Saturday, 8 September 2018
All of Richard Flanagan’s novels are different. Death of a River Guide takes a tour through a drowning man’s Tasmanian family history; Gould’s Book of Fish is Flanagan’s masterpiece – a historical tale of a convict forger and fantasist. Then there was Wanting set in Dickens’ London and Bass Strait; the just-ahead-of-its-time tale of political manipulation in the age of terrorism –The Unknown Terrorist; and finally a well-deserved Booker winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North where torture on the Thai-Burma death railway is set against the present life of Dorrigo Evans. The earlier novels are more obviously ‘literary’ (I haven't read The Sound of One Hand Clapping but its description sounds poetic). Flanagan seems adept at a more popular mode in Terrorist and Deep North (or, at least, a more straightforward one). If Carey is Australian progressive rock; and Winton is Australian folk; then Richard Flanagan is a one-man Supergroup, comfortable enough in his skin to shed it from time to time.
First Person – given this characterisation – is thus both a surprise and not a surprise. The story is a fictitious version of events that Flanagan went through, it seems, while writing Death of a River Guide; struggling to make ends meet; “compromising” as a writer by ghosting a memoir about an Australian crook, 1980s-style. As Kif Kehlmann invents a life for a chameleon who seems as soulless as the age (‘Seigfried Heidi’), he feels both threatened and invaded, as if the darkness within Heidi is creeping in to his own heart. Writing in the first person is a challenge at the best of times – when the story teller confesses to selfishness and blind rage, a failing marriage, the temptations of corporate publishing (already fading by the 1980s) and a thuggish-past, even a loyal Flanagan reader struggles at time to sympathise and connect.
Flanagan knows how to layer this darkness and slowly raise the tension, however, until finally things do get to where they need to be – the heart of darkness at the “centre” of this de-centred character and narrative. Whether it was the best way to get there is another matter. This – in my view – is not Flanagan at his best. But maybe it’s a novel he had to write – a confession to the ugliness of the Australian soul, which he partly must own, as all of us must at some point. And beyond this – to New York and the age itself, the age of ‘literary selfies’:
Everyone wants to be the first person. Autobiography is all we have. I mean, isn’t that what you do in reality TV?
I don’t know what I do, I said. I just go in each morning and make it up.
That’s where we’re different then, Emily said. I don’t make it up. I had stories. We all hate them. We’ve heard them all before. We need to see ourselves.
That Flanagan kept his feet on the ground in “real life” is a credit to him; his narrator Kehlmann has taken another path to television writing and fame. Now Kehlmann writes in the first person. The biography on Heidi was made up. The fiction of his own life is closer to the truth.
Tuesday, 1 May 2018
George Orwell wrote six novels and three non-fiction books. Of the non-fiction, I have now read Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), and Homage to Catalonia (1938). “Down and Out” is – as it sounds – a portrait of poverty; and “Homage” the story of a man who sees a hopeful revolution collapse in the middle of a brutal civil war. Of the six novels, I have now managed (unsurprisingly) Animal Farm (1945), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). Listing these novels and books is only to say the following: I have read a bit of Orwell now, and amid the cleverness and the humanity and the bleakness of view, “Aspidistra” deserves a special mention (or perhaps, a vase) for being particularly depressing.
The story is of a young man, twenty-nine as the story who has declared war against money (surely better than war against terror). In doing so, Gordon Comstock resists generations of middle class Comstock’s, who have done their duty and lived staid, stale lives as a result. Gordon is determined to be different, throwing away a good job with prospects in that very twentieth century occupation of advertising, for a position in a book store that allows him to be so unfulfilled that he has material to write an extended poem about being unfulfilled (ironically called London Pleasures). The alternative, as he sees it, is to ‘drift along in an atmosphere of semi-genteel failure … so common among the middle-middle classes, in which nothing ever happens’ (p.41).
What Gordon discovers, of course, is that even being miserable costs money, and there is always somewhere to fall further from where he is just-about-safely ensconced. To say too much more would be to give away the plot. His good sister Julia suffers while he lets his (worker) talents lie; his girlfriend Rosemary, long suffering, suffers more. And as the failed sex scene outdoors in a natural alcove turns ‘squalid and ugly’ (p.157), he doesn’t even have the illusion of freedom in nature that Winston and Julia so briefly enjoyed in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Nor is that the only similarity in the two novels; perhaps the only thing worse than torture for a cause is the deliberate forgetting about it in the interest of survival. Others will read the ending of “Aspidistra” in more hopeful terms, but I think the rising up of the man is the falling down of the poet. It’s a little like The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but with all of Hyde’s flaws spelled out. Plus some good women. Rosemary and Julia do make a difference to the falling man in a way that Jekyll’s lawyer and doctor mates cannot.
I would thoroughly recommend this novel to anyone who has an interest in a less Romantic view of the artist, one who suffers genuine poverty for his ideals, and is none-the-better a human being for it. An essay question: 'Keep the _______ flying: Redemption, or Surrender?' Support in 2000 words. Or just reach out for the aspidistra.