A fastidious and darkly satirical novel, with moments of warm humor, Three Cheers for the Paraclete won Thomas Keneally his second Miles Franklin Award.
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About the Author
Thomas Keneally (b. 1935) is an Australian author of fiction, nonfiction, and plays, best known for his novel Schindler’s List. Inspired by the true story of Oskar Schindler’s courageous rescue of more than one thousand Jews during the Holocaust, the book was adapted into a film directed by Steven Spielberg, which won the 1993 Academy Award for Best Picture. Keneally was included on the Man Booker Prize shortlist three times—for his novels The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Gossip from the Forest, and Confederates—before winning the award for Schindler’s List in 1982. Keneally is active in Australian politics and is a founding member of the Australian Republican Movement, a group advocating for the nation to change its governance from a constitutional monarchy to a republic. In 1983 he was named an Officer of the Order of Australia for his achievements.
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One Saturday evening, Maitland had to say Mass on a headland for a guild of graduates. The occasion had been arranged in the heat of early March, but on the afternoon itself dusk was all cold light and fierce winds. The altar cloths had to be tacked down, a truck to be driven to the weather side of the altar lest the chalice and chalice veils blow away. The Mass proceeded under a sky dark as plums. The sea raced in obliquely, breaking on his left, and wraiths of spray infested the hill. He enjoyed the occasion and was happy when turning to speak to these people who half-lay to hear him. They reclined on rugs and ground-sheets as if they might well be preparing to drink coffee from a thermos or make love. This somehow gave him the sense that what he performed had an affinity to the earth and the elements and the blood. So that, for the first time since coming home at Christmas, he did not feel an alien.
In view of the elemental air of the place, he changed his mind on what to say to them. He began by telling them that he had been prepared for a picnic ground with silver garbage tins. He said that what he had expected were those pixie-hatted picnic huts which record that Bill loved Olive at some stage and that Olive's small brother had learnt there his first four-letter word.
Laughter moved among the young men and women, reclining hip and shoulder on the earth among grazing Lambrettas and cars nicely blurred to soft animal shapes by twilight.
He began again.
"Christianity gave Eros poison to drink, says some German or other. Eros is the name of love between the sexes. Is the German right? Yes, he is."
The trouble was that he sounded like a fashionable priest, the glib kind. Perhaps his hearers had never felt, as he did, that they and he had been separated from their origins in the earth, and that the hill, the sea, the dark and the wind encouraged a tracing of the tragedy. He traced it badly, with a hateful facility.
"There are historical causes why European Christianity gave Eros poison to drink, took a confused view of him, placed him under a subtle ban."
He said what the causes were, he touched lightly on centuries and found them pliant to his touch. It was a false pliancy.
"Of course," he said urgently, "anything I say does no more than give hints of the way the truth was lost. We know only that the truth was lost, that Eros was poisoned."
It was warm in chasuble and alb and the rest, but he was cold to the calves in his thin, wet shoes.
"What have you been told from childhood, again and again? You've been told that Eros is a source of danger. So he is. Yet it must have seemed that if he did not have a hand in the propagation of little Catholics, he wouldn't be given standing room. For Eros is a filthy little pagan with dirty habits. One comes to see that he has been maligned. His presence generates in a person those decent human enthusiasms without which life and even religion are lost. You complain of the pallid cast of soul of this or that priest? But he lacks the self-surrender imposed by Eros to help men to enthusiasm. The priest's way is harder because he does not have this ready means of keeping his personality malleable. As you pity all sapless humans, you must pity and have understanding for the sapless priest. For some of us have been betrayed into a frame of mind that is justly expressed in the saying: 'Because they love no one, they imagine that they love God.'"
After the Mass, a fire was built in one of the groins of the hill. It was made of a dead acacia-tree pulled whole out of the ground by men and priest. A fireplace was built of rocks, a wide, crafty oven worthy of the context, of men sacrificing, foraging, feasting in a gale. A first waft of wood-smoke stung the young women waiting with plates of meat in their hands. They began to talk together as if some doubt had been soothed. Flame rose and made the last light irrelevant. Finding another dead tree, men were content only with uprooting it. Meat fried on a griddle, blood fell into the fire, flame entered the eyes of the women, the slim and inviolate ones, the ones taut with child beneath their plaid coats.
It was like a rite.
The priest heard a voice at his elbow say, "Dr Maitland? Dr James Maitland?" He turned to the voice with a wad of red meat in his hand. There was a young man with a piqued, satiric nose and a forty-inch waist. Beside him stood a soft, shy girl whose scarfed head looked Slavic in the firelight. She seemed irradicably old-world and knew her place before a priest. As well, she was appallingly lovely.
"Dr Maitland," the young man said, "I'm your cousin Brendan. This is my wife Grete."
"Brendan. Brendan Carroll?"
They both laughed at once and shook hands emphatically. The girl waited without reproach for them to cease exulting as kinsmen-strangers always, on meeting, insist on exulting.
"This is a pleasure," said Maitland. He had heard of these two. Aunts and uncles who had known depression and wars, yet had won through to an Axminstered haven close to shops and bus, found lovely Grete and flabby Brendan a scandal.
"You know," aunts told Maitland, who had been in Belgium for three years and needed to be freshly enlightened on The Family — Its Heroes and Apostates, "they both got honours at the university. He was offered a job with the State Planning Commission. She could have got a job on the university staff. But do you know what they said? They said they needed time to digest whatever it was they'd learnt. Whatever it was! After four years' study and all those sacrifices by Madge and Charlie, he still didn't know whether he'd learnt anything. Anyhow, they went off travelling like the people in the Depression. They worked as housekeeper and handyman in country pubs. Once they worked in a cannery and a bauxite mine. As far as I'm concerned, they deserve a taste of the Depression."
"Perhaps they're just rounding out their education," Maitland vainly suggested; and angry avuncular feet shifted on the hard-won carpet.
"For what it's worth. You know he's supposed to have published a book of poetry. I mean, you'd think if he had it would sell, wouldn't it? There hasn't been any poetry since Lawson and Wordsworth and all those. Poetry's a novelty these days. So I keep on asking for it down at the newsagent's. But they've never heard of it."
Someone else said, "Charlie told me it sold five hundred copies. They live like tramps and all that comes out of it is a little book of poetry. And bad teeth."
Someone else again: "What would have happened if she'd fallen pregnant is what I always wondered."
Here were the two ramblers now, in the firelight. Their teeth were perfect and they showed no sign of parenthood.
"I've been told so much. ..." Maitland said. "The family is particularly proud of your book of verse, Brendan."
The large young man closed his eyes and savoured honestly his literary kudos.
"It sold five hundred copies," he explained. "That makes it a verse best-seller for this country."
The girl said, "Anyhow, fodder, most pipple read verse by borrowing from libraries. All dose who should know say he's der major poet of anodder tventy years."
"I thought you were both on the road," Maitland told them.
"We've settled down," Brendan announced. Both he and Grete found the idea funny. "We settled down when the Northwest mail brought us in this morning. We've been respectable for the last thirteen hours." The two of them laughed. "I'll get a job with superannuation and Grete is starting Monday week in the German department of our old degree-shop. Grete's really first-class on German literature. She ought to be. She's a bloddy reffo." He glared at Grete. "Bloddy reffo!" he snarled, and she giggled. "I wish I could bear the children. I've got the right hips. And you can write verse in a labour ward if put to it. But you can't teach German."
Grete and Brendan had been brought to the Mass by a friend who had done his duty by his degree and had a sedan as evidence of it. When tea had been drunk and the fire winked out, the same man packed the priest and Grete and Brendan into the back seat of the car and carried them back to the city in the sweet reek of new upholstery. Grete slept. Though they were wanderers, her soft dozing body seemed to suggest that all their arrivals were homecomings.
"Where are you staying tonight?" Maitland asked.
"We know a fellow who owns a flat."
Brendan's friend looked sideways at his own wife in the front seat and said, "If it wasn't that Helen's parents were staying with us...."
In the city, when the poet sat forward, Grete's head fell against the seat, the chin lepered by the blue light of car showrooms. Still she slept. It was this docile exhaustion and her refugee air that helped bring Maitland to a decision later in the evening.
Under Brendan's sporadic directions, the car left the lolly-water ambiance of the big streets and found its way among terraces. They saw little corner pubs, strewing light at intersections, reach closing time and spill their fixed clientele out of doors. Brendan stared. Perhaps the aunts were right about him, since he obviously had that poet's derangement that kindles to the grotesque and lets the familiar — Grete — go hang.
"That's the place," he called. At that, his wife roused herself and swallowed and looked instantly capable of greeting a new host, making a new home.
The place was a terrace with all its lights on. Three men were lowering a made-up bed by ropes from the top balcony to three others on the pavement. Two girls with that streaky hair and those narrow cheeks derived from too much claret-bibbing and Camus, watched from the rim of the pavement. It occurred to everyone in the car that the bed was being moved as some ultimate domestic expedient, that the house must already be full.
"Grahame!" Brendan hooted at one of the downstairs men.
Grahame came, yelling "Whoa!" to those upstairs. The sight of what he called Brendan's poxy old face caused him terrible joy and terrible contrition. "Christ," said Grahame, "any other night, old son, I really mean that. But it's this party. I've got dozens of people staying, even married ones. Respectable as all get-out...."
Grahame stood back laden with the functional dolour of a hotel receptionist. Behind him the bed nosed the stonework like a small craft washed high by flood.
The car went forward then in a dubious gear to an area of bond stores. There was another place, Brendan said, but it would probably be better if he and Grete were let out at a corner. People didn't have as much pity for you if you arrived in a car.
Grete sat still and blinked with an awesome placidity at everything he said.
"Here," Brendan commanded sweetly after a time. "This is the corner."
They got out. There was no sign of disquiet about them as they made their very pleasant good-byes.
"Are you sure you're going to get in?" Maitland asked them.
Brendan said they were. Even if the tenant was out, he knew where the key was kept. He began to wave them on their way. It was clear that if the car stayed to see them safely off the street he would take it as an intrusion.
What happened was that they spent the night in Maitland's room at the House of Studies where he taught, while Maitland spent it in a bed in the infirmary, thirty yards down the same corridor.
Maitland had left the car after a short way, and found them chatting equably in the doorway of a warehouse. Here they might have meant to wait out that passing phenomenon called night, an arm around each other. When Maitland arrived, Brendan was actually shaking open an anthology held in his left hand. He could not have read it in that dark; perhaps the grain of the pages brought back whole cantos to him; perhaps he was searching for an address.
He was angry at being caught underneath the arches on a night in an age of plenty. But his cousin was a priest, and anger against a priest had shades of sacrilege. The facts were that they had a dollar between them, he and Grete, their luggage was at the railway, their money in a country bank, their parents in another city. Since Dr Maitland had taken the trouble to come hunting for them, he might as well know these things.
"Come on," said Maitland. "My room's just slightly more comfortable than a warehouse door."
While in Belgium he had lived haphazardly in a two-room flat in Louvain, had been free to entertain vagrants if he wished. Now, as they walked a mile hunting a taxi, he had leisure to remember that he was not in fact giving Brendan and Grete the hospitality of a two-room flat but of a house for the training of priests where his own writ did not necessarily run. He had leisure, too, to feel a meddler, to assure and reassure Grete that she would not be driven out with incense and aspergillum, and to telephone the president of the house without having his call answered.
Close to midnight, a taxi took them to the side door of a grotesque stone bulk growing from the earth as emphatically as a cathedral. Maitland had a key and let his cousins into this cavernous symbol of his unhappiness. It went by the name of St Peter's House of Studies. Here Maitland had studied years before, and now that he had returned to teach, he caught constant echoes of the years of his first immurement. These gave new proportions to the fatuous, funeral-hall look of the corridors by night. Brendan and Grete, failing to see through the fatuity, were impressed. They would have laughed to see the staircase, its one bulb throwing a fuzz of luminosity down the wall, in a Boris Karloff film. But this was a priestly, solemn, celibate place; so they did not laugh now. Maitland led them upstairs, turning to see Brendan unwontedly timid for a best-selling poet and Grete, still in her scarf, as terrified as any pneumatic refugee in a Hollywood blood-and-luster. Upstairs another dim light, in a swan's-neck fitting from the days of gas, hinted the way down two corridors.
Maitland led them to his room and pushed open the cedar door barbarized with bulk varnish. "Welcome to Mon Repos," he said. "Here is my ante-room and through here is my — rather, your bedroom."
The room was untidy and furnished with historical biography and memoirs. In the corner stood a three-quarter bed embattled among the gossip of the dead.
"Beyond that door is the balcony and over here is the washbasin." He found them a clean towel. "Please don't be overawed by the house. It's just flatly horrible by daylight. You'll be quite safe."
Brendan followed him to the door, out of Grete's hearing. "We're more grateful than we can hope to tell you."
"It's not the Ritz," said Maitland. "If you can be comfortable on that sofa of mine that's redolent of old prelates, you're welcome. Good night."
Outside, the light was out, meaning that the president was in and would have to be approached. Maitland first carried what he had in his hands, his breviary and the old shorts and beach shirt which did him for pyjamas, to the infirmary. Here Hurst, a nervous student perpetually brought down with boils, viruses and impetigo, wrestled angels in his sleep and snuffled at the job. Maitland dropped his goods on a bed and found blankets among old books in a cupboard. They smelt of mould, but Maitland cared too little about that sort of thing. Besides, he felt nervous of waking Hurst.
After a little time, he went to Dr Nolan's office at the bottom of a windowless anabranch to the main corridor. The president could be seen through the partly open door, extending one foot at a time towards his radiator and listening to his expansive deputy, Dr Costello. Maitland knocked. As he went in he was watched by Costello with an irony that seemed mainly to emit from the rimless crystals the man wore on his nose, and to be therefore mainly the fault of an optometrist.
"Like your blonde," Costello said. He was a princely man, even when in cardigan, black trousers and slippers (which shone like dancing pumps), even when holding a towel and a little bag of toiletries.
Maitland sighed and hit his forehead. "You haven't found them?"
"Sit down, James," Monsignor Nolan said. The president himself was seated, still in a long overcoat. In so many ways, he and his house were kindred. His conversation had a dated air that proved contagious, Nolan reducing both parties in any interview to a heavy idiom which Maitland thought of as Edwardian. In his overcoat, which was also on Edwardian lines, he looked very like a parson in a Punch cartoon. Across the saddle of his half-bald head he had six long hairs combed straight, and parallel from temple to temple, in what had once been, perhaps, the priestly equivalent of waxed moustaches. "Sit down," he repeated, a little too much like one of Lord Lundy's uncles.
Excerpted from "Three Cheers for the Paraclete"
Copyright © 1968 Thomas Keneally.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Some of the brilliant descriptions of Ecclesiatical institutional interiors --especially the quality of the light-- perfectly signify the mood and tone. Some of the 'set pieces' which James Maitland, in turn, confronts seem rather staged, and, at first sight, somewhat dated 40 yrs later. But some do not, and the general tension between eternal verities and a drift to modernism still persist, as any modern Roman Catholic journal testifies. It is hard to imagine any Catholic Bishop these days acting like like 'His Grace', but not impossible. I began to read this in the 70s when I first bought it, and never got anywhere. Perhaps I wasn't ready for it then. This time I read it through in a day, without stopping.