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."
Further Reading on Thomas Keneally
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.