BORN: 1935, Sydney, Australia
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, drama
The Place at Whitton (1964)
Blood Red, Sister Rose (1974)
Schindler's List (1982)
A River Town (1995)
Thomas Keneally (also known as William Coyle and Thomas Michael Keneally) has evolved from one of Australia's best-known and most prolific writers to a novelist with a worldwide following. Even before The Great Shame, his recent historical work, Keneally had worked extensively with material from Australia's past. But, his body of work is noteworthy for its range of material. He has written on subjects as varied as Joan of Arc, the American Civil War, the Holocaust, and contemporary Africa. However diverse the material, Keneally brings to it a consistently humanistic point of view, an eye for accuracy, and a knack for engaging storytelling, all of which account both for his wide readership and critical acclaim.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Preparing for Priesthood Keneally was born on October 7, 1935, in Sydney, Australia, to Edmund Thomas and Elsie Coyle Keneally. The son of Roman Catholic parents of Irish descent, he was educated at St. Patrick's College in Strathfield, New South Wales, and later studied for the priesthood from 1953 to 1960. Although Keneally left the seminary before being ordained, he later drew on his experiences as a seminarian in his early novels The Place at Whitton (1964) and Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968). He taught high school in Sydney during the early 1960s, and from 1968 to 1970 he served as a lecturer in drama at the University of New England in New South Wales. During this time, Keneally gained recognition as a historical novelist with the publication of Bring Larks and Heroes (1967), a consideration of Australia's early history as an English penal colony.
Early Career While he began to write, Keneally supported himself in various jobs as a builder's laborer, clerk, and schoolteacher. Keneally's first published work, the story “The Sky Burning Up Above the Man,” appeared pseudonymously in the Bulletin magazine on June 23, 1962 under the name “Bernard Coyle” (the surname was his mother's maiden name). Two years later, his first novel, The Place at Whitton (1964), was published.
In 1966 Keneally was awarded a Commonwealth Literary Fund grant of four thousand dollars that freed him temporarily to write full-time. On November 15 of that year, his first play, Halloran's Little Boat, was performed (published in 1968).commissioned by the National Institute of Dramatic Art, the play was an initial working of the material given fuller and richer shape in Keneally's third novel, Bring Larks and Heroes (1967). Set in a penal colony at the “world's worse end” at the close of the eighteenth century, the book was Keneally's first popular and critical success, not least in securing the first of successive Miles Franklin Awards for the best Australian novel of the year. He crafted a complex tale of the origins of his country, one that involved the British or Irish ancestry of the characters, the transplanting of their traditional antagonisms, religions, class divisions, and tribal memories. Now, for the first time in the southern continent, voice was given to ancestral European oaths, creeds, and betrayals.
Keneally's next novel, Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968), also won the Miles Franklin Award. This work, his second fictional account of Catholic religious life in Australia, tells of a priest—Father Maitland—who has pseudonymously written a revisionist view of the historical and political appropriations of God that his church has countenanced. When discovered, his punishment is to be placed by his bishop under an interdiction to publish no more. The terror of such a sentence for the fertile Keneally can readily be imagined.
Between 1968 and 1970, Keneally lectured in drama at the University of New England. He also continued to write plays—Childermas (1968), An Awful Rose (1972), Bullie's House (1980, published the following year)—in addition to writing a section of the motion picture Libido (1973). His time at the university furnished the “campus novel” parts of his next book, The Survivor, which has for its other main setting Antarctica, which Keneally had visited as a guest of the U.S. Navy in 1968. This novel won the Captain Cook Bicentenary Award in 1970 and was made into a television movie the following year. Keneally found the frozen continent so congenial to his imagination that he used the setting for another novel, A Victim of the Aurora. While the latter is historical fiction, set at the beginning of the twentieth century, each interrogates the heroic elements of classic Antarctic narratives of exploration and survival; each transposes the search for the nature and identity of Australians from their country to Antarctica; and each is a deft and satisfying murder mystery, which reflects Keneally's extension of talents into yet another genre.
After a time living in London in the early 1970s, Keneally returned to Australia. In 1972, one of his most popular and best-selling novels was published. Based on the true story of killings committed by the part-Aboriginal Governor brothers in New South Wales at the end of the nineteenth century, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is the novel in which Keneally deals most angrily with the white settlers' treatment of the Australian Aborigines. He has argued that “the snake in the garden is that we have not recognised the prior sovereignty of the Aborigines.” Keneally has been neither blundering, sentimental, nor too credulous in his engagement with relations between black and white Australians. Nevertheless, he became the subject of virulent, often self-interested criticism from experts in fields other than literature. For Keneally, however, the story allowed another unfettered review of matters of conscience in an Australian historical setting that still speaks urgently to the present. Nearly two decades later, he returned to Aboriginal affairs.
War Two novels dealing with twentieth-century world wars, on the other hand, display considerable insight and power. The diplomats in Gossip from the Forest, gathered at Compiègne in the fall of 1918 to negotiate an armistice, are compelling characters. The cultured German delegate, Matthias Erzbergen, finds himself in an impossible political bind as he tries to deal with the imperious Marshall Foch, who takes full advantage of his superior position. The tenuous political alliances of the period are reflected in the negotiations at Compiègne, with the tragic realization that an opportunity for lasting peace is lost and another war becomes inevitable. Of greater scope is Schindler's List, the true story of a Catholic industrialist who ran an arms factory using Jewish workers from concentration camps.
Honors In the decade from 1972 to 1982, from The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith to Schindler's List, Keneally concentrated on historical fiction, and especially on war. He spent the years from 1975 through 1977 living in the United States, lecturing for a time in Connecticut. The American connection was strengthened in the mid-1980s when he became writer-in-residence at the University of California, Irvine. Later, he became a Distinguished Professor for Life in the University of California system.
Works in Literary Context
Historical Fiction Keneally's work can best be understood as historical fiction. In this genre of writing, historical events are reimagined with artistic liberty in order to breathe life into the events of the past. However, it is important to note that although usually considered fiction, works like Schindler's List are painstakingly researched and include only events the author established as factual, though small details such as specific conversations may have been created by Keneally. In this way, they blur the line between fiction and nonfiction. Schindler's List is a good example of such writing, but in many ways Keneally's entire oeuvre seeks to find connections between the past and the present both to enlighten and to entertain.
In some ways, one can link Keneally's historical fiction with writers like William Shakespeare, who spun the five-act play Julius Caesar out of the actual death of Julius Caesar at the hands of Brutus. The form has become increasingly important in recent years, and its popularity can be seen in both film and literature. One example is the film Memoirs of a Geisha, which is an adaptation of the Arthur Golden novel of the same name.
War Novels In addition to the balanced portrait of Joan of Arc, Blood Red, Sister Rose drew critical praise for its realistic depiction of the brutality of medieval warfare. In a number of subsequent works, Keneally approached the subject of war from varying perspectives, including the thoughts of a World War I peace negotiator in Gossip from the Forest (1975), the activities of a doctor involved with partisans during World War II in Season in Purgatory (1977), and the preparations of American Civil War soldiers for battle in Confederates (1979). The Cut-Rate Kingdom (1980), set in Canberra in 1942, considers the moral character of military and political leaders in wartime Australia.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Keneally's famous contemporaries include:
Peter Hoeg (1957–): Danish novelist who has received international acclaim for his works of magic realism.
Ted Koppel (1940–): American journalist and novelist who was a prominent figure in the media until his departure from the news program “Nightline” in 2005.
Roald Dahl (1916–1990): English novelist famous for his children's stories, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG.
J. M. Coetzee (1940–): South African novelist and winner the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In Gossip from the Forest, Keneally offered a concentrated fictional presentation of the peace talks that took place in the forest of Compiègne in November 1918, focusing on the highest-ranking German negotiator, Mattias Erzberger, a liberal pacifist. According to the New York Times Book Review's Paul Fussell, Gossip from the Forest “is a study of the profoundly civilian and pacific sensibility beleaguered by crude power …it is absorbing, and as history it achieves the kind of significance earned only by sympathy acting on deep knowledge.” Robert E. McDowell of World Literature Today concluded that “with Gossip from the Forest Keneally has succeeded better than in any of his previous books in lighting the lives of historical figures and in convincing us that people are really the events of history.”
Confederates is counted among Keneally's most ambitious historical undertakings with its faithful representation of the military life of a band of Southern soldiers preparing for the Second Battle of Antietam in the summer of 1862. Covering a range of characters, including slaves, farmers, and aristocrats, the novel, in the opinion of Jeffrey Burke of the New York Times Book Review, “reaffirms Mr. Keneally's mastery of narrative voice.”
Works in Critical Context
Although Keneally has received a fair amount of both critical and popular acclaim, he has also been involved in a number of controversies. At one point, for example, Keneally was accused of plagiarism in his novel Season in Purgatory. Indeed, controversy even surrounded his astoundingly popular Schindler's List.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith Racism and violence, two social issues that figure prominently in many of Keneally's works, are closely examined in his acclaimed early work The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972). In the novel, Keneally depicts an incident that occurred in New South Wales in 1900 in which a mixed-race Aborigine exploded into a murderous rage following persistent racist treatment by white settlers. Reviewer Anthony Thwaite wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the novel blends “history, psychological insight, and an epic adventure with great skill. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith echoes in the head long after it has been put down.” The novel, which is based on contemporary newspaper accounts of the tragedy, is also considered an early expression of Keneally's antiassimilationist views of race relations. It won the Heinemann Award of the Royal Society of Literature in 1973.
Blood Red, Sister Rose: A Novel of the Maid of Orléans With Keneally's Blood Red, Sister Rose: A Novel of the Maid of Orléans (1974), he turned from writing local history to world history and introduced a recurring interest in warfare into his oeuvre. Critics noted the novel emphasized Joan's everyday qualities within the uncommon context of fifteenth-century warfare. A. G. Mojtabai, in the New York Times Book Review, commented on Keneally's unusual choice in retelling such a well-known story. According to Mojtabai, “We all know the story, the big scenes: the Voices, the Dauphin's court, Orleans, Rheims, Rouen, the pyre. …It would seem foolhardy to attempt to revive these worn tales again. Yet Australian novelist Thomas Keneally has done it and carried it off with aplomb. St. Joan lives again, robustly, in a way we have not known her before.” Comparing Keneally's portrait of Joan with the religious presentation of her as saintly and with Bernard Shaw's dramatic rendering as earthy and pragmatic, Melvin Maddocks noted in Time that Keneally “thoughtfully reconstructs a whole Joan, less spectacular than the first two but decidedly more convincing and perhaps, at last, more moving.”
Schindler's List Booker Prize judges wondered whether Schindler's List was a novel at all. Only a few years before, Keneally had been embroiled in accusations of plagiarism concerning Season in Purgatory. Now he was the subject of speculation as to whether he had written a work of nonfiction that was by definition ineligible for the prize. In the end, the judges decided that Keneally had deployed the skills of his fictive craft in the interest of a work at once compassionate, astonishing, and surprising in its contents and compass. More strife arose when director Steven Spielberg's version of the novel, the Academy Award–winning motion picture Schindler's List, was released in 1994. In Le Monde, for instance, the self-interested Claude Lanzmann (director of the Holocaust movie Shoah) called Spielberg's effort “kitsch melodrama.” For his part, Keneally could take pleasure in the fact that no other Booker Prize–winning novel had sold so many copies as his. In 1994—the year the movie was released—the novel sold 873,716 copies in Britain and the Commonwealth alone.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The mass murder of millions of Jews and other civilians by the Nazi regime, a horror known as the Holocaust, is a frequent topic for novelists and authors of all types. Here are some works that focus on this tragedy:
Apt Pupil (1982), a novella by Stephen King. Later adapted into a film, this novella analyzes the long-term effects of having participated in World War II as a Nazi.
Responses to Literature
- Do you feel that director Steven Spielberg's representation of Keneally's Schindler's List in his film of the same name is “melodramatic” compared to the original work? Use examples from the book and movie to support your position.
- Keneally was criticized for seemingly taking facts about Oskar Schindler and presenting them as fiction. Recently, other authors (mostly writers of memoirs) have been humiliated for presenting fictional events as fact (James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, is one example). Using your library and the Internet, find out more about the controversies surrounding recent memoirs that were later shown to be partially or substantially fictional. Also find out more about what writer Truman Capote called “faction”—a literary blend of novelistic elements and facts. Why do you think critics and readers react negatively to books that seem to blend fact and fiction? Do you think writers should have the freedom to create the texts they want to create, or should they stick to one genre or another?
- The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is written from the point of view of an exploited Aborigine. Keneally has since remarked that he would no longer choose to write from the point of view of his Aborigine protagonist, as it would be “insensitive” of him. Do you think writers should be discouraged from creating characters of a race or gender different from their own? Why or why not?
Brown, Susan Windisch, ed. Contemporary Novelists. Detroit: St. James Press, 1997.
Pierce, Peter. Australian Melodramas: Thomas Keneally's Fiction. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1995.
Quartermaine, Peter. Thomas Keneally. London: Edward Arnold, 1991.
Keneally, Thomas (Michael)
KENEALLY, Thomas (Michael)
Nationality: Australian. Born: Sydney, New South Wales, 7 October 1935. Education: St. Patrick's College, Strathfield, New South Wales; studied for the priesthood 1953-60, and studied law. Military Service: Australian Citizens Military Forces. Family: Married JudithMary Martin in 1965; two daughters. Career: High school teacher in Sydney, 1960-64; lecturer in drama, University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, 1968-69; lived in the U.S., 1975-77; visiting professor of English, University of California, Irvine, 1985; Berg Professor of English, New York University, 1988. Member: Australia-China Council, 1978-83; member of the advisory panel, Australian Constitutional Commission, 1985-88; member, Australian Literary Arts Board, 1985-88; president, National Book Council of Australia, 1985-89; chairman, Australian Society of Authors, 1987. Awards: Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship, 1966, 1968, 1972; Miles Franklin award, 1968, 1969; Captain Cook Bicentenary prize, 1970; Royal Society of Literature Heinemann award, 1973; Booker prize, 1982; Los Angeles Times award, 1983;. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1973, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1993; Officer, Order of Australia, 1983. Agent: Deborah Rogers, Rogers, Colleridge and White, 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN, England.
The Place at Whitton. Melbourne and London, Cassell, 1964; NewYork, Walker, 1965.
The Fear. Melbourne and London, Cassell, 1965; as By the Line, St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1989.
Bring Larks and Heroes. Melbourne, Cassell, 1967; London, Cassell, and New York, Viking Press, 1968.
Three Cheers for the Paraclete. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1968;London, Angus and Robertson, and New York, Viking Press, 1969.
The Survivor. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1969; London, Angus and Robertson, and New York, Viking Press, 1970.
A Dutiful Daughter. Sydney and London, Angus and Robertson, andNew York, Viking Press, 1971.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Sydney and London, Angus andRobertson, and New York, Viking Press, 1972.
Blood Red, Sister Rose. London, Collins, and New York, VikingPress, 1974.
Moses the Lawgiver (novelization of television play). London, Collins-ATV, and New York, Harper, 1975.
Gossip from the Forest. London, Collins, 1975; New York, HarcourtBrace, 1976.
Season in Purgatory. London, Collins, 1976; New York, HarcourtBrace, 1977.
A Victim of the Aurora. London, Collins, 1977; New York, HarcourtBrace, 1978.
Passenger. London, Collins, and New York, Harcourt Brace, 1979.
Confederates. London, Collins, 1979; New York, Harper, 1980.
The Cut-Rate Kingdom. Sydney, Wildcat Press, 1980; London, AllenLane, 1984.
Schindler's Ark. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1982; as Schindler's List, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1982.
A Family Madness. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1985; NewYork, Simon and Schuster, 1986.
The Playmaker. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and New York, Simon and Schuster, 1987.
Towards Asmara. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1989; as To Asmara, New York, Warner, 1989.
Flying Hero Class. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and New York, Warner, 1991.
Woman of the Inner Sea. N.p., Doubleday and Hodder, 1992; NewYork, Plume, 1993.
Jacko. N.p., Heinemann, 1993.
A River Town. London, Reed Books, 1995; New York, N. A. Talese, 1995.
Bettany's Book. New York, Bantam, 1999.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Performing Blind Boy," in Festival and Other Stories, edited by Brian Buckley and Jim Hamilton. Melbourne, Wren, 1974; Newton Abbot, Devon, David and Charles, 1975.
Halloran's Little Boat, adaptation of his novel Bring Larks and Heroes (produced Sydney, 1966). Published in Penguin Australian Drama 2, Melbourne, Penguin, 1975.
Childermass (produced Sydney, 1968).
An Awful Rose (produced Sydney, 1972).
Bullie's House (produced Sydney, 1980; New Haven, Connecticut, 1985). Sydney, Currency Press, 1981.
Gossip from the Forest, adaptation of his own novel (produced 1983).
The Priest (episode in Libido ), 1973; Silver City, with Sophia Turkiewicz, 1985.
Television Writing (UK): Essington, 1974; The World's Wrong End (documentary; Writers and Places series), 1981; Australia series, 1987.
Ned Kelly and the City of Bees (for children). London, Cape, 1978;Boston, Godine, 1981.
Outback, photographs by Gary Hansen and Mark Lang. Sydney andLondon, Hodder and Stoughton, 1983.
Australia: Beyond the Dreamtime, with Patsy Adam-Smith andRobyn Davidson. London, BBC Publications, 1987; New York, Facts on File, 1989.
Child of Australia (song), music by Peter Sculthorpe. London, FaberMusic, 1987.
Now and in Time to Be: Ireland and the Irish, photographs by PatrickPrendergast. N.p., Panmacmillan, n.p., Ryan, and n.p., Norton, 1992.
The Great Shame: A Story of the Irish in the Old World and the New. Milsons Point, New South Wales, Random House, 1998; published as The Great Shame, and the Triumph of the Irish in the English-speaking World, New York, Nan A. Talese, 1999.*
Mitchell Library, Sydney; Australian National Library, Canberra.
Thomas Keneally by Peter Quartermaine, London, Arnold, 1991.
Actor: Films —The Devil's Playground, 1976; The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, 1978.
Thomas Keneally comments:
(1972) I would like to be able to disown my first two novels, the second of which was the obligatory account of one's childhood—the book then that all novelists think seriously of writing.
I see my third novel as an attempt to follow out an epic theme in terms of a young soldier's exile to Australia.
The fourth and fifth were attempts at urbane writing in the traditional mode of the English novel: confrontations between characters whose behaviour shows layers of irony and humour, in which all that is epic is rather played down.
For A Dutiful Daughter, the best novel I have written (not that I claim that matters much), I have turned to myth and fable, as many a novelist is doing, for the simple reason that other media have moved into the traditional areas of the novel.
(1986) I can see now that a great deal of my work has been concerned with the contrast between the new world—in particular Australia—and the old; the counterpoint between the fairly innocent politics of the new world and the fatal politics of Europe. One of the most remarkable phenomena of my lifetime has been the decline of both the British Empire and the European dominance in the world. As a colonial, I was just getting used to these two phenomena and adjusting my soul to them when they vanished, throwing into doubt the idea that artists from the remote antipodes must go into the northern hemisphere to find their spiritual source and forcing me to reassess my place in the world as an Australian.
Blood Red, Sister Rose, for example, concerned a European aboriginal, a potent maker of magic, Joan of Arc. Gossip from the Forest concerned the war, World War I, by which Europe began its own self destruction. These books are characteristic of my middle period, the historical phase, when in a way, coming from a fairly innocent and unbloodied society, I was trying to work Europe out. There was some of this too in Schindler's Ark. In my last book, A Family Madness, you have Australian ingenuousness and the ancient, complicated and malicious politics of Eastern Europe standing cheek by jowl.
I feel it is significant that A Family Madness is set in 1985. I believe the historic phase is nearly over for me and was merely a preparation for the understanding of the present. Time—and future work—will tell.* * *
Within the past two decades, Thomas Keneally has evolved from one of Australia's best-known and most prolific writers to a novelist with a worldwide following. Even before The Great Shame, his recent historical work, Keneally had worked extensively with material from Australia's past. But his body of work is noteworthy for its range of material. He has written on subjects as varied as Joan of Arc, the American Civil War, the Holocaust, and contemporary Africa. However diverse the material, Keneally brings a consistently humanistic point of view, an eye for accuracy of detail, and a knack for engaging storytelling, all of which account both for his wide readership and critical acclaim.
The novels set in colonial Australia are built around cultural conflict. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, a fictional meditation on a real event in Australian history, is about the ritualistic murder of a white woman by the title character, an aborigine desperately trying to resist the imposition of European ways. Keneally resists the temptation to make Jimmy and his rage understandable to his readers; instead he takes pains to distance reader and character, an effect that is discomforting but true to the material. Australia's relation to Britain provides the setting for The Playmaker (adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker for the stage as Our Country's Good ). Keneally uses a seemingly insignificant detail from the history of the Sydney Cove prison and converts it into a compelling metaphor for his country's birth. When an idealistic British officer is asked to stage Farquhar's restoration comedy The Recruiting Office with a cast of convicts, he, they, and we come to a new understanding of the meaning of human dignity and freedom. The Australian setting is also dominant in Woman of the Inner Sea, whose sophisticated heroine, having lost her two children in a fire, finds in the basic values of the Outback the strength to confront her grief and throw off her unwarranted guilt. Again in A River Town, Keneally uses the origin of a rural settlement to convey the essential identity of Australia: outcasts coming together to form a community and, through their diversity, to define a national character.
When it is not his primary setting, Australia is often involved indirectly in Keneally's novels, as in Passenger, in which the story of an Irish girl's pregnancy is narrated by her unborn child. While living in London, she is writing a historical novel about a group of Irish prisoners being transported to Australia for their part in the Rebellion of 1798. The determination of the fetal narrator to survive parallels that of the Irish rebels, and, in fact, the birth eventually does take place in Australia. The influence of history is also apparent in A Family Madness, in which an Australian worker falls in love with his boss's daughter and becomes involved with their haunted past in Byelorussia during World War II. Keneally uses the double plot structure again in To Asmara, in which the Eritrean guerrilla war against Ethiopia mirrors the prior struggles of the main character, the journalist Darcy, to reconcile his European heritage with his determination to help the Australian tribes. In all these novels Keneally's native Australia is a vital presence regardless of where the story takes his characters.
When Keneally chooses historical material from foreign sources, the effect is usually less engaging. Blood Red, Sister Rose, his version of the Joan of Arc legend, and Confederates, set in Northern Virginia during the summer of 1862, both feature typical Keneally heroes—realistically earthy characters caught up in the historical moment—but despite a wealth of historical detail, neither the Maid of Orleans nor the Virginian farmer-turned-soldier really seem to live in their respective worlds. Even Stonewall Jackson, who figures prominently in Confederates, has more Australian pluck than Southern grit in him.
Two novels dealing with twentieth century world wars, on the other hand, display considerable insight and power. The diplomats in Gossip from the Forest, gathered at Compiegne in the fall of 1918 to negotiate an armistice, are compelling characters. The cultured German delegate, Matthias Erzbergen, finds himself in an impossible political bind as he tries to deal with the imperious Marshall Foch, who takes full advantage of his superior position. The tenuous political alliances of the period are reflected in the negotiations at Compiegne, with the tragic realization that an opportunity for lasting peace is lost and another war becomes inevitable. Of greater scope is Schindler's List, the story of a Catholic industrialist who ran an arms factory using Jewish workers from concentration camps. The Oskar Schindler of Keneally's novel is as enigmatic as the man seems to have been in life, conveying no sense of high moral principle even though he was saving hundreds of Polish Jews by convincing the gullible Nazis that his factory's productivity depended on their labor. The narrative voice in Schindler's List, like that of Jimmie Blacksmith, is detached and distant, as if Keneally is determined to allow Schindler to maintain his privacy, a hero we need not like or even understand. This fascinating ambiguity of character was lost in Stephen Spielberg's popular film based on Keneally's book.
The clash of cultures, a recurring theme in Keneally's work, dominates Flying Hero Class, in which an airplane carrying Barramatjara tribal dancers from New York to Frankfurt is hijacked by a group of Palestinians. The hijackers try to convince the aborigines that theirs is a common cause, but without much success. The danger is averted by the courage of the troupe's Australian manager and supposed exploiter. Although contrived, the novel summarizes Keneally's ambivalence toward cultural assimilation. Rejecting the comforting liberal assumption that cultural diversity is to be cherished and celebrated, he more often shows the inevitability of misunderstanding and conflict when cultures collide, whether it be as direct as the murderous outburst of a Jimmie Blacksmith or as subtle as the Australian journalist's inability to express his emotions to an Eritrean woman in To Asmara.
With The Great Shame, his exhaustively researched treatise on the plight of the Irish exiled to Australia's penal colonies for petty crimes or political resistance to British rule, Keneally crosses from historical fiction into history, but the epic scope of the material relies on the human stories he finds hidden in the official documents. With hundreds of characters, some of historical significance, others not (including his own and his wife's ancestors), Keneally conveys through multiple narratives the same virtues of determination, redemption, and survival as in his novels. The material he had used for background in the earlier works, especially Passenger, The Playmaker, and A River Town, emerges again in a seemingly different form. In reality, despite its extensive index, notes, and bibliography, The Great Shame reads like Keneally's best fiction.
Given his steady output and his often-risky choices of material, Keneally has maintained a remarkable level of quality in his work, a testament to the power of the historical imagination and to the novelist's craft.
—Robert E. Lynch
Thomas Keneally (born 1935) is an Australian novelist and nonfiction writer who gained worldwide attention when his best-known work, the Holocaust novel Schindler's List, was adapted into an Academy Award-winning motion picture in 1993.
Keneally was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1935. The son of Roman Catholic parents of Irish descent, he was educated at St. Patrick's College in Strathfield, New South Wales, and later studied for the priesthood from 1953 to 1960. While Keneally left the seminary before being ordained, he later drew on his experiences as a seminarian in his early novels The Place at Whitton (1964) and Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968). He taught high school in Sydney during the early 1960s, and from 1968 to 1970 served as a lecturer in drama at the University of New England in New South Wales. During this time Keneally gained recognition as a historical novelist with the publication of Bring Larks and Heroes (1967), a consideration of Australia's early history as an English penal colony.
Keneally's early works tend to reflect his interests in spiritual matters and contemporary social issues. In the allegorical novel A Dutiful Daughter (1971), which Garry Wills of the New York Times Book Review called "an extraordinary book in every way, " Keneally drew a nightmarish portrait of a close-knit family coping with the sudden and incomprehensible transformation of the parents into creatures half-cow and half-human. While the college-age son begins to turn away from his extraordinary family situation, his sister becomes increasingly defined by it. Angela Carter, in the New York Times Book Review, described the novel as a "spirited expressionist performance" that displayed "a diabolical ingenuity." Muriel Haynes, in the Saturday Review found the work "modeled loosely on the Christian legend of redemption" and judged it "the boldest expression yet of [Keneally's] war against moribund doctrine and its crippling of living religious faith."
Racism and violence, two social issues that figure prominently in many of Keneally's works, are closely examined in his acclaimed early work The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972). In the novel Keneally depicted an incident that occurred in New South Wales in 1900 in which a mixed-race aborigine exploded into a murderous rage following persistent racist treatment by white settlers. Reviewer Anthony Thwaite wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the novel blends "history, psychological insight and an epic adventure with great skill. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith echoes in the head long after it has been put down." The novel, which is based on contemporary newspaper accounts of the tragedy, is also considered an early expression of Keneally's antiassimilationist views of race relations. It won the Heinemann Award of the Royal Society of Literature in 1973.
With Keneally's next work, Blood Red, Sister Rose: A Novel of the Maid of Orleans (1974), he turned from writing local history to world history and introduced a recurring interest in warfare into his oeuvre. Keneally's portrait of Joan of Arc in Blood Red, Sister Rose is considered objective and human, emphasizing her everyday qualities within the uncommon context of fifteenth-century warfare. A. G. Mojtabai, in the New York Times Book Review, commented on Keneally's unusual choice in retelling such a well-known story. According to Mojtabai, "We all know the story, the big scenes: the Voices, the Dauphin's court, Orleans, Rheims, Rouen, the pyre…. It would seem foolhardy to attempt to revive these worn tales again. Yet Australian novelist Thomas Keneally has done it and carried it off with aplomb. St. Joan lives again, robustly, in a way we have not known her before." Comparing Keneally's portrait of Joan with the religious presentation of her as saintly and with Bernard Shaw's humanizing dramatic rendering as earthy and pragmatic, Melvin Maddocks noted in Time that Keneally "thoughtfully reconstructs a whole Joan, less spectacular than the first two but decidedly more convincing and perhaps, at last, more moving."
Novels of the Late 1970s
A Victim of the Aurora (1977) combines the adventure of Antarctic exploration with the intrigue of a classic murder mystery. In a favorable review of the novel in the Spectator, Peter Ackroyd noted that Keneally "astutely aligns the imaginative content of historical fiction with the pert structure of the detective thriller, and by conflating them creates a new thing." Praising A Victim of the Aurora in the Listener Neil Hepburn located the importance of the novel in "Keneally's clear-sighted view of how vulnerable conventional men are to the poisoned authority of great leaders, and of how calmly the best of us can be led to sanction abominations in the name of the common good."
The setting of Passenger, another of Keneally's novels of the late 1970s, is perhaps "the most exotic, " according to Blake Morrison in the New Statesman. The narrator of the novel is the unborn child of a historical novelist who is researching an eighteenth-century convict ancestor who was transported to Australia from Ireland. Morrison characterized the device as "the Romantic idea of insightful childhood pushed one step further-the wise womb, " and Hermione Lee, writing in the Observer, called the novel "a witty variant on the picaresque tradition."
Historical War Novels
In addition to the balanced portrait of Joan of Arc, Blood Red, Sister Rose drew critical praise for its realistic depiction of the brutality of medieval warfare. In a number of subsequent works Keneally approached the subject of war from varying perspectives, including the thoughts of a World War I peace negotiator in Gossip from the Forest (1975), the activities of a doctor involved with partisans during World War II in Season in Purgatory (1977), and the preparations of American Civil War soldiers for battle in Confederates (1979). The Cut-Rate Kingdom (1980), set in Canberra in 1942, considers the moral character of military and political leaders in wartime Australia.
In Gossip from the Forest, Keneally offered a concentrated fictional presentation of the peace talks that took place in the forest of Compiegne in November 1918, focusing on the highest-ranking German negotiator, Mattias Erzberger, a liberal pacifist. According to the New York Times Book Review's Paul Fussell, Gossip from the Forest "is a study of the profoundly civilian and pacific sensibility beleaguered by crude power…. it is absorbing, and as history it achieves the kind of significance earned only by sympathy acting on deep knowledge." Robert E. McDowell in World Literature Today concluded that "with Gossip from the Forest Keneally has succeeded better than in any of his previous books in lighting the lives of historical figures and in convincing us that people are really the events of history."
Confederates is counted among Keneally's most ambitious historical undertakings in its faithful representation of the military life of a band of southern soldiers preparing for the Second Battle of Antietam in the summer of 1862. Covering a range of characters, including slaves, farmers, and aristocrats, the novel, in the opinion of Jeffrey Burke of the New York Times Book Review, "reaffirms Mr. Keneally's mastery of narrative voice."
While the film version of Schindler's List, brought world fame to Keneally, the work had already brought literary fame-as well as controversy-when it won the Booker McConnell fiction prize in 1982. Like many of Keneally's works, the novel is based on historical events during wartime, and in the case of Schindler's List, reflects the testimony of surviving participants who were interviewed by Keneally for the book; some critics argued that for that reason it should be excluded from the fiction category. Published in England as Schindler's Ark, the work resulted from Keneally's chance encounter with Leopold Pfefferberg, one of the 1, 300 Jewish factory workers saved by Schindler. Keneally was shopping for a new briefcase when he entered a Los Angeles store owned by Pfefferberg, who related the Schindler story to Keneally and subsequently assisted him in interviewing dozens of other survivors of the group now known as Schindlerjuden. Like Keneally's earlier portraits of historical individuals, the depiction of Oskar Schindler is considered complex and human. An opportunistic businessman who prospered during the war, Schindler owned an armaments factory that supplied war materials to the German army and drew laborers from nearby concentration camps. By convincing Nazi authorities-through "[b]ribes and bluff, cognac and con-man effrontery, " according to Peter Kemp in the Listener—to allow him to establish his own labor camp he saved the lives of his workers. According to A. N. Wilson in Encounter, Schindler "was a swindler, a drunkard, and a womaniser. And yet, had he not been these things, he would not have been able to rescue hundreds of Jews from the concentration camps." Similarly, Lorna Sage noted in the Observer that as "Keneally presents him in the novel Schindler becomes, by almost imperceptible stages, a three-dimensional 'good' man, at once alive and in love with life, without ever seeming 'fated' or heroic or unnatural." In a 1995 interview with Sybil Steinberg of Publishers Weekly, Keneally himself commented: "I was convinced of the moral force of the story…. Stories of fallen people who stand out against the conditions that their betters succumb to are always fascinating. It was one of those times in history when saints are no good to you and only scoundrels who are pragmatic can save souls."
After the success of Schindler's List Keneally focused on another aspect of Holocaust subject matter in his 1985 novel A Family Madness. Based on the mass suicide of a family of five in suburban Sydney in July 1984, the novel traces the legacy of guilt that impairs the lives of Nazi collaborators and their children. John Sutherland, comparing the novel to Schindler's List in the London Review of Books, proclaimed A Family Madness "better than its applauded predecessor." Discussing A Family Madness in Contemporary Novelists, Keneally commented that the novel's contemporary setting is "significant…. I believe the historic phase is nearly over for me and was merely a preparation for the understanding of the present."
Keneally turned to contemporary warfare with his 1989 novel To Asmara: A Novel of Africa, a fictional consideration of civil strife in Ethiopia during the 1980s. The novel depicts the struggle of the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front to overcome Ethiopian domination as witnessed by the narrator, an Australian journalist. In a favorable assessment in the New York Times Book Review, Robert Stone asserted that "Not since For Whom the Bell Tolls has a book of such sophistication, the work of a major international novelist, spoken out so unambiguously on behalf of an armed struggle."
In a departure from works based in fact and drawing broad portraits of war and its impact on individual lives, Keneally's 1991 novel Flying Hero Class confines its scope to events taking place on an airplane hijacked en route from Frankfurt to New York. Woman of the Inner Sea (1992) returns to fact-based fiction with its portrayal of a woman who seeks to redefine herself in the Australian outback after losing her husband to another woman and her children in a fire. The 1995 novel A River Town draws on the experiences of Keneally's Irish ancestors in portraying the difficulties encountered by turn-of-the-century Irish immigrants to Australia. The novel's protagonist, the grocer Tim Shea, who extends generous credit to his neighbors and ends up bankrupt, is based on Keneally's grandfather, Tim Keneally, who settled in Kempsey, New South Wales. Writer Brian Bethune in Maclean's noted that "Shea's self-destructive nobility is at times maddening, yet Keneally's nuanced portrayal ultimately renders the character endearing." According to David Willis McCullough in the New York Times Book Review, River Town is a "finely told novel…. fired with the passion and hidden poetry that only a sure and experienced novelist can bring to fiction."
Career in the 1990s
Keneally's reputation rests primarily on his prolific fiction output, yet he has also written a number of nonfiction works on Australia as well as the travel books Now and in Time to Be: Ireland and the Irish (1992) and The Place Where Souls Are Born: A Journey into the Southwest (1992).
Keneally lived in the United States and taught at the University of California at Irvine during the early 1990s. An advocate of Australian separation from the British Commonwealth, he founded and chaired the Australian Republic Movement, a political group devoted to that end. During the mid-1990s he was researching the lives of escaped Australian transportees who fled to the United States and established new lives. He was also planning a sequel to A River Town and hoped eventually to trace the Shea family through the World War I era. Assessing Keneally's strengths in Publisher's Weekly, Steinberg wrote: "In ancient times, Tom Keneally would have been a Celtic bard, such is his gift for wielding narrative and anecdote, witty quip and resonant observation. While his books never scant on storytelling brio, however, his work also reflects a concern for life's ambiguous challenges, glancing ironies and opportunities for moral behavior."
Brown, Susan Windisch, ed., Contemporary Novelists, 6th ed., St. James Press, 1997.
Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Volume 50, Gale Research, 1996.
Encounter, February, 1983, pp. 65-71.
Listener, September 22, 1977, pp. 382-83; October 14, 1982, p. 31.
London Review of Books, November 7, 1985, pp. 24-6.
Maclean's, August 28, 1995, p. 50.
New Statesman, January 19, 1979, p. 88.
New York Times Book Review, September 12, 1971, p. 53; January 16, 1972, p. 20; August 27, 1972, pp. 3, 24; February 9, 1975, p. 7; April 11, 1976, p. 8; October 5, 1980, pp. 3, 28; October 1, 1989, pp. 1, 42; May 14, 1995, p. 12.
Observer, January 21, 1979, p. 35; October 17, 1982, p. 33.
Publishers Weekly, April 3, 1995, p. 40.
Saturday Review, July 24, 1971, p. 52.
Spectator, September 3, 1977, pp. 19-20.
Time, February 10, 1975, p. 76.
World Literature Today, winter, 1977, pp. 157-58.
Nationality: Australian. Born: Sydney, 7 October 1935. Education: St. Patrick's College, New South Wales. Military Service: Australian Citizens Military Forces. Family: Married Judith Martin in 1965; two daughters. Career: High school teacher, Sydney, 1960-64; lecturer in drama, University of New England, New South Wales, 1968-70; visiting professor, 1985, and distinguished professor, 1991-95, University of California, Irvine; distinguished professor, New York University, 1991-95. Member of Australia-China Council, 1978-88; advisor, Australian Constitutional Committee, 1985-88; member of Literary Arts Board of Australia, 1985-88; chair, 1991-93, and since 1994 director, Australian Republican Movement. Awards: Miles Franklin award, 1967, 1968; Captain Cook Bi-Centenary prize, 1970; Royal Society of Literature Heinemann award, 1973, for The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith; American Library Association notable book citation, 1980, for Confederates; Booker McConnell prize for fiction and Los Angeles Times fiction prize, both in 1982, for Schindler's List. Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Officer, Order of Australia. Member: Australian Society of Authors (chair, 1987-90); National Book Council of Australia (president, 1985-90). Agent: International Creative Management, West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.
The Place at Whitton. 1964.
The Fear. 1965.
Bring Larks and Heroes. 1967.
Three Cheers for the Paraclete. 1968.
The Survivor. 1969.
A Dutiful Daughter. 1971.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. 1972.
Blood Red, Sister Rose: A Novel of the Maid of New Orleans. 1974.
Gossip from the Forest. 1975.
Moses the Lawgiver. 1975.
Season in Purgatory. 1976.
A Victim of the Aurora. 1977.
The Cut-Rate Kingdom. 1980.
Bullie's House. 1981.
Schindler's Ark. 1982; as Schindler's List, 1982.
A Family Madness. 1985.
The Playmaker. 1987.
To Asmara: A Novel of Africa. 1989; as Towards Asmara, 1989.
By the Line. 1989.
Flying Hero Class. 1991.
Woman of the Inner Sea. 1992.
Jacko the Great Intruder. 1994.
A River Town. 1995.
Bettany's Book. 1998.
Halloran's Little Boat (produced Sydney, 1966). 1975.
Childermass (produced Sydney, 1968).
An Awful Rose (produced Sydney, 1972).
Ned Kelly and the City of the Bees (for children). 1978.
With Yellow Shoes. 1992.
Now and in Time to Be: Ireland & the Irish. 1992.
The Place Where Souls Are Born: A Journey into the Southwest. 1992; as The Place Where Souls Are Born: A Journey into the American Southwest, 1992.
Memoirs from a Young Republic. 1993.
Homebush Boy: A Memoir. 1995.
The Great Shame: And the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World. 1998.*
Schindler's List, 1993.
"Thomas Keneally: An Annotated, Secondary Bibliography, 1979-1984" by Janice Chernekoff, in Bulletin of Bibliography, 43(4), December 1986, pp. 221-27.
"Out of Context: A Study of Thomas Keneally's Novels" by Robert Burns, in Australian Literary Studies (Australia), 4, 1969, pp. 31-48; "Purpose and the Racial Outsider: Burn and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith" by Helen Daniel, in Southerly (Australia), 38, 1978, pp. 25-43; "Thomas Keneally: A Checklist" by Marianne Ehrhardt, in Australian Literary Studies, 9, 1979, pp. 98-117; "Thomas Keneally and 'the Special Agonies of Being a Woman' by Shirley Walker, in her Who Is She?, 1983; "The Ned Kelly of Cracow: Keneally's Schindler's Ark " by Michael Hollington, in Meanjin (Australia), 42(1), March 1983, pp. 42-46; "'White Ravens' in a World of Violence: German Connections in Thomas Keneally's Fiction" by Irmtraud Petersson, in Australian Literary Studies, 14(2), October 1989, pp. 160-73; "'Poor Simulacra': Images of Hunger, the Politics of Aid and Keneally's Towards Asmara " by David Kennedy, in Mosaic (Canada), 24(3-4), Summer/Fall 1991, pp. 179-89; Thomas Keneally by Peter Quartermaine, 1991; Australian Melodramas: Thomas Keneally's Fiction by Peter Pierce, 1995; "The Economies of Schindler's List " by Kirby Farrell, in Arizona Quarterly, 52(1), Spring 1996, pp. 163-88.* * *
Schindler's List (first published in 1982 as Schindler's Ark ) has been Australian author Thomas Keneally's best-selling novel. Moreover, no other Booker Prize-winning book has sold so many copies. If this is his only novel, among a couple of dozen, to deal directly with the Holocaust, many of its themes had been rehearsed and would later be reexamined elsewhere in his fiction. For Keneally war has been a perennial incitement of his imagination, particularly in respect to its rending of families and its shaping and deformation of the memories of nations. He has been drawn especially to what might be best regarded as civil wars: the Hundred Years' War (in Blood Red, Sister Rose, 1974), the American Civil War (in Confederates, 1979), the armistice dealings after World War I (in Gossip from the Forest, 1975), and the Eritrean war of independence (in Towards Asmara, 1989).
Keneally writes of the bitter partisan struggle inside the Yugoslav theater of World War II in Season in Purgatory (1976), of the Australian homefront in that conflict in The Fear (1965) and The Cut-Rate Kingdom (1980), and of the long-delayed, destructive consequences of that war for Belorussian emigrants to Australia in A Family Madness (1985). About how he came to write Schindler's List we have a beguiling story of origins: the chance encounter in 1980 in a Los Angeles luggage shop run by Leopold Pfefferberg, one of the Schindler survivors, and the writer's immediate sense that here was a compelling tale suitable not only for his craft but also for the special bent of his compassion. Nevertheless, a commentator in the Spectator in 1994 would lament that it was Keneally who "walked into that leathergoods store" rather than "a humble news reporter" and that, in consequence, the issue was a novel.
The Holocaust story that Keneally came upon was breathtakingly unlikely: how a German entrepreneur and bon vivant saved more than 1,000 Jews by sheltering them as employees in his factory. But the story also accorded with crucial intuitions of his fiction—his analysis of stereotyping (here of Jews as supposedly doomed and designated victims) and of how stereotypes can be manipulated and resisted, as well as surrendered to, fatally. In the Schindler character Keneally created a compassionate renegade. Unlike a number of Keneally's protagonists, Schindler does not give in to coercive institutions; he subverts them from within. The hero as lovable rogue is given fuller play than in any of Keneally's other novels.
In Schindler's List Keneally focuses his attention once again on victims and victimization, on those who seem marked or feel themselves to be for malign attention and those—like some of the Germans in the novel—whose warped emotional needs lead them to relish the persecutor's role. In the grand-scale melodrama by which Keneally's fiction may best be characterized, the most powerful theme is dispossession: loss of life, property, selfhood. Nowhere is this toll more agonizingly exacted or resourcefully resisted than in his novel of the Holocaust.
Whether Schindler's List was a novel at all bedevilled the Booker judges. In the end Keneally was seen as having deployed the skills of his fictive craft in the interests of a work at once compassionate, astonishing, and surprising in its content and compass. Director Steven Spielberg's version of the novel would receive some harsh criticism (as well as approbation)—for example, from the self-interested Claude Lanzmann in Le Monde (3 March 1994). The director of the Holocaust film Shoah called Spielberg's effort "kitsch melodrama."
In the Australian literary scene Keneally—as a former Catholic seminarian—might appear an unusual figure to write of the Holocaust. It has typically and predictably been the province of Jewish authors such as Arnold Zable and Lily Brett (whose especial concern has been with survivor guilt). Yet his omnivorous embrace of moments of historical calamity and his probing of them for the hope that can be found in the worst of times makes Keneally's project in Schindler's List a signal, unrepeated, distinguished part of his oeuvre.
See the essay on Schindler's List.
Keneally, Thomas (Michael)
KENEALLY, Thomas (Michael)
KENEALLY, Thomas (Michael). Australian, b. 1935. Genres: Novels, Children's fiction, Plays/Screenplays, Adult non-fiction, Writing/Journalism. Career: High sch. teacher, Sydney, 1960-64; University of New England, NSW, lecturer in drama, 1968-70; New York University, Inaugural Berg Professor, 1988; University of California, Irvine, writer-in-residence, 1985, distinguished professor, 1991-95. Publications: FICTION: The Place at Whitton, 1964; The Fear, 1965; Bring Larks and Heroes, 1967; Three Cheers for the Paraclete, 1968; The Survivor, 1969; A Dutiful Daughter, 1971; The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, 1972; Blood Red, Sister Rose, 1974; Gossip from the Forest, 1975; Season in Purgatory, 1976; Victim of the Aurora, 1977; Confederates, 1979; Passenger, 1979; The Cut-Rate Kingdom, 1980; Schindler's Ark (in US as Schindler's List), 1982; A Family Madness, 1985; The Playmaker, 1987; By the Line, 1988; To Asmara (in UK as Towards Asmara), 1989; Flying Hero Class, 1991; Woman of the Inner Sea, 1992; Jacko, 1993; A River Town, 1995; Bettany's Book, 2000; An Angel in Australia, 2002; Office of Innocence, 2002. NOVELS AS WILLIAM COYLE: Act of Grace, 1988; Chief of Staff, 1991. PLAYS: Halloran's Little Boat, 1968; Childermas, 1968; An Awful Rose, 1972; Bullie's House, 1981. SCREENPLAYS: Silver City, 1984. FOR CHILDREN: Ned Kelly and the City of Bees, 1968. NONFICTION: Moses: The Lawgiver, 1975; Outback, 1983; Australia: Beyond the Dreamtime, 1989; Now and in Time to Be: Ireland and the Irish, 1992; The Place Where Souls Are Born: A Journey to the Southwest, 1992; Memoirs from a Young Republic, 1993; The Utility Player, 1993; Our Republic, 1995; Homebush Boy: A Memoir, 1995; The Great Shame, 1998; American Scoundrel, 2002; Lincoln, 2002. Address: c/o Random House, Author Mail, 20 Alfred St, Milsons Point, NSW 2061, Australia.