Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 16, 2015

Interestingly Enough, the life of Tom Keneally, by Stephany Evans Steggall #BookReview

Interestingly EnoughI always enjoy reading literary biographies, but Interestingly Enough, the life of Tom Keneally is the first one I’ve read about a still living author.  It’s a testament to Keneally’s place in Australia’s literary culture as a popular author of literary fiction that it’s hit the bookshelves while he’s still writing.  (Just last week, I bought his latest, Napoleon’s Last Island).  It can be a disadvantage to write a biography with the subject ‘looking over one’s shoulder’ and I suspect that there’s more to know about Keneally than Stephany Evans Steggall has been able to tell, but it’s an interesting life story all the same.

Like Graham Greene, Keneally is an author often tagged by Catholicism: the biography begins by unpacking what might have been if Keneally had not realised he was not cut out for the priesthood and had not had the courage to leave before his final ordination in 1961.  This experience was a searing one, and even a casual reader could see that in his early books he wrote to advance from indoctrination to individuality (p.82).  Keneally, understandably, felt some bitterness at the way he was treated when he left the seminary.  Refused so much as a reference to help him on his way, he later wrote an article called ‘The Humanist Priest’ in 1969 in which he painted an unflattering portrait of his bishop:

When he left the seminary, he explained, he had no clothes other than black, no money, no training, no job.  ‘In the latter matter, I approached His Lordship Bishop Muldoon and was referred to the local Commonwealth Employment Agency and the employment columns of Wednesday’s Sydney Morning Herald.’ (p. 87)

The Place at Whitton (audio book)Omitted from Keneally’s article was any mention of Bishop Muldoon’s recognition of his potential as an author: the details appear to be a matter of dispute.  According to critic Gloria Moore in 1994, Bishop Muldoon arranged for Richard Connolly who was with the ABC in Sydney to read Keneally’s first novel (The Place at Whitton) but Connolly wasn’t encouraging.  Connolly, who says he was chosen as Keneally’s advisor because he had a similar experience of leaving the seminary, has no memory of reading a draft novel, and Keneally’s recollection is that he started the novel later and gave the first chapter of it for typing to a family friend, Shirley Yates.  In this version Yates and her husband read it with enthusiasm and wanted the next chapter but Keneally hadn’t yet written it.  Whether or not Bishop Muldoon encouraged Keneally’s writing but hasn’t been acknowledged for that is one issue, and the other is the timing of the writing of that first novel.  The idea of Keneally writing The Place at Whitton while still engaged in onerous study at the seminary is rather striking.

(It’s also quite striking to see Keneally describe that book as

‘a genuine catastrophe of technique’, an enterprise to which he took with ‘great gusto and heroic cackhandedness, and the essential though ill-informed confidence of the young’  It was a rather improbable yarn with ‘fairly passable pastiches of the last person I had read Here was Patrick White, over there Graham Greene; here Wallace Stevens, over there an inadvisably lush rework of Dylan Thomas.’  He relied on the deus ex machina, the convenient event that tied everything up.  (p. 89)

(See my review to see what I thought of it!)

Bring Larks and HeroesThree Cheers for the ParacleteAnyway, whatever about the timing of the writing of his debut novel,  Keneally tackled various jobs including collecting insurance money and school teaching to support himself in his early writing career.  However, his scruples led him to resign from teaching when The Place at Whitton was published in 1964 because its critique of the seminary might bring negative publicity to the school.  The Place at Whitton was followed by The Fear, another semi-autobiographical novel, in 1965, (the year in which he married Judy Martin) and by Bring Larks and Heroes which won the Miles Franklin Award in 1967.  Three Cheers for the Paraclete was published in 1968 and won the Miles Franklin again.  All these novels are characterised by dilemmas of conscience and questions of moral correctness (p.103) which were live issues for Catholics during the modernising period of Vatican II (1962-65).

These early works prefigure the paradoxes which characterise Keneally’s work.  He likes to place characters in extreme situations where their humanity is tested:

‘Paradox is beloved of novelists.  The despised saviour, the humane whore, the selfish man suddenly munificent, the wise fool and the cowardly hero.’ (p.215)

Gaining recognition for his skill with the written word enhanced Keneally. ‘I loved that phenomenon of being published and, I’ve got to say quite frankly, of being praised,’ he later admitted.  ‘Writers never say these things.  They never say, ‘I wrote it because I wanted to be praised.’ But it’s one of the chief motivations… it’s like the priesthood – a combination of banal and glorious motives.’ (p. 83)  Conversely, he took criticism badly, and the biography includes more than one missive of outrage to various reviewers…

Schindler's ArkTravails with agents and publishers are crucial matters to authors, (and were also covered extensively in Karen Lamb’s recent bio Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather, see my review) but I found them less interesting to read about than Steggall’s coverage of the genesis of Keneally’s books that I’d read.  I’m also keen to read some of the others that Steggall so temptingly describes.  This is what I really like about well-written literary biography: the analysis of an author’s oeuvre so that I am left wanting to read more of it.

The research Keneally does is extensive, and there have been a couple of times when he’s got himself into a bit of trouble with people who are recognisable in his novels.  A recent example was his portrayal of Alice the journalist in The Tyrant’s Novel (2003), a character who was so like the journalist Caroline Baum that when he was tackled about it and asked why he hadn’t given the character a different identity, all he could do was to tell her ruefully that he wished he had:

‘Gee, that never occurred to me, but now that you mention it, I wish I had.  To me, the moment she became Alice she was no longer you.’  (p. 336-7)

(But Keneally isn’t the first writer to test friendships through true-to-life characterisations!)

There was also some criticism that he shouldn’t have won the Booker for Schindler’s Ark because it’s ‘faction’ – I read it so long ago I can’t comment on that aspect –  I don’t even have a reading journal for that period.  But I was very impressed by the authenticity of the film, which was titled Schindler’s List and directed by Stephen Spielberg, so I was interested to see that Keneally questioned his role as its author both before and after its phenomenal success.

The euphoria that always came with the promise of a good story was replaced about doubts.  Keneally could list various objections to writing this particular book, among them his ignorance about the Jews and what they had suffered.  The book should be written by  Jew, he reasoned. in the same way that an Aboriginal author should have written The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972). The research for the task would be formidable.  Would Schindler – a carouser, black marketeer and Nazi collaborator, and a sexually voracious man – dominate the story at the expense of those who had suffered so much, despite his intervention? In other words, whose story was it: his or theirs?

Fifteen years later, after the book had sold millions of copies and the memorable movie had been made, Keneally was still fielding questions about Schindler.  ‘If I were presented with the Schindler story now,’ he admitted to one journalist, ‘I would be asking: ‘What do I know about Jews? What do I know about Europe?’ He often had to defend the book against those who doubted its veracity or his right to it. ‘The history of literature,’ Salman Rushdie has said, is one in which writers have defended their work and I was not going to be the one who didn’t.’ Nor was Keneally, but the lives of both writers were dogged by the books that brought them the most fame: Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark. (p.217)

Keneally has some interesting advice for writers:

Keneally has said repeatedly that it is the writers who are hungriest for publication, and not necessarily the best, who will see their books in print.  Writers must have that lust for the published work.  As a teacher he could offer direction, confidence and contacts, but he had little to teach a naturally gifted writer.  ‘The greatest problem with writers of talent is commitment… the writers, both at NYU and UCL, who’ve been published are often the most motivated and the bravest…It’s amazing to me that the ultimate factor in the success of these young writers is temperament.  He warned the students against envy of other writers, telling them it was the worst disease for writers.  ‘It will make you a savage person and it will demean your own writing…don’t think that any one writer’s glory in any way diminishes your own… there can be umpteen splendid novels.’ (p. 285)

Well, certainly Keneally has written ‘umpteen splendid novels’ himself, and this comprehensive biography is an enticement to read more of them.  At 400-odd pages, it’s a fascinating story, thoroughly researched using Keneally’s papers at the National Library of Australia and also interviews with Keneally himself.  It includes B&W and colour photos, endnotes for each chapter, a list of works and an index as well.

You can listen to Michael Cathcart’s interview with the author on Radio National.  Thanks to Pam from Travellin’ Penguin for bringing my attention to it.

Author: Stefany Evans Steggall
Title: Interestingly Enoough, the life of Tom Keneally
Publisher: Nero Books, an imprint of Schwartz Media, 2015
ISBN: 9781863957588
Source: Review copy courtesy of Black Inc Books

Availability:
Fishpond: Interestingly Enough…: The Life of Tom Keneally


Responses

  1. There was a good interview with Thomas Keneally on radio national recently in which he talked of this auto biography. Such an I teresting and entertaining author and speaker. It is probably still available online with Richard Fidler.

    • I’ll have to find that and put a link to it here. On my To Do list, thanks!

  2. I like Thomas Keneally although I think he writes too much. A Dutiful Daughter is my favourite. You might try his book about writing Shindlers Ark, I had it as an audio book some time ago.

    • I have got so much to catch up on with TK. I swore I wouldn’t buy another of his till I’d read what’s on my TBR, but I couldn’t resist Napoleon’s Last Island. Does he write too much? Hard to say… a professional writer who earns a living for a family must be prolific yet keep up the quality….

  3. Thanks for the interesting review. You were kinder to it than the reviewer in The Australian, who particularly noticed the absence of TK’s personal life from his marriage on. A rather difficult task to take on a living writer, but it is common in political biography.

    • Yes, I kept that review to look at after I’d written mine.
      I did notice this absence at the beginning of the book, but as it progresses, it’s more about Keneally’s books and his career as a writer and that was more than enough for me.
      Staggall acknowledges that Keneally’s wife wanted her privacy respected, and there are stray comments here and there that hint at why she would want that, and why she should have that respect. IMO I think it’s churlish of The Australian’s reviewer to give undue focus to it when there’s so much else that this book offers. (I’ve barely scratched the surface).
      And besides, – given Keneally’s stature – I think we can be confident that there will be another biography some time in the future…

  4. Excellent review of a very complex man and biography. Congratulations


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