STEPHANY EVANS STEGGALL
Nero, 2015, 408 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
In 1960, the trainee priest, Thomas Keneally, abandoned the seminary at Manly on Sydney’s North Shore without any qualifications other than a Bachelor of Theology and with no skills other than Medieval Latin. His escape from his crisis of confidence in the Catholic Church, says Dr. Stephany Steggall in her biography of the Australian novelist, was through writing, which was both Keneally’s attempt to understand, and keep at bay, the ‘madness and melancholia’ of the human lot, and his own course of personal therapy for exorcising the mental demons that haunted him from six years in an uncaring, dogmatic institution with its ‘anti-human moral code’.
The son of Irish grandparents, Keneally topped the state in English in 1951, his secondary school aptitude for the written word only reviving after his abortive religious vocational training. He found a popular audience because of his powers of characterisation, wit and story-telling, and for his focus, through the vehicle of the historical novel, on the great moral choices faced by humanity.
Keneally’s academic critics were less universally won over, debating whether the ‘fibro’ boy from the western suburbs was a legitimate contender for the national literary pantheon. Their doubts were not without some foundation as Keneally, with a mortgage and a young family to provide for, adopted a self-imposed income-generating regime of an annual novel (he has so far notched up 33 published novels in 49 years) which has sometimes been at the expense of patient textual polishing.
Keneally’s financial pressures significantly abated thanks to Hollywood’s Steven Spielberg, who turned Keneally’s Booker-winning novel, Schindler’s Ark, into a memorable, and lucrative, film (Schindler’s List) about the real-life German industrialist and conflicted Nazi-collaborator, Oskar Schindler, who saved over a thousand Jews by employing them in his factories in the eye of the Holocaust.
Keneally, who has always aimed to live to write, no longer needs to write to live. In 2015, he was able to request that the $50,000 prize money that came with an Australia Council’s Lifetime Award be given instead to a mid-career writer but he continues to write at Stakhanovite pace because that is who he is.
Politically, Keneally is a moderate, centre-left social democrat. He is a member of the Australian Labor Party and is interested in but has spurned Marxism for being a “theological” belief system, a Cold War legacy of his Catholic anti-communism which saw his early stories depict Australian communism as brutal, full of fear, deception and alcoholic Leninist wife-beaters.
A republican (Keneally was the first Chair of the Australian Republican Movement in 1990), he has refused a Royal-granted Commander of the British Empire title but, as an Australian nationalist, has accepted a locally-ordained Order of Australia.
Keneally has, however, an undimmed commitment to social justice. His novel on the anti-Semitic genocide illustrates Keneally’s dedication to social justice. He regarded the Holocaust as the most extreme example of ‘race or group hate’, all targets of which (Indigenous Australians, refugees) he has outspokenly stood up for.
Unfortunately, the origins and trajectory of Keneally’s political and social values, and how they inform his novels, are underdeveloped by Steggall whose biography is heavily skewed towards the how rather than the why of Keneally’s art. There is a rather pedestrian parade of the agents, contracts, advances, royalties and other sinews of the book publishing industry, vital matters to the working writer from Homebush, but which are so much commercial gristle crowding out the more literary meat in Steggall’s biographical dish.
Nevertheless, Steggall is able to demonstrate that Keneally (whose bulging literary locker sometimes sacrifices quality to quantity) “approaches greatness” and well-deserves his artistic stature. For an absorbing story fluently-told, Keneally usually delivers, as he does for his resilient conviction that, in a world darkened and saddened by far too much tragedy, even the most flawed can find a certain moral heroism.