March 2007


Being there

By Mark McKenna
Being there
The strange history of Manning Clark

Among the portraits and photographs that hang in the living room of Manning Clark's former home in Tasmania Circle, Canberra, there is a pencil sketch by Charles Blackman, Drifting. Out on the water, two men sit in a boat; no land is in sight. Another figure, completely white, stands just behind the bow: an apparition defying the current. Manning Clark saw himself as much like the ghostly figure in Blackman's sketch, as the artist-historian seeking a solitary understanding of the human condition. Clark's was a singular vision - emotive and mischievous, tortured and divine - like that of no other historian or writer of his generation.

Manning Clark relished cultivating an image of himself as the lone outsider. When he sought to place his work in the context of Australian historiography - even on the first occasion, at a Melbourne University seminar in 1954 - he dismissed nearly all the writing of Australian history that had gone before him as the product of the dead hand of British imperialism and Protestantism. He could see little cause for optimism in his own generation: the radical historians were wedded to a rigid creed that denied the mystery in human experience and lacked a great theme.

Three years later, in the introduction to Sources of Australian History, he wrote that Australian history after 1919 was "like an uncharted sea". Clark was adept at leaving himself as the last man standing, the only historian with sufficient insight and breadth of interest to rewrite Australian history. This task was made all the more noble - in his eyes, at least - by virtue of the fact that its execution was entirely cut off from conversation with his contemporaries. In private, Clark heeded the advice of his colleagues, but he chose not to acknowledge other historians in his work, continuing with the pretence that he was writing history from a tabula rasa.

Clark warned historians not to read what others had to say until they'd completed their early drafts, "and maybe not then". The duty of the historian was to create history anew from primary sources; he insisted that historians should never "start arguing with what others have to say". But Clark went much further than merely shying away from argument. In his histories, he could not even bring himself to discuss the research and work of others. To do so would only obscure the individuality of the historian's voice, one cast in the mould of nineteenth-century European romanticism - Beethoven, Goethe and Caspar David Friedrich - that of the artist-hero who stands alone on the cliff and gazes out to sea, seeking sublime inspiration.

In his Boyer Lectures, delivered in 1976, Clark listed the writers that had sparked his interest in writing a multi-volume history of Australia: Chekhov, Hardy, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, James. Not one historian of Australia - not one scholar - is mentioned, though Henry Lawson, Patrick White, Henry Handel Richardson and Martin Boyd are credited with providing inspiration. Although Clark spent 30 years within the academy, he preferred to place his work in the company of artists. And most historians who have written about Clark's place in Australian historiography seem happy to leave him there, hovering in a no-man's land, somewhere between nineteenth-century literature and an antiquated form of epic history. There is a broad consensus that Clark simply does not fit into the schema of Australian historiography in any significant way.

Stuart Macintyre and Alan Atkinson have both drawn attention to the fact that few historians have sought to engage with Clark's work, save for one or two embarrassing attempts to imitate him. Historians have ignored Clark in much the same way that Clark ignored the work of others. In the multi-volume Bicentennial history Australians: A Historical Library, Clark's six-volume History of Australia, by then complete, received little attention. Reviewing the posthumously published A Historian's Apprenticeship in 1992, Geoffrey Blainey described Clark as ploughing a "lonely furrow" and being "deliberately deaf to many of the questions that excited social scientists".

True to form, Clark was out of step with the intellectual fashions and preoccupations of his colleagues. He was the great generalist in a time of increasing specialisation. The revisionist history of the 1960s and '70s had little impact on his work, while his dogged pursuit of a prose style recalling Macaulay or Carlyle was already passé by 1962, when volume I of A History of Australia was published. Richard Waterhouse has neatly characterised Clark's work as "a belated attempt at an Australian national history" in the mode of George Bancroft, replacing Bancroft's emphasis on progress with an unfolding tale of "the collapse of social purpose". As Stuart Macintyre wrote in 1994, "in bypassing the work of others, [Clark] created a gulf that few specialists sought to cross."

Manning Clark's audience was not the academy. Like the village parson and the local MP, he spoke often of his connection with ordinary people. Today, publishers would bid furiously for the work of a historian who saw himself as akin to "an actor on a revolving stage". Historians, said Clark, "should be judged by their success in increasing wisdom and understanding and their capacity to entertain". Clark wrote for the public gallery, and his prose is ever conscious of its presence, even to the point of inserting the applause, guffaws and shouts of abuse from an imagined public chorus into his narrative. And to keep his audience entertained, it was sometimes necessary to be flexible with the facts. Clark's eye was first and foremost on the dramatic impact of the narrative.

Humphrey McQueen once told me, "I would never go to Manning to look anything up." My own experience with Clark has been similar. When I first read him, in my early twenties, I did not rush off to read the work of other Australian historians. Instead, I went to listen to Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, and to the final movement of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony. If I went to Clark to look anything up, it was to find the pieces of music that he found inspiring. Years later, working on my doctoral thesis, I discovered that chasing the trail of Clark's footnotes was a fruitless task. Like many before me, I could not crack Clark's code. Quotes frequently appeared in his work that seemed to bear no relation to the sources in the notes - or, as was more often the case, they blended so seamlessly with his own prose that it was impossible to tell who was speaking. It seemed that he saw primary sources as something akin to a musical score, a mere form of notation upon which he would improvise, providing a magnificent libretto for another Clark oratorio.

All of this raises important questions: If Manning Clark's work is not seen as a reliable historical account, and is rarely used in schools and universities in the teaching of Australian history, what might we go to it for? What is it that makes Clark's work memorable, and how are we to understand its value?

I would like to be a writer - But how! My style is poor, my vocabulary lamentably small, and my ideas indistinct. Yet I do receive inspiration, by which I mean my mind becomes filled with an idea, and I want to develop it - then I am excited ... to achieve my goal I must (i) discipline myself - no excesses - an artist should observe (ii) Note down my ideas and impressions (iii) Not be dependent on people.

Manning Clark, 1942

After all that has been written on Manning Clark, it seems trite to claim that his work needs to be critically understood as literature rather than history. As Peter Munz perceptively wrote in 1979, Clark's work demonstrated that Australian history was "but a variation on the universal themes of life and death, greed and hope, curse and vengeance" - he had effectively created Australia's past as "a series of myths". Despite the brutalising history of convictism, frontier violence and a harsh environment, Clark showed, as Humphrey McQueen claimed in 1987, that Australia could still be "a mythopoeic site". Certainly, Clark's work is literary in its imaginative scope, its field of reference and its depth of feeling. In positive reviews, A History of Australia is described as a literary masterpiece. In critical reviews, it is condemned for being clichéd, derivative and repetitive. Still, as Michael Cathcart noted in 1995, for all the references to Clark's literary imagination, "no one has really managed to articulate the translucent quality in [his] work ... or quite identified how his literary imagination works, or why it gives the history a value which is not undermined by its idiosyncrasies and inaccuracies."

One way of appreciating how Manning Clark's literary imagination functions is to examine his personal voice. It is a feature of his work that was frequently commented upon by critics, especially in the context of his literary skill. On the publication of volume I of A History of Australia, Max Crawford noted "the very distinctive personal vision" that Clark brought to his subject. As each subsequent volume appeared, Crawford's remarks were replayed. Reviewers described volume II as "personal and burning, and fascinatingly readable", "highly personal", "idiosyncratic" and "highly original", but few sought to tease out exactly how Clark's voice made itself felt.

The first-person pronoun never appears in the six volumes. Yet Clark's work was deeply personal long before historians such as Greg Dening, Miriam Dixson, Peter Read, Inga Clendinnen or Tom Griffiths, among others, began to bring personal experience and reflections into their prose. Nor was Clark's voice in any way transparent or self-reflective. Indeed, he warned budding historians not to discuss the problems of writing with the reader: "the narrator must learn to shut up", he proclaimed (this from an author whose volumes were steeped in personal comment). But if Clark's work was political, it was so in a unique way. Consider, for example, the bold statements of position by some of Clark's contemporaries: history is "the struggle between the organised rich and the organised poor" (Brian Fitzpatrick, in A Short History of the Australian Labor Movement, 1940); "I am for the weak not the strong, the poor not the rich, the exploited many not the select few" (Russel Ward, in the preface to the 1987 edition of his Concise History of Australia); "This history is necessarily biased" (Humphrey McQueen, in the introduction to A New Britannia, 1970); "This history is critical not celebratory. It rejects myths of national progress and unity. It starts from a recognition that Australian settler society was built on invasion and dispossession" (Verity Burgmann and Jenny Lee's introduction to A People's History of Australia, 1988).

Nowhere in Clark's histories did he seek to reveal his political sympathies so openly, yet it is he who is remembered by some as the most politically prejudiced historian of the postwar period - a memory preserved by John Howard, who has attacked Clark's alleged communist sympathies and his bleak view of "the Australian achievement". To a large extent, Clark earned the ire of conservatives not only because his history cast the Labor Party as the engine of Australia's national progress, but because his public statements characterised the non-Labor parties as little more than moneychangers and philistines. In its intent, however, Clark's History of Australia was less overtly political than the work of many left-leaning historians who were writing at the same time.

If Manning Clark's voice is personal, this quality emerges in his telling of history, in his selection of primary sources, in his presentation of conflict, and in his endless search to understand the inner life of his protagonists, a search that led him to employ emotional language which lacked the one quality that historians of his generation tended to admire: "sober restraint". Clark's personal voice was not grounded in political statements or in any prefiguring of postmodern scholarship, but rather in a profound religiosity, and it is this highly individual understanding of the religious - ecumenical and spiritual, in the broadest sense - that gives Clark's work its depth of feeling and its distinctive, redeeming personal quality.

It is a feature of his oeuvre that takes shape very early. Clark opened Puzzles of Childhood, the first volume of his autobiography, with a story he told many times. He remembered his mother telling him, when he was not yet five, "Mann, dear, you are a very special boy. There's nothing you can't do if you want to do it." Of course, like all his autobiographical writings, the truth of this recollection is uncertain. But it still captures an essential truth about Clark - his belief in his unique powers of perception and insight, something that was evident from the moment he began to write, in his early twenties:

[I am thinking of writing a] short article on Australian culture ... but it is an artistic experience, not a conclusion from evidence ... My idea is: in Australia we are uncertain of everything, we feel insecure. What is the cause of this? ... First ... geography, the hostile environment, the fear experienced when alone ... second, the doubt, do we belong here, perhaps this is geography, perhaps history ... third, Australia as the harlot, raped by the Europeans, coarse, vulgar, meretricious ... I should write this when in an inspired mood.

In his early diaries - from the time of his arrival in Oxford, in 1938, until he began teaching the first full course in Australian history at the University of Melbourne, in 1946 - Manning Clark wrote frequently of the fits of inspiration that would descend upon him, the words racing through his mind "like water with the light shining on it". It was something that he described frequently as being received, "images rising before [his] mind", in the manner of a painter facing a blank canvas. From the beginning, though, Clark found writing a struggle: inspiration came, but he often railed against his inability to express the thoughts that possessed him, and a sense of failure and dissatisfaction with his work remained with him until the end of his life.

Gazing at paintings or photographs, standing before monuments or historical sites, conversing with friends and colleagues, Clark was fired by inspiration that came from an unknown but implicitly divine source. He claimed that he wanted to understand what had moved men, had inspired and defeated them, believing that "what happens and has happened in life mocks the fitness of things." These words, echoing Ecclesiastes - "All is vanity" - not only articulated his motivation as a historian, they also expressed the drama and conflict of his personal life.

From Clark's six volumes, and particularly his writings on history (he wrote more on the writing of history than most historians), there is the familiar refrain of Manning Clark, Historian: the seeker of the heart and soul of human beings (usually men), the worrier over the question of faith and what it meant to live in a Godless world, the tragedian, the writer who drew inspiration from art, literature and music and who, following Carlyle, saw history as the "true epic poem of mankind" and himself as "one of the muses" that could "communicate a vision of the world". What remains uncertain, however, is the extent to which Clark's highly personal historical voice was shaped by his personal life.

Several historians have hinted at the autobiographical dimension of Clark's work. Reviewing volume II, Geoffrey Serle referred to the "depth of personal experience" that informed Clark's work. In Suspect History, Humphrey McQueen gives the well-known example from volume IV, where Clark has Robert Burke suffering from a "fit of the sillies", before claiming that "Clark carried concerns from his life and memoirs into his history." More recently, on Radio National, Michael Cathcart insisted that the great theme of Clark's history - "the struggle between Catholicism, Protestantism and the Enlightenment" - was really Clark's "lifelong struggle". Manning Clark admitted this much to be true. In 1976, he acknowledged that the central conflicts in his history - especially that of the English inheritance versus the native born - were, as he put it, "in my veins". Beyond the obvious tension between the different family backgrounds of his parents, the personal quality of Clark's historical voice was connected intimately with his personal life.

The polyvocal element of Clark's history (or, as Peter Craven once called it, his "point-of-view writing") is one example. Clark's later volumes teem with voices simultaneously playing variations on a theme. Like a Handel oratorio, they rise up to take their designated role in the score, given an added touch of Clarkian drama here, an extra bit of Clarkian pathos there. The voices within his text mirror those within his mind: Clark often referred to himself as a "polyphon", a man of many voices. He claimed to hear the future-of-humanity voice, the sceptical voice, the eye of pity, the voice of doubt about everything, the voice of "Mr Passion" and countless other nondescript voices within "Mr Passion". In Clark's mind, these played constantly, usually in unresolved tension, conveying "an eternal restlessness and discontent".

Clark presented many of his lead characters (Wentworth, Lawson, Curtin) as divided personalities brought down by the predictable "fatal flaw", and his private correspondence reveals that he thought of himself in much the same way. In letters to his friends and to his wife, Dymphna, he refers to "the Double" (a description taken from the title of an early short story by Dostoevsky), the other Manning Clark who is usually saddled with responsibility for the drinking and sinful behaviour that brings the more virtuous Clark down. As the voices arose in his text, slowly taking shape and life as different characters, so the voices within his mind fought for dominance, embodying the potential persons that he might become. They also serve to displace responsibility for his behaviour.

Driven from elsewhere, by some unknown force, Clark's protagonists struggle to attain a moral sensibility and control over their own destiny. They fight to assert their own conscience, naively cling to the dream of human perfectibility, doubt the existence of God, and strain to find purpose and meaning in life. They suffer because of their knowledge of human beings' capacity for evil (a capacity which they know is also inside them), and they are confronted with the conflict between the desires of the flesh and the needs of the spirit. And, now and then, they are brought down by a fit of the sillies.

Prompted by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a great fan of Henry James, Clark became fond of borrowing James's notion of the "felt life". He believed that he needed a bank of his own excitements and disappointments, his successes and heartbreaks, before he could write history as art - before he could write about the inner life of others, informing their world with the shared experience of his life. In this sense, Manning Clark's historical voice is personal in a way that few other historians' are. The past becomes the site for expressing and working through his deepest feelings. His lifelong fear of the wolves - the critics whom, he imagined, would tear his work to pieces - points to the deeply personal nature of his history. Having invested so much feeling, so much of his inner self in his work, he felt that he had laid himself open, and he trembled like a child in search of approval at the thought of his creation being subjected to censure or derision.

I think that's what you've got to get over in a history - those moments, those epiphanies in human experience.

Manning Clark, 1987

In the last 20 years of his life, after his retirement, Manning Clark began to construct his own mythology as historian, writer and public figure. When he tried to tell the story of why he became a historian, and explain the personal vision that drove him to write A History of Australia, he often recited a series of personal epiphanies. In Clark's telling, these are moments of profound intellectual and spiritual revelation. They arrive like the words of an angel, shrouded in mystery, in a process that remains partially hidden - even from Clark himself. Through their telling, and in the contemplation of the morals they contain, Clark navigates his way through life. The epiphanies provide inspiration and ultimately, they serve as the raison d'être of Manning Clark, Historian, informing and guiding him.

There are many Clarkian epiphanies. First, there are the epiphanies of place: visiting Cologne Cathedral for the first time, awestruck at the beauty created by man to praise God; standing on the South Head of Sydney Harbour, the sight of the turbulent sea making him want to write about what was inside the hearts and minds of the convicts; gazing at the ruins of Yorkshire's Whitby Abbey and dreaming of telling the story of how the Europeans had brought those two Great Expectations, Catholic Christendom and the Enlightenment, to the ancient continent of Australia.

Then there were the library epiphanies: discovering the Hindu fables about the world to the south of Java in a museum library in Jakarta; crying after reading that Magellan's "black eyes wept" when he realised he had found a way through to the Pacific; seeing John Henry Newman's pencilled notes on truth in an 1864 article by Charles Kingsley, the genesis of Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua. There were also the epiphanies that came through the meeting of fellow artists - James McAuley, Patrick White, David Campbell and many others - those bonds and friendships created by a spark of unspoken recognition and understanding rather than being earned slowly over time.

Finally, there are the numerous epiphanies which relate to Clark's encounters with art, music and literature. Listening to Bach's B Minor Mass or the slow movement of Beethoven's Sonata Opus 111; hearing Henry Handel Richardson read from The Fortunes of Richard Mahony; viewing Sidney Nolan's Riverbend or Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son; reading White, Hope, Chekhov, James or the usual suspect, Dostoevsky: all of these encounters made Clark realise that history must always run second to art as a form of human expression.

Of all Clark's epiphanies, though, there is one that stands out for its allegorical power. It is the one that he told most often, the one he invested with the most significance, especially because it explains the genesis of his life as a historian. So far as I can tell, Clark first told the story publicly in 1978, in an unpublished background piece he prepared for Rob Pascoe, who was then writing a profile of Clark for the National Times. Pascoe's article, ‘The History of Manning Clark', led with the story, describing the 23-year-old Clark arriving at Bonn on the morning after Kristallnacht, on 10 November 1938: "Clark made his way amid the debris throughout Bonn in a state of disbelief." Two years later, in 1980, the background article Clark had prepared for Pascoe was published under the title ‘Themes in A History of Australia' in Clark's Occasional Writings and Speeches.

Throughout the '80s, Clark was invited to reminisce about his life and career in the national media, and he told the Kristallnacht story many times. In 1987, interviewed by John Tranter on Radio National, he offered a typically powerful telling:

What really got me going was that when I was about 22 or 23 I went to Germany to meet the woman I was going to marry, and I happened to arrive at the railway station at Bonn am Rhein on the morning of Kristallnacht. That was the morning after the storm-troopers had destroyed Jewish shops, Jewish businesses and the synagogues. Burned them and so on. And I came up out of the Bonn railway station, my head stuffed with these myths about progress and so on. And there I was confronted with these storm-troopers. Of course they didn't menace me, or threaten me. But I saw the fruits of evil, of human evil, before me there on the streets of Bonn.

Over the next three or four years, I gradually had to abandon all the myths I'd grown up with. That my world, my intellectual equipment, my spiritual equipment, couldn't cope with what I'd seen in Germany. And all the things that had meant a great deal to me and probably still do mean a great deal to me, like Hymns Ancient and Modern, the Old Testament, the King James Bible, the Dry Souls of the Enlightenment, as Carlyle called them, the hopes about things better, the belief in the British - all this had to go and I had to start on a new pilgrimage to see, was there anything which could replace these myths which I think I found then didn't correspond with the world as I'd come to know it.

This telling of the Kristallnacht epiphany is similar to the version in Occasional Writings and Speeches, as are the lessons Clark draws from the encounter, except that in the published article, Clark wrote about himself in the third person ("the author"), more consciously creating a figure of myth.

One year after the Tranter interview, the story appeared again in RM Crawford and Stuart Macintyre's Making History, in Clark's brief paper explaining his approach to the writing of history:

When I came up out of the Bonn railway station on the morning of 11 November I was confronted by men in military uniforms who had machine guns in their hands. They were wearing huge breeches. They would have made marvellous shepherd rucks for Carlton in the old days. That morning in the Volkischer Beobachter Dr Goebbels explained that the German people had taken their revenge on the Jews for the attempt by a Jew named Grunspan to assassinate a member of the German Embassy in Paris. Once again ... I found myself chewing over the question of human evil. There were at least two people inside me - the optimist and meliorist, and, dare one say it, the part-time messianic; and the other pessimistic, gloomy, the person who saw no answers to the problem of evil, or, as I liked to put it in those five volumes, "the madness in men's hearts".

After telling the Kristallnacht story on ABC TV and radio on several more occasions in the '80s, it appeared for the final time in the second volume of Clark's autobiography, Quest for Grace, published in 1990. At the last moment, in his ink scrawl, Clark had added the following words in the margins of the volume's final typescript draft:

Dymphna was there on the platform at the Bonn railway station when I stepped off the train early in the morning of 8 November 1938 ... we were in for a rude shock, it was the morning after "Kristallnacht" ... glass was everywhere on the footpath ... there were trucks with men in uniform standing in the tray.

If there is one personal experience that explains Clark's life and work, it is his experience of Kristallnacht, the point when the Nazi persecution of Jews turned towards the Holocaust. In a small village outside of Dresden, the diarist and literary scholar Victor Klemperer described his fear and sense of impending horror after the events of the night. Many of his friends "had been arrested and taken away". Klemperer himself was arrested but later released. He was "free", he wrote, "but for how long"? Like many Jews, he was "tormented by the question ... to go where we have nothing [or] to remain in this corruption?" As the persecution of Jews spread, Klemperer, under curfew from noon till 8 pm, felt that he "could not bear it any more - I really felt as if I could not breathe."

For Manning Clark, the encounter in Bonn sends him on a journey to seek an understanding of the human condition. It is his Creation story, taking him back to the ancient classics, the Old Testament and Shakespeare. Witnessing the aftermath of Kristallnacht, the shards of glass still on the street, Clark confronts Conrad's heart of darkness, and he doubts the capacity of the Enlightenment to deliver human beings peace and happiness. It is the "beginning of an awakening ... the moment when the author realised that he would have to start to think again about the whole human situation. He would have to base his beliefs on something more solid than those superficial, shallow ideas picked up in Melbourne." For Clark, history needed to be much more than an empirical or scientific endeavour: it also needed to be spiritual, a work of individual artistic expression that remained true to the personal voice and feelings of the man within. This was his credo.

In early 2006, I was reading correspondence from the '30s between Clark and his wife-to-be, Dymphna Lodewyckx. In late 1938, Clark was at Oxford's Balliol College,  reading history, while Dympna was in Bonn, studying German literature in preparation for her doctorate. The two scholarship winners, deeply in love, had sailed together from Australia in August 1938.

It was late and I was tired, struggling as usual with Clark's handwriting. Reading one letter from Dymphna to Clark, dated 12 November 1938, I suddenly realised that Clark had not been in Bonn on the morning after Kristallnacht. At first, I thought I'd made a mistake. Like many others, I had taken Clark at his word. I had even quoted the Kristallnacht story in my published work. I re-read Dymphna's letter carefully, checked Clark's diary entries, and saw that it was impossible for Clark to have been in Bonn on the morning of 10 November. As his own diary confirms, he did not arrive in Bonn until 26 November, more than two weeks after Kristallnacht (which, as we know, was the night of 9 November). It was Dymphna Lodewyckx, not Manning Clark, who witnessed the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht. She wrote to Clark on 12 November 1938, when he was still in Oxford, and she wrote again on 24 November, two days before Clark arrived in Bonn. In the letter of 12 November, she described the scene:

The violence was over when I came - but the crowds were everywhere - following the smiling SS men, children shouting in excitement, grown-ups silent, except for children. We went along lots of streets, & saw about 15 smashed shops - mercers, frock shops, & laundry, a silk shop etc. Then we went down to the Rhein and saw the smoking ruins of the synagogue. Behind it the rabbi's house was burning ... Weitergehen! Weitergehen! [Keep moving!] from the police was the only sound to be heard except the shuffling feet of hundreds of curious sightseers, so we left the Rhein where the grey evening mist was just rising over the poplars & factory chimneys and the western sky was all rosy ... I went home but couldn't work ... on the way to the forest, I passed a second, smaller synagogue, gutted like the first ...

Later, in the company of a friend, the Swiss student Hans Ehrenzeller, Dymphna walked the streets of Bonn to "see the sights". She enclosed the article by Josef Goebbels that Clark referred to in one of his tellings of the Kristallnacht aftermath, describing it as "a gem" before remarking that "gentlemen in uniform were not very conspicuous during the actual venting of righteous wrath," although she did write that she had heard one girl say that "gentlemen in black poured the oil on the synagogue here, & others set it on fire."

I felt a sense of disbelief and disappointment at having been misled, but this did not last long. When I told two of my friends, both historians, about my discovery, the response was the same: "Oh, no!" they said, sighing. Like me, they wished that Clark had been there; they wished that the historian, of all people, would not play with the truth in such a way. When I told two other friends, both novelists who had known Clark, the response was different: "Isn't that fantastic?" they said. "Typical Manning - theatrical, playful, pulling your leg. What a great subject for a biography!" It was as if they could imagine Clark laughing from beyond the grave. The novelists made me stop my rush to judgement. I began to see Clark's untruth as the most revealing parable of all.

 Manning Clark not only placed himself in Bonn on the morning after Kristallnacht; he also appears to have used some of the material in Dymphna's letter, mixed it with his own recollections, and made it his own. In Quest for Grace, for example, he describes walking the streets of Bonn with Dymphna and Hans Ehrenzeller after Kristallnacht, as well as a later meal with two Irish students in a university mensa. These events seem to be taken directly from Dymphna's account.

More importantly, Clark, by claiming the story as his own, denied Dymphna the voice of the narrator. . Three years after Clark died, she wrote to Carl Bridge (the head of the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at King's College, London), trying to dispel what she called "the myth of Manning's rejection of Oxford". But her letter revealed much more. She wrote, "In December-January 1938-39 [Manning] certainly took an extended Christmas vacation to come to Bonn, but he returned willingly to Balliol and left only when the outbreak of war made it necessary for him to find a job."

 "December-January", not November. This letter demonstrates that Dymphna's memory was quite different from Manning Clark's. Dymphna Clark was not one to play with the facts. And, reading her blunt and occasionally caustic editorial comments on his manuscripts, it is difficult to imagine that, sometime between 1978 and his death, in 1991, she did not question Clark's recollection. Given her nature, it is possible that one morning at Tasmania Circle, Dymphna climbed the ladder to Clark's study, confronted him and said, "Manning, you weren't there, you know you weren't there. What do you think you're doing?" Exactly why she chose to remain publicly silent is an intriguing question. The most obvious answer is probably the right one: she was so loyal to him that she could never betray him.

There is another, related question. When Clark told the Kristallnacht tale, he did so in the context of telling his life story. He had retired and was already a significant national figure. Why could he not have told the story of Kristallnacht through Dymphna? Why did he need to reduce her to a woman who was simply waiting on the steps of the railway station to marry him? Why did he need so desperately to be the one who was there? Most likely, Clark, the great historian, needed to be there to make the parable of Kristallnacht more powerful, to draw from the events the great lessons he had undoubtedly drawn.

In this sense, there is no fabrication. The impact of Kristallnacht on Clark was genuine and profound, somehow pushing aside the mere fact that he was not physically present. In the same way that Clark felt he could not write about events in the past without visiting the places where those events had occurred, he felt he could not speak of the significance of Kristallnacht for his intellectual and spiritual development without having been present. Clark needed to be the witness - the only way he could make meaning of the past was to inhabit it - and he willed himself to be there. Here, another question arises: How conscious was Clark's invention?

[The historian] cannot invent facts, or put into the mouths of characters words which they never used. If he does, he slides into fiction or imaginative biography.

Manning Clark, Boyer Lectures, 1976

In a life-long partnership, a couple's memories can sometimes become one, and through Dymphna, Manning Clark no doubt felt he was there in Bonn on the morning after Kristallnacht. He had, after all, arrived in Bonn only two weeks later, on Saturday, 26 November 1938. His diary entry for that day reveals a young man shocked by what he saw:

I walked round the town, struggling against the oppressiveness, the sea of hostile, hard faces, and the strangeness of my surroundings ... uniforms, pictures of Hitler, notices in form of command, not of request. And yet life went on here very much the same as in England. It was very bewildering, almost frightening.

Months later, he was certainly dwelling on the question of evil. He wrote in his diary on 15 February 1939, "I have been worried lately by the problem of evil, the existence of which we are apt to ignore in our frantic search for the ideal." When Clark arrived in Bonn, he saw the Nazi storm-troopers and was frightened by them; he also saw and heard evidence from several people of the Nazis' persecution of the Jews; and he was torn over the best means of resolving the political crisis between Germany and England - to appease or not to appease.

His experience in Nazi Germany is the beginning of the polyphon. As he told an audience at Melbourne University in 1980, "after the experience in Bonn in November 1938, followed by quite an epiphany in Cologne Cathedral in the same year, my mind was rather like a fugue in four voices." For Clark, it is the beginning of his confrontation with the "age of unbelief". Kristallnacht, the portent of the Holocaust, is mankind's fall from grace. In this sense, there is considerable truth in Clark's account of it. The truth lies in the felt part - the emotional and moral truth - and the conclusions drawn. He did not see the glass on the street or the smoke rising from the burning synagogues on the morning of 10 November, but he certainly experienced its aftermath and the increasing terror of the Nazi dictatorship.

At the same time, there is also something typically, comically Clarkian about the whole affair. Each time Clark tells the story, he has himself arriving in Bonn on a different day. In Quest for Grace, he arrives in Bonn on 8 November; in Making History, he arrives on 11 November. On other occasions, he arrives in "early November" or on "one of the mornings after Kristallnacht".

Many years later, after reading Quest for Grace, a friend of Hans Ehrenzeller wrote to Dymphna, noting that Hans had lived for another four years after the date Clark had given as his death. It is also highly unlikely that Dymphna met Clark at the Hauptbahnhof in Bonn, as he claimed. Clark's journey from London would have taken him through Belgium and across the border to Cologne. Here, Clark would have needed to change trains in order to get to Bonn, a journey of a little over half an hour on a regional train. Dymphna had written to him shortly before he left Oxford for Bonn, on 18 November, telling him that she would meet him in Cologne. Clark's details and dates, as usual, are unreliable.

But as always with Manning Clark, the dates are not the issue. He seems to have streamlined these minor details in his telling of the story, in order to dramatise his arrival. Typically, he describes it in theatrical terms: coming up out of the darkness of the underground onto the streets of Bonn, meeting his waiting lover, confronting the portent of the twentieth century's greatest horror. The scene is operatic, both romantic and tragic, like Verdi doing Shakespeare. But it is also deeply existential. In late 1938, Clark was afraid of the onset of war. He feared for Dymphna's safety, and for his own. On a much larger scale, he feared for Europe and the future of civilisation. His Anglican upbringing and Enlightenment beliefs were no match for the Nazi terror. In this sense, the desolation Clark feels as he tells the Kristallnacht story half a century later is for the sake of the future and not for the sake of understanding the past. The question he asks - Where to now? - he asks of himself and of human society. And even as he tells the story, he does not believe he has found the answer.

In the late '80s, Clark began to consult his diaries and letters as he worked on his autobiography. In the preface to Quest for Grace, he explains that in writing the volume he had "made use of diaries begun in April 1941". This date suggests that in writing Quest for Grace, Clark did not have access to the first volume of his diary, begun in Bonn in late November 1938 and proving that he arrived there two weeks after Kristallnacht. But the date he gives is also odd, given that the second volume of his diary begins in May 1940, not in April 1941. Clark appears to be plucking the date out of thin air. There is no volume of his diary that begins in April 1941.

It is possible, but unlikely, that he managed to find all of his diaries from the late '30s and '40s, bar one. Yet, even if it were true that Clark did not have access to his first diary while writing his autobiography, there is no doubt that he drew on Dymphna's correspondence from the same period. In Quest for Grace, Clark's memory of Dymphna's visit to the home of the art historian Dr Busslei draws from a letter she wrote to him in October 1938. "I had heard about him in letters from Dymphna," Clark writes. At one point, recalling a belligerent outburst by Busslei, he quotes almost verbatim from her letter. That letter was kept together with others from Dymphna written in October and November 1938, including the one she wrote to him on 12 November 1938 that describes her experience of Kristallnacht. Given that Clark's account of Kristallnacht closely resembles that of Dymphna's, and that in writing Quest for Grace, he drew on her correspondence from the same period, it seems unlikely that he did not sight the letters she wrote to him in November 1938.

If Manning Clark chose to place himself on the streets of Bonn, knowing that he was not there, this was his inner lie. He had told the story in public and traded on his audience's trust in him as a historian. In 1997, Carl Bridge, another scholar who took Manning Clark at his word on Kristallnacht, presciently summed up Clark as "part mystic, part fraud. He had to be. This was how he made us aware of his and our versions of the truth." Referring to Clark's intellectual larrikinism and his penchant for preaching on the meaning of life, Bridge argued that this was part of his greatness. Clark revelled in the power of myth.

I believe that the older Manning Clark did possess some awareness of the fact that he was not present on the morning after Kristallnacht. But to claim to know the extent to which he was conscious of it is to claim to know the inner depths of his mind. At times, I can see his memory slipping, shifting and struggling to recall; at others, his recollections are clear. I know I can never recover what he truly remembered, the memory of his inner voice, the voice that only he heard. But it is precisely this tension and uncertainty - fed by the shadowed, fallible nature of memory - which makes the story so fascinating.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Kristallnacht story is that Clark first alluded to it in fiction. In the '60s, Clark began to write short stories "for relaxation", as he told Beatrice Davis, his editor at Angus & Robertson. In 1966, he published ‘Two Visits', a thinly veiled autobiographical story of the exploits of Charles Hogan in Bonn in 1938. The story's tone is oddly aggressive, occasionally misogynist and at times consumed by self-loathing. Like Clark in his twenties, Hogan is "tormented by his own impotence" and frustrated by his time-wasting in Bonn. He seems incapable of producing the great work he believes himself destined to write. Hogan wanders Dostoevsky-like through the streets of Bonn. He is "never quiet": "Some demon inside him drove him on the whole time he was there."

While he does not mention Kristallnacht, Clark drew similar conclusions from Hogan's experience in Germany to those he drew for himself when he first began to tell the Kristallnacht parable in the late '70s. Of Hogan, he writes:

I think it likely that Hogan did discover things about himself in Germany; that first visit did confront him with the question: what is the source of human evil? Is the imagination of man's heart evil from the start, so that questions of social organisation, political systems, moral codes are but the scum on the pond of human life - not the well-spring?

Hogan struggles to come to terms with the brutality of Nazi Germany. He is a man without faith, an "unbeliever" in "Protestant Christianity" deeply sceptical of any utopian vision "for the future of humanity". Clark seemed to know himself better in fiction. He writes of Hogan in Bonn that his "flair for dramatising his life" was really "one sustained effort to draw attention to himself". And then this: "His flair for the dramatic often caused his memory to play him tricks." Indeed. Clark's experience in Germany, recounted first as fiction, is fleshed out and becomes autobiography a decade later. Finally, like much autobiography, it reveals itself as ultimately a strange and unavoidable amalgamation of both fact and fiction. In Clark's case, however, this trajectory seems entirely appropriate. Whatever Clark wrote - fiction, history, autobiography, criticism, newspaper opinion or political oratory - he blended fiction and fact in his attempt to communicate feeling, insight and historical understanding.

Nevertheless, it is significant that Clark's memory of Kristallnacht is told in the context of autobiography, a notoriously imperfect and fraught enterprise at the best of times. Setting out to write her three-volume autobiography, Doris Lessing was decidedly uncomfortable with the genre. Among novelists, she is not alone. JM Coetzee, for example, preferred to fictionalise his autobiographical writings, believing that "fiction has better resources for dealing with unconscious forces than discursive self-analysis." In the process of writing her autobiography, Lessing found that it exposed "the worst deceiver of all - we make up our pasts." Well aware of the black holes and "shifting perspectives" of memory, she remained adamant, like Coetzee, that "fiction makes a better job of the truth." But unlike Coetzee, she persisted with autobiography, largely out of her instinct for "self-defence", given that at least four writers were then working on biographies of her.

The unreliability of memory is the unreliability of autobiography, a necessarily apocryphal genre. Distanced by time, the self who is created by the narrator becomes a character, even a complete stranger to the person who writes. Details, dates and places are lost in the fog; the felt life is often a more abiding memory than the minutiae of the lived life. The American psychologist Jerome Bruner's work on autobiography and the self best expresses the fundamental strangeness of the genre. He writes:

It is an account given by a narrator in the here and now about a protagonist bearing his name who existed in the there and then, the story terminating in the present when the protagonist fuses with the narrator ... The self as narrator not only recounts but justifies. And the self as protagonist is always, as it were, pointing to the future.

As a historian who saw himself more as an artist than a fact-grubber, Clark showed no signs of discomfort with the genre of autobiography. Its potential for truthfulness seemed to him just as great, largely because, unlike Lessing, he rendered his life as narrative not out of necessity but willingly. As he told John Tranter in 1987, "the only gift I had was to tell a story." In the late '80s, with his six-volume history complete, he turned to write autobiography at a time when the genre was experiencing extraordinary popularity. Writers such as Clive James, Barry Humphries, Geoffrey Dutton, Donald Horne, Jill Kerr Conway, and Bernard Smith had all turned their hand to memoir, often, as Bruce Bennett has pointed out, tracing their life "as part of a national allegory". In the lead-up to the bicentenary, Clark became a celebrity and Australia's most public intellectual. Having told the nation's story, the nation now demanded Clark's story, and he relished the opportunity to tell it.

Writing autobiography allowed him to do with his own life what he had already done with his historical actors: create himself as a character, and employ the same literary devices - particularly the epiphany as a moment of "new consciousness" - to reshape his life through literary reminiscence. In the process of recollection, and in the creation of his life as story, he was able to invest new meaning in past events. Many of the events from his past that the septuagenarian Clark saw as significant in the late '80s were not invested with the same significance at the time they occurred. Clark's diary entry after his visit to Cologne Cathedral on 9 December 1938 makes no mention of the painting of the Madonna or of the Heinrich Heine poem that allegedly moved him to tears:

We saw the cathedral, beyond description ... we walked round the town and saw the notices ..."Juden werden nicht bedient" [Jews will not be served] on shop windows. Everything looked very prosperous and very lovely in the soft glow of twilight, with the darkness of the buildings against the blue of the sky and the pink clouds. The dome of the cathedral seemed to cast a spell on the whole town, and the darkness came down quietly, and one felt safe.

This is a far cry from the memory of Cologne Cathedral recited by Manning Clark in 1987. In other diary entries from the late '30s, he is moved by a triptych of Rubens' paintings depicting the Immaculate Conception, the birth of Christ and his crucifixion ("Mary, in horror - that it should [come] to this"), and by Chartres Cathedral, "which inspires that sense of awe and wonder". "I thought of the powers of inspiration of the Catholic Church," wrote Clark, "of the issues between Catholicism and Protestantism - authority & beauty against liberty of thought & dullness." These entries reveal the traces of truth in his later recollections, and perhaps this is the best that the author and reader can hope for in autobiography: traces of truth.

For Clark, and for every writer of autobiography, there are two competing truths: one's past life as it was perceived and lived (mostly lost from view), and one's past life as seen from the time of writing, a truth that leans on the paper-thin house of memory. Despite the fact that Clark had access to his diaries as he composed his autobiography, he was more concerned with the latter truth: making his life behave as literature. The older Clark shifts the time and place of many his early encounters in Europe, then condenses and embellishes his visions into one or two Earth-moving epiphanies as he reinvents his life before a public audience.

On every occasion in the last years of his life that he tells the Kristallnacht story, he tells it together with the Cologne Cathedral epiphany. In 1987, two months before his interview with John Tranter, he appeared on ABC TV, interviewed by the arts presenter Peter Ross. Telling the story of the two epiphanies, Clark wept:

Clark: I went to Germany to see the girl, or the woman, I was going to marry - Dymphna - at the University of Bonn, and I happened to get there on the morning of the ninth or tenth of November ... I got there and came out of the Bonn Railway Station onto the footpath, the road, and it was one of the mornings after Kristallnacht, when the SS in Germany had conducted this savage vendetta against the Jews for the murder, or the attempted murder, of a member of the German Embassy in Paris.

Ross: You saw the broken glass?

Clark: I saw the broken glass and I saw those troops with the their revolvers and their sub-machine guns and so on, on the back of trucks ... I was absolutely overwhelmed by it. I could scarcely speak, and in the long run - it's difficult to work it out, Peter, isn't it, when you're really ... But it was some time then, within the next few days or certainly within the next few weeks, that I realised that all the things I'd been brought up with ... The Book of Common Prayer, Hymns Ancient and Modern, and all the hopes and aspirations of those dry souls of the enlightenment ... all this was just pitiful equipment with which to face up to the phenomenon of human evil.

Ross: So the scales came from your eyes?

Clark: Yes the blinkers, the blinkers of being a member of British civilisation overseas, of being a simple boy from the Australian bush - all this had to go ... A few days after that, I went with Dymphna to Cologne, and remember I was a Church of England clergyman's son and a State school boy and a Melbourne Grammar boy, as it were, I walked up those steps of Cologne Cathedral ... I went into the Cathedral ... and I ... yes ... I was overwhelmed.

Ross: You're overwhelmed now, as you recall it.

Clark: Yes, I am.

Ross: It must have been an extraordinary occurrence.

Clark: Yes, it was. I'd find it difficult to put into words.

[It was at this point that Professor Clark wept ...]

[Clark then tells the story of seeing, behind the high altar in the cathedral, Stefan Lochner's painting of the Madonna and Child (1450), which inspired Heinrich Heine's poem ‘Painted on Golden Leather'. He translates the one line that had always remained with him: "Inside the cathedral there stands a picture painted in golden leather and in the great wildness of my life it's always shone brightly."]

Clark: That episode in the cathedral in Cologne which had moved me so deeply - in fact, so deeply that I have never been able to speak about it since - it, I think, was germinal in writing the History, because then and subsequently I realised that I had to dispense with what had carried me through life so far, what I call my "great expectations", either of Christian belief or the Enlightenment, and that I had to ... find another way. And that, really, in a sense the History became an account of how all we in Australia became citizens of the Kingdom of Nothingness - believing in nothing - but that doesn't mean nothing in one sense ... It's the opposite of nil. It's really giving up the great expectations and asking yourself, what then?

Clark seems to admit at one point that he is uncertain as to exactly when the encounter in Bonn revealed its mysteries to him ("It's difficult to work it out, Peter"). We see him in the act of fashioning memory anew, bringing himself to tears in the telling. He wrote to Kathleen Fitzpatrick shortly after, "I made an attempt to talk about what I had never talked about to anyone before ... [I] am still shaken by what happened during the interview." Clark had never spoken before about the experience in Cologne. To some extent, he was discovering its significance as he told the story to Peter Ross. In 1978, he wrote of his visit to Cologne Cathedral, but made no mention of the mystical experience he described in 1987. He seemed to create the emotionally shattering vision at Cologne in the act of performance.

When Peter Ross questioned him directly, he insisted that he was there in Bonn on the morning of 10 November ("I saw the broken glass"); then, at another point in the interview, he claimed that two days later, he was out cycling with Dymphna. "It was Armistice Day," he told Ross. In freezing cold weather, he and Dymphna came across a memorial to German soldiers. Clark claimed that this introduced him "to the whole idea of mittel-Europa and German civilisation and what it had been like to be a German". But Clark was no more in Germany on Armistice Day than he was in Bonn on the morning after Kristallnacht. Once again, he places himself in a key historical moment in order to dramatise his moment of revelation.

When he tells the story of Cologne Cathedral in Quest for Grace, it also follows closely behind the Bonn epiphany. ("From the day I saw evil in Bonn am Rhein there would be no putting back to harbour: I launched further into the deep when I stood in front of the painting of the Madonna and Child behind the high altar in Cologne Cathedral.") Dymphna, aware of the "tempests" raging within her lover, retires to the back of the building, apparently unable to partake in such a shattering moment: "inside the cathedral I was strangely moved. Dymphna, noticing what was going on inside me, left me alone to feast on it all in my heart." This epiphany in Cologne is, in fact, almost a reincarnation of Dostoevsky's experience in Basel in the late 1860s, a fact of which Clark must have been aware.

In 1867, while travelling from Baden-Baden to Geneva, Dostoevsky visited Basel and there saw Hans Holbein's The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, painted in the early 1520s. The painting depicted Christ's emaciated body in the tomb, the holes still visible on his blackened hands and feet, his gaunt and bearded face looking upwards in doubtful hope. Dostoevsky remained haunted by the image for the rest of his life, just as he was by his memory of Raphael's Madonna in Dresden, a painting which he described in Crime and Punishment as bearing a kind of "mournful religious ecstasy". Dostoevsky was moved and overwhelmed, unable to articulate the mystery he sensed within Holbein's work. Yet he is also plagued by the doubt that arises within him: What if Christ did not rise from the dead? Then man is truly alone.

In the back pages of his copies of Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and The Possessed (still on the shelves of his study in Canberra), Manning Clark noted the page numbers of Dostoevsky's writings about Holbein's and Raphael's paintings. Clark is drawn to Dostoevsky's mysticism and to his doubt; like him, he is eternally divided over the question of faith and belief. But even more importantly, he emulates his search for truth, cultivating (sometimes consciously) an artistic sensibility in which art, literature and metaphorical language are the one true source of spiritual revelation. Like Dostoevsky, Clark is moved but does not fully understand the experience: it is mystical, forever hinting at profound truths destined never to be resolved.

Manning Clark visited Basel in 1956 and viewed the Holbein. In 1961, during a lecture on Dostoevsky, he told ANU students how Dostoevsky's wife, Anna, had been present with the writer in Basel on the day he first encountered Holbein's work. As Clark told the story, Anna "withdrew" from Dostoevsky: "she knew who he was, what came up from inside the man." Thirty years later, when Clark told the story of his own epiphany before the painting of the Madonna in Cologne, he has Dymphna withdraw in the same manner as Anna, creating the memory of his own life in the image of Dostoevsky's.

The two epiphanies, Kristallnacht and Cologne Cathedral, are spliced by Clark into an almost filmic scene of self-discovery, one representing the inadequacy of Protestant teachings and the Enlightenment to solve the problem of human evil, the other holding out the potential spiritual solace and compassion of the Catholic faith, a faith Clark would continue to dance with (but never embrace) for the remainder of his life. Like the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, with his notion of duende - which Lorca described in 1930 as "a momentary burst of inspiration, the blush of all that is truly alive ... what Goethe called the ‘demoniacal' [the ‘dark force' that rises from within the poet] ... needing the trembling of the moment and then a long silence" - Clark is rendered speechless by the visions and inspirations that rise before his eyes. "I could not speak of the experience then to anyone," he writes of the epiphany in Cologne Cathedral. "Was there anyone who could understand? Many years later when I risked talking about the experience my whole body shook."

Clark sought and depended on duende, flashes of inspiration that brought the pain and suffering of a deeper awareness of the human situation but at the same time served as his intellectual and spiritual guiding lights. Writing and the act of creation was not only intellectual but emotional and physical, a whole-body experience. He had no alternative but to write from the gut, to feel the physical sensation of trembling and shaking, because his was a poetic imagination. The historian's inspiration is the artist's sensibility, made real and truthful through the repetition necessary in public performance. The details of Clark's life, like Australia's past, are adapted to suit his dreams and mystical visions. Manning Clark, Australia's greatest self-mythologiser, was a daddy-long-legs spinning his thread.

Far from being out of place or shocking, Clark's misrepresentation of his presence in Bonn on 10 November 1938 is entirely in keeping with the spirit and intent of his life and work. Rather than diminishing Clark, it reveals him.  He fictionalised his life, just as he played with primary sources in writing his histories. He lived out the life of his greatest character, himself, the historian whose potential greatness was constantly undermined by his fatal flaws. Both his History of Australia and his autobiographical writings are unreliable as historical sources. But this should come as no surprise: where Manning Clark's life is concerned, the last person we should trust is Clark himself. He created himself as myth, cultivating a theatrical persona of the people's priest and sage, telling history as parable. And as the Kristallnacht epiphany reveals, the moral of the parable always mattered more than the facts.

The true story of Kristallnacht reveals the true nature of Manning Clark's voice: the voice of the heart and mind, the inner man seeking "higher truths". Voices spoke to Clark - from within him, from the past, from the present - and he struggled to play them back to us, mediated through his unique emotional intelligence and sensibility, so that we might hear them, too, as if for the first time. Clark's History of Australia is a flawed attempt to write history as a revelation of the human condition. It is a search for the time when the veil, for a brief moment, is pulled back, and life is seen for what it is. This is the translucent quality of Manning Clark's work.

Mark McKenna

Mark McKenna is an award-winning writer and historian. His most recent book is Return to Uluru.

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