

But Keneally is too good an author to let this unlikeable character or any other be a cipher.  As his characters negotiate the tricky issues such as divorce, abortion and celibacy from their respective positions, the complexity of humanity remains a constant.  As you might expect, it seems to be women who most often test the boundaries of church orthodoxy, and they are superbly rendered too, especially the young nun who questions the status quo.

Does Keneally the author take a position on the issues he raises?  I think we can sense his pessimism in his choice of Costello for promotion within the church, and with Maitland’s decisions at the end of the book.  But he might just have been being provocative…

I would love to know how this book was reviewed in the Catholic Press of its day, but the only review I can find online from that period is at Kirkus.  Matt Todd at A Novel Approach reviewed it more recently.

See the opening lines here.

Author: Thomas Keneally
Title: Three Cheers for the Paraclete
Publisher: Angus & Robertson, 1968
ISBN: 0207950466, first edition
Source: Personal copy from my collection of Miles Franklin winners

Availability

On the day I looked, there were three second-hand copies at Fishpond and one at Brotherhood Books. Or try your library.


Responses

  1. There is no doubt Keneally is an important author though I think his writing quality has suffered in recent years from his putting out so many books. I like Three Cheers but my favourite is A Dutiful Daughter (his too I see). Of his later novels I particularly liked Towards Asmara.

    • Now, I haven’t read either of those. I have The Great Shame and A Family Madness on the TBR (plus his Australian history series to dip in and out of) but those two? I see from Wikipedia that they were written in 1971 and 1989 so they are going to be hard to find…
      Still, half the fun is in the hunt, eh?


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