By Mark McKennaNon-fiction Melbourne University Publishing
An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark
This comprehensive biography of one of Australia’s most controversial and influential cultural figures, historian Manning Clark, was seven years in the making. Respected historian Mark McKenna takes a complex, enquiring and energetic approach to his subject, taking nothing for granted and delving clear-eyed into the many myths (most of them self-created) surrounding this polarising figure.
An Eye for Eternity is a sweeping account of Clark’s friendships and feuds; his dynamic, incident-filled marriage to the stalwart Dymphna; his politics; and his work, particularly the charismatic but deeply flawed multi-volume History of Australia, which captured the popular Australian imagination, despite its many errors.
Lively, scrupulous and questing, this is a major achievement; a book that captures an eventful period in Australia’s cultural life, both ambitious and eminently readable.
Honest yet compassionate, An Eye for Eternity provides exceptional insight into Manning Clark’s personality, his work and his partnership with Dymphna. Mark McKenna gives us Clark’s life in parallel with Australia’s intellectual life, and the quest of his generation for a national identity. The book never indulges in pieties, nor in digression for its own sake. Above all, it is clear-sighted: never sentimental, yet generous. An Eye for Eternity is a work of great scholarship, insight and eloquence, ranking with the finest Australian intellectual biographies.
This biography of Manning Clark has it all. It tells the story of this ubiquitous historian with all his talents and inconsistencies. Clark’s relationship with his parents, his marriage to Dymphna (and his use of her as a resource), his desire to become a writer and a Catholic, his fascination with the Soviet Union and his conviction to an Australian culture (and getting us over our cringe), are all covered in this work.
The book is titled An Eye for Eternity, which alludes to Clark’s egoistic need for immortality both in the academic and literal sense, but I did wonder if a better title would have been ‘Between Certainty and Doubt’. McKenna states that Clark “… lived in the space between certainty and doubt” and that really is the crux of his story. Clark was a complex man who struggled to achieve his goals and did so only at the expense of those around him. I kept asking myself when reading the book: do we forgive great men their weakness and follies? I am inclined not too.
One of the strengths of McKenna’s book is he makes no judgement. Ultimately however it is a biography of Clark: McKenna is at his best when he imagines Clark’s thoughts and motivations, making this book both a good history and an insightful examination of a mercurial man.
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