Thursday, June 2, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #18: Thomas Keneally (1983)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton of On the Arts.
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

author Thomas Keneally.
The concept of heroes and villains was greatly simplified in the Eighties so I wanted a chapter in Talking Out of Turn (Heroes and Villains) that featured artists who examined that concept with a little more complexity. One such individual, Australian author Thomas Keneally (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, The People's Train), took on the inexplicable subject of Oskar Schindler. In his book, Schindler's List (originally titled Schindler's Ark), he tells the story of how Oskar Schindler, a Nazi Party member, became the most unlikely of heroes. By the end of the Second World War, Schindler saved 1,200 Jews from concentration camps all over Poland and Germany. Just like The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Schindler's List is also a historical novel that describes participants and events with fictional dialogue and scenes added by the author. Schindler's List won the Booker Prize for fiction in 1982. While in 1993, Steven Spielberg would make a largely faithful and successful adaptation that won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

kc: You have written many biographical and historical novels. But what elements of Oskar Schindler's life fascinated you?
Oskar Schindler.

tk: I think it was the pervasiveness of the character. It was the fact that he was paradoxical. It was the fact that he was both a hedonist and a saviour. This was a man who had a passion for both branches of activity. Now, for a lapsed Catholic, I'm making a lot of references to God in this, but there are figures who seem to be manifestations and incarnations of a divine impulse. Oskar was a lot like that.

kc: How did these contradictory impulses combine themselves in this man?

tk: A Jew, who Schindler saved, said to me in Boston the other night that Oskar wasn't in charge of himself, that it was some impulse instead. Many of the Schindlerjuden I interviewed told me not to idealize him because he was a scoundrel. They told me that if he was a saint, we'd be dead and so would he. Now the Greeks have a word for that kind of impulse which is daemon. It was the daemonic quality in Oskar combined with the divine impulse to deliver these people; his unabashed way in which he played God. Oskar Schindler could play cards for the life of a slave labourer with Amon Goeth, the commandant of Plaszow, and be totally unabashed about that. This is totally unlike a philosopher who would have an impulse to say: Come on, Oskar, stop playing God! What if you lose? It didn't occur to him to lose. Like all compulsive people loss didn't seem probable. But he did carry inside him a basic primitive -- and human -- moral disgust at what was happening. Those are appealing characteristics. Frankly, I don't think I could have made up a character as complex as Oskar Schindler.

kc: Did you also feel by telling Schindler's story that you were adding something new to the literature written about the Holocaust?

tk: Oh, yes. In documentary terms, this story gives us something new in popular literature. What it gives us is the economics of the Holocaust. You see the machinery of the Holocaust when you look at the Oskar story. If you look at other popular writing, often what you see is the confusion of the individual prisoner as they arrived in the great railway concourse of Auschwitz or some other camp. You'd also see the confusion on the face of the prisoner as they stare at the psychopath who is putting them to death. These stories don't show the machinery stretching all the way back to Orianienburg. Oskar's story shows that machinery because he was oiling every joint of it. He oiled it with money, with lies, and by also compromising officials at every joint in the machinery. His story displays the machinery and shows what lies behind the concourse at Auschwitz. After D.M. Thomas's book (ed. The White Hotel) and [William] Styron's Sophie's Choice, there didn't seem much point in taking another individual story and looking at it purely from the subjective point of view of the victim turning up and going on to either physical or moral destruction.

kc: So what you're examining here is the nature of virtue in the face of overwhelming evil.

tk: Of course. Here you have a man who has been officially declared righteous – with a capital 'R' – by the Israelis. And yet he was a most spectacularly unrighteous person … I have always been taken by the question of what virtue is because I grew up in the Catholic Church at a time when we were all given an institutional conscience. They were handed out as if they were general issue. You know what I mean? They weren't ours. They were handed out as if they were the institution's conscience. And we slotted them into a cavity in our head and carried them around with us. Then we'd use them whenever there was an emergency. The remarkable thing I discovered was that virtue is an individual exercise. Oskar Schindler most spectacularly demonstrates that.  

kc: Would you say that part of the reason why the subjective point view of the victim makes more popular reading is because we can all identify with being a victim? On the other hand, if you explore a character who demonstrates a certain complicity with evil and struggles to maintain his humanity, that's a lot harder. I mean, who wants to identify with that?

tk: It certainly is difficult to write. I confessed at the head of the book – practically on the first page – that it's a dreadful thing for a modern novelist to have to write about the pragmatic triumph of good over evil because most writers are used to working from the other end of the beast. They write from a point of view where the virtuous end up with the imponderables like dignity and self-knowledge, but the malicious end up with all the real estate of the novel (laughs). I've got a friend in Los Angeles who was driving his 11-year-old daughter home the other day. She had just acted the part of Snow White in a play. She told her father, "I don't want to play any more good dames. They're not very interesting and nobody sympathizes with you." The great thing about Oskar Schindler's virtue is that it's so ambiguous.

kc: Is it safe to say that without his demons Oskar Schindler would have never saved all those Jews?

tk: Let me put it this way. I know that I could not have matched him in the same situation if I had been in Poland at that time. I might have found the moral courage to shelter one family. But to deliver the numbers he did, you had to be Oskar. You had to have a heroic liver to start in order to drink SS inspectors into a state of geniality if not stupefaction. You had to have an enormous access to the black market and play it with gusto and finesse. You needed the money to bribe because the SS were corruptible but expensive. Ordinary people could perhaps, at enormous risk, shelter one family. But the question of informers all around you and the question of having the money to buy them off was a problem.You also had to buy food for them off the black market because they had no ration books. They were totally out of society and were not supposed to exist. As a result, ordinary people found it very difficult to shelter Jews. You had to be an outrageous person to be able to deliver back to Western society the numbers he did deliver. And in circumstances like these, it's of no use being a martyr because the martyrs of the Holocaust didn't deliver quantitatively. They delivered in those imponderables I mentioned earlier like dignity, the qualities that make us human. But in terms of effective and pragmatic good, a good that has a bottom line measurable in statistical terms, Oskar Schindler was triumphant.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. His five-part lecture series, Roads to Perdition: The Allure of Film Noir, begins at the JCC Prosserman on Wednesday, June 15th from 1pm-3pm.

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