HISTORIANS - MANNING CLARK: A LIFE
By Brian Matthews. Allen & Unwin, 535 pp.,
“In Paul Auster’s
wonderful screenplay …” so begins the “Prologue” of what
purports to be A Life of
Manning Clark but concentrates on his pen and penis. This cinematic
reference introduces Clark’s pilgrimages to St Christopher’s
Cathedral near his home in Forrest to seek the intercession of the
Blessed Virgin to give up boozing.
The pace soon slackens
because, instead of drawing on a depth and breadth of research, Brian
Matthews pads. Yes, cricket was important to Clark’s self-esteem at
Oxford, but not stroke by stroke over five pages. How many letters about
the application for a Melbourne Chair, from which he withdrew, do we
need to reveal a temperament laboured throughout A
Four pages paraphrase
the reviews of Clark’s 1969 Disquiet
and other stories, few
of which were worth reading at the time. The exception came from Judith
Wright: “The book as a whole tastes rather like the bicarbonate of
soda self-administered after a too optimistic spree,” a line so
appealing that Matthews repeats it over the page. On the expanded
edition in 1986, Matthews fills two more pages with summarised reviews,
with no Wright to stir the possum. Later, the reviews of Clark’s In Search of Henry Lawson (1978) are boiled down but minus the
finest of them, Dorothy Green’s, the one from which Clark suffered the
most because she shared a concern for the transcendental.
Although Lawson is
what Manning Clark would have called Matthews’s “great subject”,
he refers to Lawson’s discontinuous narratives as “pre-modernist”
rather than “proto-modernist”. Careless with language, Matthews
praises an obituary of Clark for its “prescience”. Despite
Matthews’s reputation for comic fictions, none of the laughs in A Life is intended.
Lapses in chronology
within and between chapters leads to confusion about what Clark is
doing, and why. Nonetheless, Matthews knows what was possible for Clark
to know or to feel, for example, setting him straight on how to
appreciate Tannhauser. Matthews reports Clark’s emotional distress in the
manner of a military doctor sending the shell-shocked back to the front.
After a diary extract on how Clark senses that his wife, Dymphna, is
softening him, Matthews concludes: “This is, no doubt, as self-dramatising
… and as self-referential as many of his other reflections.” Clark
is keeping a diary, not drafting the marriage-guidance manual that
Matthews sets himself up to supply: “This is one of those amor
vincit omnia epiphanies joyfully characteristic of the early, palmy
days of marriage.”
When Matthews brings
the diaries, correspondence and publications into focus, the letters
convey less pessimism. Yet, Matthews takes the diary as the real Clark
rather than one more mask. Clark writes that “if my life was not based
on a lie, my wife and children would respect me.” If the diaries are
part of the lie, then reliance on them compounds that deceit.
Matthews avoids such
difficulties by locating his account within literary constructions,
marginalising the lived experience. The death of Clark’s mother is
pitched against the death of the mother in Camus’ The
stranger. Linking the adultery of Clark’s father to the sermon
that he based on Hawthorne’s Scarlet
Letter is a case where the frame is part of the experience.
circumstances, such as the housing shortage when the Clarks arrived in
Canberra, do not sully A Life.
Despite the arc of Matthews’s concerns, we get little sense of how
Clark researched the Documents
and the six volumes, with nothing on the Mitchell Library. Not all the
research assistants are named, and none is considered for her particular
contribution to the volume on which she worked. Nothing appears about
Clark as head of department for twenty-two years, about his office
staff, and almost nothing on the academics he took in.
Despite the fictive
allusions, Matthews provides little sense of the embodied person beyond
claiming that Clark was lean at a time when he was running to plump. No
mention is made of his skin problems or the bald pate which the hat
protected from the sun. We read of an unsmiling visage on television but
not of the twinkling blue eyes that greeted those who met him.
Clark’s affair with
Pat Gray is an out-of-body experience. Had they been intimate in 1948?
In 1955, the diary reads “I fell in love with her again.” Was it amour fou? The diary continues: “went to the Curtin Hotel and then
to the Melbourne cemetery”; Matthews finds nothing to remark on in the
latter stopover. Nor are we allowed to glimpse Gray’s attractiveness:
intellectual, physical, emotional? Matthews
recounts this episode straight, so that, this once, actuality is not the
shadow of some novel.
Meeting Soviet Man
(1960) does not escape that mediation when Matthews sets off on a frolic
with Bruce Chatwin in Patagonia and Geroge Orwell in Paris, London and
Catalonia to place Meeting Soviet
Man in a genre of “narrative modes” . This approach would be
valuable had Matthews pinned down the particulars of Clark and his
context, twin wants not remedied by throwing in a mention of Sokurov’s
film of the Hermitage, Russian Ark.
A link between Meeting Soviet Man and the vatic impulse throughout the history
volume occurs in a letter of Clark’s comparing settler Australia with
the USSR as places where a society might improve while the individual is
crushed by that advance.
In discussing the Bulletin’s review by M. H. Ellis of Volume One as “History
without facts”, Matthews misses the chance to turn his critical
apparatus onto Ellis’s prose style as one more reason for his distaste
for Clark. In a group of essays, Andrew Moore has etched the portrait of
Ellis that Matthews needed.
Since Ellis’s blast,
conventional wisdom has spread that Clark is sloppy and biased. A
scholar should test those allegations. Matthews throws in some of his
own, for instance, misrepresenting the initial paragraph to chapter 11
in volume III:
It is Matthews who has
bloated one paragraph into “the whole story”. He needed to look no
further than the title of the chapter, “Colonial Gentlemen and Bush
Barbarians” to see that, for Clark, the whole story is conflicted. His
second paragraph begins: “The aspirations of the agents of
civilization had been both noble and high-minded.” The chapter ends
with a paean to mateship.
By adding showing-off
to indolence and inattention, Matthews blights his attempts at character
analysis as shown in the
following tangle of parentheticals, which cannot be dignified as a
The sense of
‘Allgemeine’ is surely “my all, my world”, at most, with
overtones of common good and general knowledge.
Clark falls victim to Matthews’s dependence on the diaries. Although
she twice walked out, she did not break up the family. A mother lioness
who cuffed her own, she stood between them and outsiders. She had reason
enough to be unyielding but, in presenting the marriage through
Manning’s diary, Matthews makes her refusal to forgive appear cruel.
When Matthews allows her voice break through, late in 1974, we are
jolted: “About acceptance. I think we ought to accept a future in
which you live according to your instinctive set of priorities and I
react according to mine. Assurances, written or oral, are to be avoided
– the ensuing disappointments are unhelpful.”
Their last child was
conceived in January 1955, the month before the affair with Pat Gray.
Did Dymphna deny Manning her bed? And if so, what did this withdrawal
mean for her sex life and, hence, her temper? None of these tempests was
apparent to those who knew her as hostess or language tutor. Matthews
gives us none of her gardening, her soups and meringues, her
self-description as “just a Belgian peasant” who reworked a jumper
she had knitted into a tea-cosy. We see nothing on her scholarship from
the 1960s on, her efforts for a Treaty with indigenous Australians, her
Green politics, and her circle of women friends. Matthews calls her
“splendid” but provides none of the texture to make that praise