Internationally, Thomas Keneally is one of Australia’s most successful authors, whether in terms of critical reception, book sales, or author profile. He is probably best known as the author of Schindler’s List from 1982—Schindler’s Ark in Britain and Australasia—even if his fame in this regard has been somewhat obscured by Stephen Spielberg’s multi-Oscar-winning movie of 1993. The story of how Keneally came to write this book and its subsequent success is one of the more remarkable episodes in Australian book history, and of course it is by no means confined to Australia, its point of origin only in a very qualified sense. Published simultaneously in London, New York, and Sydney, Schindler’s List appeared in at least eight different English-language and fourteen foreign-language editions even before the release of Spielberg’s movie. It won the Booker Prize for 1982, the first by an Australian novelist, although Keneally had already been short-listed for the award on three occasions. Across the Atlantic, it was one of the New York Times ’ Best Books of 1982, and in the following year the winner of the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize. The movie’s success meant new English and American editions together with a dozen or so translations in 1994 alone, including Turkish, Japanese, Chinese, and Catalan versions. New Czech and Marathi editions appeared as recently as 2009.
Interestingly, the book won no major Australian awards, a small fact that nevertheless indicates something of my theme. Keneally offers a rich case study in the “mechanics” (it could be the “logistics”) of managing an international literary career from an Australian base—that is, from a site that remains what Pascale Casanova might call a literary suburb or province despite the vitality and diversity of Australian literary culture and its growing international visibility over the last three or four decades. In particular, I focus on Keneally’s American career, which is not well known beyond Schindler’s List , for it is in the triangulation of Australian, British, and American publishing and their changing relations over the course of Keneally’s career that these mechanics are most clearly revealed. (My concern is thus with English-language publishing, although translation rights have also been an important source of earnings for Keneally, his publishers, and agents, and foreign-language editions have helped build his international reputation.) Rather than recounting the admittedly compelling story of how Keneally came to write Schindler’s List and the long process of its adaptation for the cinema—the story that Keneally himself tells in Searching for Schindler —I want to follow the twists and turns of his career leading up to the book’s success and following from it, a complex, sometimes tortuous history of shifting relations between writer, publishers, editors, and agents across three continents, three markets, and three copyright territories.
To put this in slightly different terms, Keneally offers a prime case study for understanding the nature of Australian literature as a national or transnational literature within world or international “literary space.” Notions of world or transnational literatures have become almost irresistible in literary studies in recent times, just as book history has been reconfigured by the “transnational turn” following its major investment in national histories of the book. Keneally’s is, in many ways, an exemplary transnational career. The majority of his more than forty books have had separate and often multiple U.S., U.K., and Australian editions, and his novels alone have been translated into at least thirty different languages. His books also range widely in subject and setting, from Australia to Ireland, to France, eastern Europe, the United States, the Sudan, and Eritrea. But as Wai Chee Dimock reminds us, the heuristic point for transnationalism is not simply global reach, as it were, but rather the dynamics between the national, international, and local or subnational scales across which an author or text might operate. Here, too, Keneally might be thought exemplary, for if he is among Australia’s most “international” authors, his career also manifests intense forms of local and national identification. Who else could write a biography of Abraham Lincoln and a biography of a local Sydney...