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 Life?

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.

Socio-economic 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:

The thrusts in his picture – some white men did exploit and degrade the blacks; some lived in squalid conditions; many were greedy and unscrupulous in their greed – are elevated by his intensity into being the whole story. It is a miserable, sad and hopeless prospect that he spreads before our eyes: it is overwrought.

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 sentence:

In subsequent lengthy letters – addressed variously to ‘My Dearest Dymphna’, ‘My Darling’, ‘My Dearest, Darling Dymphna’, ‘My Allgemeine, Dearly Beloved and Much Missed’. [Allgemeine  - the General division of the German SS, distinguished from the Waffen SS; but also the name of the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine ZeitungFrankfurt General Newspaper. Clark, always attracted to irony, probably meant the former] - he delivers much news of the family and of his own researches and wanderings in London.

The sense of ‘Allgemeine’ is surely “my all, my world”, at most, with overtones of common good and general knowledge.

Throughout, Dymphna 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 plausible.