Monday musings on Australian literature: Two Aussie writers in 1965

Continuing last week’s 1965 theme, this post discusses two articles on two Aussie writers who published books that year. I chose them because I think they are instructive examples of book reviewing.

Thomas Keneally

Cover illustration

Audiobook edition

Thomas Keneally, born in 1935, is a prolific Australian author with a long (and still continuing) career. He was shortlisted for the Booker prize four times between 1972 and 1982, one of which he won, and he was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin three times between 1967 and 2003, two of which he won. These were for seven different books! That’s impressive. However, the book reviewed by Maurice Dunlevey in The Canberra Times in 1965 was not one of these. It was for his second novel, The fear.

The reviewer was Maurice Dunlevy and he compares Keneally’s book with Things as they are by American author, Paul Horgan. Both, he said, were about the loss of innocence in boyhood, and both were true to this type of writing. They were also, he continued, “similar in that they deal with Catholic boyhood. That, however, is where the similarity ends.”

Horgan is successful, handling the subject “with a sensitivity surprising from a writer best known for fat volumes of historical fiction and a Pulitzer Prizewinning history”:

Horgan knows exactly what his subject is and he deals with it imaginatively and economically.

In contrast, he describes Keneally’s book as

a novel in search of a subject. Keneally doesn’t know where he is going and his characters don’t know where to take him.

The only imagination displayed in this book is that reportorial kind we expect from the great Australian tradition, the novel written under a coolibah tree.

He then goes on to (vividly) explain this tradition: it requires that

the coolibah tree should be accurately described, branch by bloody branch. The novelist must be there, on the flamin’ spot, mate, so that he can report on the tree and the nearby jumbuck with photo-graphic accuracy.

Anyone who has read ten Australian novels has read seven that were written under this realistic coolibah tree with a thumbnail dipped in the tar of experience.

The problem is that these novels are not “illuminated by imagination; they are enchained, bolted, riveted to experience — the novelist’s own actual physical experience.” These authors, in other words, focus so much on writing about things they have experienced that they are not, in fact, “writing a novel but filing a fact-filled feature story”.

Then he says something that regular readers know would interest me:

But facts are facts and truth often has nothing to do with them. Truth in literature is usually born of the imagination. It is possible that it has some relationship with facts, with hard-earned experience, but it never slavishly follows their dictates.

Events, he continues, don’t just “fall” into the necessary literary form; “they don’t impart their significance to us simply because we record them accurately.” They need to be “moulded in a unique, personal vision”.

Cover illustrationUnfortunately, Keneally does too much reporting of events, it seems. There is no “vision of the world”, “no sense of direction, no consistent subject or theme”, just “the reporter’s eye for inconsequential detail”. Dunlevy’s assessment is that The fear reads more like “a collection of notes for a novel, perhaps fragments of an autobiography”.

I don’t know what Keneally thought at the time, but I do know that he can be reflective, rather than defensive, about his earlier work. Sydney Morning Herald literary editor, Susan Wyndham, wrote in 2013 that Keneally has described The fear “dismissively as the obligatory account of a novelist’s childhood.” (Interestingly he republished/rewrote it in 1989 as By the line.)

Nancy Cato

Cover illustrationNovelist Nancy Cato was one of the writers that last week’s Soviet author, Daniil Granin, met. The Canberra Times article, I read, is by John Graham, who reviews her latest novel, North-west by south. I chose this article for Graham’s thoughtful commentary on Cato. He starts by calling her “a curious phenomenon in Australian literature, a feminist without a formed social outlook.”

He compares her with her more literary contemporaries — Eleanor Dark, Kylie Tennant, Eve Langley and Dorothy Hewett. He says they

have all expressed definite views on society through their novels. Mostly, they are militant socialist rather than purely feminist ideas, a tradition of political awareness handed down to them by Mary Gilmore and Katherine Susannah Pritchard.

But, he says, Cato has never

been drawn into this dynasty. She is closer to the individuality of Judith Wright and Rosemary Dobson in her poetry, much more aggressively feminist in her novels.

However, he continues, she never fully developed her feminism “in the social sense”, and consciously kept away from “political awareness”. Delie in her Murray River trilogy has the pioneering spirit that comes from one side of Australia’s “feminist tradition”, he writes, but she doesn’t have the social viewpoint that might have made her “a memorable figure”. (Little did he know that actor Sigrid Thornton would make her memorable via the TV miniseries, All the rivers run, in 1983!)

Seriously, though, he continues to say that Cato “has found a welcome new theme in the historical novel”, Lady Franklin, about whom I’ve written here before. Graham suggests that Franklin suits Cato much better  than Delie:

Lady Franklin’s feminism is of the same activist variety, but much more capable of development through her position as a Governor’s wife. She also has the virtue of reality, a considerable advantage for a writer with limited powers of character development.

Oh dear, that’s a backhander isn’t it! Anyhow, he goes on to detail how Cato makes a better fist of this protagonist in terms of feminism, and says that

Miss Cato handles all these subtleties with impressive dexterity, indicating a considerable technical development since she laid Delie to rest.

It’s not perfect, though, because Cato “has still not controlled her tendency, to rush from one event to another without pausing for significance”. He gives examples, such as her handling of Mathinna, the indigenous girl adopted by the Franklins. He feels that Cato became “so enmeshed in the historical details that the book is not satisfactory either as a character study of an unusual woman or as an examination of Franklin’s governorship”. Handling their historical research is, of course, a common challenge for historical fiction writers.

Graham details other gaps, suggesting for example that Lady Franklin and her husband’s efforts “to better the conditions of the convicts and to solve the problem of the disappearing Aborigines are treated so scantily that they might better have been eliminated altogether”. This aspect of the Franklins’ lives is a tricky topic that many have tried since Cato (and I list some of them in my post linked above.)

However, he also has positive things to say, calling it Nancy Cato’s “best novel so far” and suggesting it “indicates a direction in which a writer of her talents and limitations might develop further”. It’s the sort of review a writer may or may not like, but it’s clear, detailed and respectful.

So, I hope you’ve enjoyed these little dips into 1965 Australia via its newspapers. I have!

16 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Two Aussie writers in 1965

    • True, Guy. I’m not a big fan of snarky critics but I did find these two interesting had some interesting things to say more generally which hopefully contributed to the literary discussion of the time. I wouldn’t have liked to have been those authors.

  1. Horgan is, I HOPE, being a little savage with all that Banjo stuff …
    *Keneally has described The fear “dismissively as the obligatory account of a novelist’s childhood.” (Interestingly he republished/rewrote it in 1989 as By the line.)* That’s our Thomas.
    Stap me vitals or smother me to death with words, ST: I grow tired of feminism. Yes, I know that’s an absolute no-no, especially these days; but honestly I wish The Endless Struggle would appear less often.
    I hope you will forigve me.

    • That is our Thomas as you say, MR. Gotta love him for it too, I think. He’s made a great career for himself and always comes across, to me anyhow, as decent.

      I guess I’ll forgive you on the feminism thing. Haha. I understand. I’d love it to go away too… When we have a truer, more respectful, equal world!

  2. I consumed Nancy Cato in the eighties (no doubt because her books were in my mum’s collection after the popularity of All the Rivers Run on TV, which I have fond memories of watching with her). I have not read any Cato in the last 25 years – would it ‘hold up’? Would it be as engrossing I found it the first time? A few years ago I went to hear Sonya Hartnett speak and at the book signing I said to her that her novel, Of a Boy, was the saddest book I’ve ever read, and that I was going to reread it when I had the emotional strength. She looked me straight in the eye and said “Never go back.” Her words have stayed with me – is rereading books you loved likely to kill the experience of that book….? (there’s probably a blog post in this – I should get to it!).

    • That’s a good question Kate? As an inveterate re-reader of Austen I wouldn’t agree (and in fact have had a draft post on the subject in my system for some time now. So I’d love to see what you’d write! It wold be interesting to lease out Hartnett. However, isn’t one of the definitions of a classic a book you can read again and again and get something new every time? And there’s the rub I’d say. I reread a Nevil Shute, one of my teen loves, around a decade ago, and was very disappointed. I’ll not do that again!

  3. Wow, this is fascinating… it makes me want to read both books! (I have a Cato, I forget which one).
    The Keneally interests me because I’ve read both his MF-winning novels, and they are modernist in style and reminiscent of Patrick White’s – they’re utterly unlike his later work which (like everyone else) I discovered when he won the Booker for Schindler’s Ark. At some point, K decided (or drifted into?) more accessible writing, retaining literary qualities but not modernist in the way that the MF winners were. I’ve also read his crime novel The Place at Whitton, (1964) which is utterly unlike the other early ones too.
    So I’m wondering… he was a young author wanting to make a career of it, writing in different styles to capture a market and experimenting in a variety of genres. I wonder if this reviewer was sneering out of a failure to understand that writers all over the world often had a ‘high style’ and a popular style. (Examples are Graham Greene, and today, John Banville, and closer to home Marion Halligan who writes lovely LitFic and crime novels too).
    Or perhaps it’s just a really awful book!

  4. Interesting stuff from long ago. The Keneally book, though not sounding good, sounds unusual. It sounds so odd that I am actually curious about it. It is neat that he is still an active writer.

  5. Hi Sue, I like to read a review that gives both positive and negative feedback. I have read most of Keneally early novels which I enjoyed, and I devoured Nancy Cato novels. The reviews of both authors you have mused over provide interesting information. It was about 1965 when I began to read in earnest.

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