Matthews, Brian: Manning Clark: A Life. Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2008. ISBN 9781741143782, $59.95
Brian Matthews' book on Manning Clark is modestly subtitled A Life. It is one of many possible lives. It could also have been titled 'The inner life of a writer'. The notable events and circumstances of Clark's life are well described. But the focus is on the relationship between his writing and his dramatic inner world.
The key which Matthews uses to unlock Clark's inner life is the diary that he kept intermittently in his earlier years and faithfully in his maturity.
In it he records his anguish, struggles with faith, guilt at drinking and infidelity, sense of rejection and self-laceration, particularly in the years that he prepared for and carried out his major writing: the six-volume history of Australia. These dramatic preoccupations often colour his historical and autobiographical writing.
The great virtue of Matthews' work is his attentiveness to the text of Clark's private and public writing. He weighs the text for meaning and for rhetorical colour. He does not simply claim connections between the diary and the history, but demonstrates them.
He also illuminates Clark's writing by comparing it with similar passages from other writers, like Lawson and Orwell, with whom Clark identified himself. He explores the way in which Clark's imagination worked, putting his own gifts of style totally at the service of exposition.
To carry out this delicate task, Matthews needs, and deploys, the skills of a trained reader. But he goes beyond literary criticism in his work. He inevitably invites the reader to pass judgement on Manning Clark as a human being.
Matthews is anything but judgemental, and his work finally evokes admiration of Clark and sympathy for him. The life of one who could be drawn to such a huge enterprise as the history of Australia, and who over two decades could carry it through in the face of such constant and terrible self-doubt, sensitivity to criticism, and self-laceration, is a life to be celebrated.
If Clark was oversensitive to criticism, he was also strongly, sometimes brutally, criticised by his peers and by journalists. He was an early target in what have come to be called the history wars. Matthews quotes Clark's critics, and for the most part allows their comments to judge themselves.
But the quality of his biography suggests how destructive it is to describe arguments about history or culture as warfare. The noisy and aggressive have appropriated the term to justify their using words as clubs on more reflective scholars.
Matthews' own work sets the proper standards for those who read and pass judgement on a writer's work. His example suggests that it is a prerequisite to read arguments from within the author's own perspective before criticising their work.
Many of Clark's critics did this. Their punctiliousness did not prevent him from being hurt. But other critics would have later been ashamed, one hopes, to read again what they had written.
This kind of bullying is never excusable. But when we read some of the responses to Manning Clark's work, we might be tempted to ask, as school teachers often do, whether something in the way some people present themselves attracts bullies. Was there something in the way in which Manning Clark presented himself personally and in his writing that brought the inexcusable worst out in many of those who wrote about him?
Matthews rightly makes much of Clark's enduring preoccupation with Christ. Christ was for him variously a symbol of religious faith, of any standing point that might give confidence in living, of grounds for hope in the face of all the things that kill it, of the possibility of self-acceptance and forgiveness, of an integrated life. This was a symbol that fascinated Clark, but one to which he always felt an outsider.
That is understandable. His use of the symbol evokes the different cultural worlds of Luther, Matthew Arnold, Cardinal Newman, Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard. To have appropriated and integrated the symbol as his own would have meant reconciling great tensions. His energy went into reconciling them in his history, not in his life or his religious belief.
Matthews' life of Manning Clark, as a good biography should, leads its readers to realise that they have only begun to know its subject and to want more.
At Clark's funeral, a colleague praised his gift for friendship and as a teacher. I found this surprising. From Clark's repeated lament in his diaries that he was a failure, misunderstood and unsupported by his friends, we might have been led to believe his gift was for losing, not wining or retaining friends.
It would be good then to have another life that will describe Clark as friend and as teacher with the same attentiveness as Matthews gives to his inner life and to the wellsprings of his writing.
At the centre of the book, too, is a shadowed figure who begs for illumination. This is Manning Clark's wife, Dymphna Lodewyckx, who is constantly mentioned and called upon in the diary but who is herself reticent. She comes to fascinate the reader, and I suspect Matthews himself, even more than her husband.
Andrew Hamilton SJ is Eureka Street's consulting editor. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.