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But You Can't Take "Catholic" Out of The Writer - A Profile of Tom Keneally AO

By Dan McAloon

Life as a "moral battlefield" is "the main game" for Catholics, says Thomas Keneally. The Catholic Australian storyteller has just received high praise from the New York Times for his latest work, The Tyrant's Novel: Keneally, says the NYT, is 'a writer of whom one expects boldness'. Online Catholics' Dan McAloon meets the man who describes himself as 'this ruined Catholic layman'.

"Australian Catholic" is a label writer Tom Keneally could wear like a green felt hat. It's his birthright, born into the transplanted Irish Catholicism of Sydney between the world wars. This was the 'Hood and the Working Class - a dynamic fusion of the devoutly faithful, the poor and helpless, and what today would be termed "social aspirants". There was also healthy hedonism, and a passion for politics and football. Inside this micro-culture one's life was formed by the local parish church and school, sustained into adulthood by the vast Catholic educational, social, and employment networks that sectarianism had made possible as stubborn acts of opposition by the Catholic bishops to the dominant Protestant culture.

As members of Australia's minority religion, Catholics knew they were society's underdogs. Their faith was something they had to be prepared to get their backs up about, ready to defend against ridicule or derision, if it should arise. Many devoted themselves wholly to changing the status quo through their commitment to social action in the workplace. They organised as disciplined factions within the unions, the Labour Council and ALP, as if ready to tackle the very inequities that had nailed Jesus to the Cross. They became the controlling faction in the NSW Labor Party.

Looking back at the Catholicism that fashioned his sensibilities, Tom Keneally says seeking God's justice on earth was an instinctive reflex within Sydney. "I'll illustrate my point," he asks, smiling - "Do you remember when Paul Keating was in Ireland, and he said, 'I think I take these views because I am Catholic' and everyone poured scorn on him? What he meant is that sort of moulding as a child means that often you can't escape responding. You're designed to respond as naturally as a child responds when tickled! You might live in Homebush, but your acts and omissions can set the great monsters of good and evil tearing at each other like cosmic demons. In this training you almost have a metaphysical sense of the world as a moral battlefield."

For the young (and pious) Tom Keneally the call to act came in the form of a vocation to the priesthood. As a seminarian he was known as Michael or Mick Keneally. For years Mick resided at Manly seminary, absorbed in his studies of moral theology. An inner conflict Keneally once described as "a nervous breakdown" however saw him leave the seminary before taking his final vows. The priesthood's loss was to definitely literature's gain. Outside his cloistered life, as a Catholic layman trying to find his metier as a writer, a husband, a father, Tom's questioning nature and determination to reinvent himself as an author overtook Michael the obedient and bookish monk. 'Michael's' moral code nonetheless underpins all Tom's hard won art. In his own story about breaking out of the institutional Church he laid the blueprint all his later narratives.

"Often my stories are about a very plain man, a fairly sensitive man or woman, and something that really puts the issue to him or her occurs. Culture and religion as a divide interests me too. You have that between Oscar Schindler and his Jews, or Jimmy Blacksmith who tries to become a white guy by behaviour and is not permitted to be. That conflict is still the big story of the world I think."

Exploring choices an individual makes when faced with a stark moral dilemma, the clash of two cultures and value systems, and the unknowable consequences of human actions are all themes that recur throughout Tom Keneally's works. His prodigious canon of writing includes novels, memoirs, essays, histories, and screenplays. His better known titles include The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1972), winner of the Miles Franklin Award, Schindler's Ark (1982), winner of the Booker Prize, and The Great Shame (1998), a history of the Irish famine. Last year he published a biography of Abraham Lincoln and a new novel The Office of Innocence. In the latter, the young curate, Fr Frank Darragh, assigned to his first parish in wartime Sydney in the 1940s, is educated in the ways of the world by the sinful confessions of his parishioners. The priest's moral dilemma becomes acute when a female parishioner is murdered, a crime the murderer later admits to Fr Frank under the seal of the confessional.

That he should emerge a writer from his Catholic culture doesn't surprise Tom Keneally. He contends that the faith traditions of European Jews and the Irish Catholics produced so many writers, disproportionate to their populations, because each is grounded in a common theology that speaks of moral absolutes that are constantly challenged by human foibles.

"If you're raised a Catholic you grow up with this sense that the main game has to do with morality. Indeed it turns out that in drama, writing, and poetry it's always about these two issues - rites of passage, marked by the theology of the sacraments and questions of good and evil. And secondly about the relationship between theology and expedience, and how easy it is to be expedient. The big story for me is the story of the man or woman who has a taste for expedience and is forced to go against their conditioning."

Life as a "moral battlefield" is "the main game" for Catholics, contends Keneally. It's a worldview inculcated from one's earliest childhood, reinforced through the rituals of receiving the sacraments at key moments in one's life. "All these stories of morality are a great contribution to the writer because novels are about rites of passage too." His own kind of Catholicism derives as much he says from the "North Cork radicalism" he inherited from his Irish grandparents as from the moral fables he was taught by the nuns at school. "My parents were great admirers of (NSW Labor Premier) Jack Lang and Rerum Novarum and that assumption that existed in Australia in the fair-bloody-go and that sectarianism was bullshit. So my parents would have tried to believe that old Catholicism while being very socially progressive."

But for Tom Keneally, the former seminarian, there are "irreconcilable differences" in an institutional Church caught between the social justice blueprint of Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum (1891) and narrow legal proscriptions of Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae (1968). "The first is nearly Marxist with faith sown in. It's socialist, socially progressive and says things about capital which would be considered extremely left wing in today's Australia," he says. "On the other hand, Humanae Vitae has become a sort of keystone of extreme Catholicism as it wants to proscribe and censure, as if legalistically, human sexuality and reproduction."

Today, aged 69, living on Sydney's northern beaches, he describes himself, as if quoting a critic, as "this ruined Catholic layman".

"I feel that I might have lapsed from the Church but the Church hasn't lapsed from me." Of his occasional role as public commentator, often a lone voice of conscience raised up in a world of pragmatists, he says: "Yes, I'm driven by issues. I'm Catholic in the sense that I see the true battlefield as one of morality. America's war in Iraq is won but they used cluster-bombs - that's like Australia winning against the West Indies with an exploding cricket ball!"

How does he stay motivated for the marathon running of novel writing? Keneally shrugs: "The endurance of the novel is some days a glorious thing, an exultant thing, it is a feeling of benign fulfilment. But in the middle of every book there's a great spiritual test, there's a dark night of the soul! You have to believe that the world needs this book, so it's a bit like undertaking a vocation where you believe the world needs you, society needs you to fulfil this particular mission. So if you lose faith in the book it's a terrible thing."

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