May 2011

Arts & Letters

A grand history

By John Hirst
Manning Clark with his image, as sculpted by Ninon Geier, c. 1985. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
Mark McKenna’s ‘An Eye for Eternity’

Mark McKenna’s An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark (Miegunyah Press, 816pp; $54.99) is a challenging biography because it will not allow us to think that there is an easy way into the life of another person. In the second chapter, which by normal standards would deal with ‘Boyhood and Youth’ or ‘Finding his Feet’, McKenna discusses the source materials that exist for the life of the historian Manning Clark, author of the highly idiosyncratic History of Australia in six volumes (1962–87). There are abundant private sources, diaries and letters, which would seem to make the biographer’s task easy, but McKenna asks why we think private writings reveal the ‘real person’ in ways that other evidence does not.

Clark’s wife, Dymphna, was the first to doubt this in her husband’s case. When he was travelling he would send her his usual maudlin letters; meanwhile, his companions would write to Dymphna, reporting that Clark was in excellent spirits. As to the diary, McKenna suggests Clark first used it to cast his life in the literary forms he aspired to use in his public writings, with Dostoevsky as the chief model; the literature then became the guide for the life he lived. Work out the ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ in that!

There is a particular problem in interpreting the Clark archive. Clark kept everything, expecting a biography would be written after his death and, in his sixties, he began to annotate the collection to assist and direct the biographer. As he read the archive, McKenna felt himself being manipulated by Clark’s “wit, pathos and charm” but in truth he shows that on every page he has Clark’s measure. The complex man has found a deft biographer.

How to read the sources – documents and memory – is McKenna’s constant theme but he displays none of the smart-alec trickery of the crude postmodernist; he makes the going hard – but never hard to read – because he is a genuine enquirer who wants to guide us rather than aggrandise himself.

Some readers may not want to be taken down these paths (I was constantly enchanted), but in the first chapter they get closer to a live person than in most biographies. McKenna begins with Clark’s voice: “soft, gravelly, vulnerable, a voice that seems always to be about to whisper the most intimate details in your ear, a voice that you must strain to hear yet cannot turn away from.” McKenna never met Clark; this is the impression he derives from sound recordings. This account is followed by reports of Clark’s voice from those who knew him and, being a more scrupulous historian than his subject, McKenna carefully identifies all these witnesses. In similar vein we get the face, the clothes, the walk and the crowning symbol of the hat.

It is only in the third chapter that we meet the ancestors. How often are we asked in the first chapter of a biography to wade through bare details of names going back generations, for no better reason than that the information has been collected, with the reader being left to draw some inferences that the biographer has signally failed to do. Better to be told when the subject learnt of their ancestry and what they made of it. This is the approach McKenna takes and if we did not have Clark’s autobiographical writings to inform us about how crucial his relations to his parents were, McKenna tells us of Clark taping letters to them on their gravestone.

Thereafter the book follows a broadly chronological path, written in mostly short chapters, where McKenna deals with one theme at a time. It is throughout a highly focused study. The acute observations on the uses Clark made of Kristallnacht – Clark placed himself in Bonn the day after the event, when he actually arrived two weeks later – come at the end of the biography.

To offset the uncertainties about Clark’s life, there are regular moorings for it in the descriptions of where it was lived. We see Clark at home, in his study, around the dining room table, in his university office, in the lecture theatre (in the University of Melbourne’s steeply raked theatre, he was not a lecturer at a podium but an actor on a stage) and at his beach house. McKenna’s words are accompanied by abundant photographs, which also feature the relevant archival records.

The book is by no means a defence of Clark, either of the man or his work. Dymphna welcomed McKenna’s visits to the family home after Clark died because he had not come “to worship at the feet of Saint Manning”. McKenna makes it easy (if you are so inclined) to dislike Clark – as a self-pitying, highly manipulative poseur – and equally to understand why so many who knew him admired, loved, and drew strength and inspiration from him.

On one matter only does McKenna not step back very far from his subject: in his treatment of communism. He is rightly scathing about Clark’s gullibility over the Soviet Union, at a time when Stalin’s horrific slaughters were well known, and yet he grants no legitimacy to the movement to counter communism in Australia: “To be a communist,” in their eyes, “was akin to supping with the devil.” But wasn’t it just that?

McKenna admires Dymphna much more than Manning, and his biography of Clark is genuinely a biography of her, too, and an account of their tempestuous marriage (she left him on three occasions). The most poignant scene in this saga is when Dymphna reads Manning’s diaries after his death in 1991, discovering the bile he poured out on her for not properly forgiving him for his various affairs. Meanwhile Dymphna was defending Clark’s reputation after his publisher, Peter Ryan, unexpectedly attacked him and his work in an article for Quadrant in 1993.

McKenna dared to confess to Dymphna that “sometimes” he had difficulty reading Clark’s works, which would have been no surprise to her since she had tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to improve them. McKenna catches the nature of the work well: “A flawed attempt to write history as a revelation of the human condition … His fidelity was not to the past – quite the opposite. His intention was actually to make the past obey the dictates of his tragic vision.” And, for all its flaws: “Clark’s work somehow rose above the melange of banality and hyperbole.”

There is more detailed treatment of how History of Australia works as text in Brian Matthews’ Manning Clark: A Life (2008), which McKenna generously urges us to read. For all its insights, that book was properly criticised as less than a full biography. McKenna’s book is unquestionably that, drawing as it does on a much wider range of sources and placing Clark in his various locales and in his times. McKenna is much less puzzled than Matthews by the attacks on Clark and his History in his later years. Since Clark had concluded that the resolution of the dilemma of a European civilisation being planted in an alien environment was to vote the Labor ticket, it was natural that non-Labor figures would attack him – which became easier to do as the quality of the History declined. As McKenna writes, the later volumes were being shaped by the preoccupations of Clark as the nation’s prophet who had taken up every progressive cause.

The attacks on Clark’s work were certainly crude, in part, suggests McKenna, because the historians who might have been more measured had refused to take Clark on for a variety of reasons. They thought that Clark’s history was not history as they knew it and unworthy of their attention; they did not want to criticise the author who had raised the profile of their profession; or they were deterred because Clark was so vindictive against his critics, even the most mild.

Though the history profession had severe doubts about Clark, his work enjoyed great popular success. Clark made Australian history more interesting and dramatic – but only by breaking the rules of the historical discipline: getting his facts wrong, projecting himself into his characters, making things up. McKenna places him as a creative artist along with his contemporaries Sidney Nolan and Patrick White. McKenna is good at explaining Clark’s popular success, but leaves open the question of whether his work will endure. However that may be, Clark has become a more interesting figure as the subject of this distinctive and distinguished biography.

John Hirst

John Hirst is a historian, social commentator and emiritus scholar in the history program at La Trobe University. His books include The Australians: Insiders and outsiders on the national character since 1770, Freedom on the Fatal Shore: Australia’s first colony and The Shortest History of Europe.

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