Brian Matthews’ 2008 biography Manning Clark: A Life — which was 10 years in the making and drew heavily on the historian’s diaries — has just taken out the National Biography Prize. So why not find a comfy chair in a quiet corner and read a bit of Clark’s personal history tonight.

Ironic, playful, iconoclastic and provocative, historian Manning Clark left an indelible mark on this country, our thinking, how we view ourselves and our past.

In his brilliant biography, Manning Clark: A Life, Brian Matthews followed up his award-winning work on Henry Lawson’s mother Louisa with an unflinching, detailed, poignant and beautifully-written portrait of a brilliant mind wracked with uncertainty, sensitive to criticism, crippled by a lack of self esteem and haunted by his faith and alcoholism.

In his early years as a young academic, Clark grappled with numerous literary false starts and doubts. He was fuelled by an overwhelming desire to write, coupled with a fear that he might have nothing to say. Ultimately, his six volumes of Australian history were, according to Matthews, “the most ambitious, visionary evocation of the annals of his country every attempted”. And, Matthews explains, the “fault finders were assiduous and mean”.

Clark was a man alive, one of the great teachers of his time, unfettered by the academic cloisters within which he worked, writing history in a way that still inspires and manages to capture our great, sprawling and often contrary national story in prose that is elegant, at times baroque, and — like this biography — never dull.

The details: Manning Clark: A Life, by Brian Matthews, published by A&U, $59.95 hardback

*This review is courtesy of Bookseller+Publisher magazine’s Fancy Goods blog.

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