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Richard Flanagan’s closing address ON LOVE STORIES

Flanagan was introduced by the festival director Emily and he kissed her after her opening comments. When he did this he lifted his foot back and it was a very cute beginning to his talk on love. I confess I’ve only read one Richard Flanagan book, no make that two. The Unknown Terrorist (an uncorrected proof copy that I bought in a 2nd-hand bookshop, I thought those things were not to be sold?) And his most recent, the one that will probably win the Miles Franklin, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I have on my shelves, unread, The Sound of One Hand Clapping (I think I’ve seen the film?) and Death of a River Guide. I’ve been recommended Gould’s Book of Fish and River Guide by Sarah Drummond, I’ll get there eventually I suppose. Two disclosures. I didn’t love Narrow Road but I think Richard Flanagan is entirely gorgeous for what it’s worth. I think his book probably deserves to win the MF, if only for the wonderful perspectives he gives in it to not just the Australian soldiers, working on the Burmese Railway camps, but also the Japanese and Korean soldiers, after the war. For me, these were the more readable and fascinating pages. I didn’t get into the love story aspect of the novel, it just didn’t work for me. The main character Dorrigo Evans, I found I could not connect with him. For people wanting to catch up on what people who love Narrow Road think about it, check the Book Club’s episode on it where everyone but Kathryn Heyman love love loved it. Linky here.

I’m no expert on love stories… We like love, we love love… we apprehend it but we frequently don’t know how to describe it

– Richard Flanagan

Flanagan is a smart, funny man. He weaves in a football narrative, to make everyone laugh. I made a note, asking ‘as a bloke, can’t he be tender?’ It’s as if, in this country, to be tender and male is suspect. (Look up Christos Tsiolkas’s comments on the writing of his last book Barracuda, and how his friend Angela Savage suggested he show his humanity more. I took this to mean (maybe? maybe I’m wrong) letting in a little tenderness.) Flanagan quickly fell into a clever speech, he kept it very funny and to me dwelled on surface stuff. He admitted to unease:

Of love I know only the same or less than anyone in the room

I’m not sure of this. Anyone who has loved, and it doesn’t have to have been a Grand Love, love comes in many shapes and sizes, surely any thinking person then knows of love and can say something about it. I wonder whether, again, it’s seen as a gendered thing. Men don’t write about love? Or not if they want to be taken seriously? Was the only way Flanagan could write acceptably of love if it was nested within a gruesome violent tragic desperate war story, that most masculine of topics?

But Flanagan said ‘to make this story of war work, I needed to write a love story.’ So, it was the other way around for him. How interesting.

It’s the hardest of all to write

– Richard Flanagan (on love, or war? My notes aren’t clear, but based on what follows I think he was talking about Love.)

Flanagan went on: ‘It’s hard to do, one bad note and you dismiss the novel. A love story in life does not equal one in a book. Art has to have form or it’s nothing. Love though is anything but form. It’s dirty, a confusion of events.’

Love is a cracked compass with no north

– Richard Flanagan

He told about a wonderful story of a Latvian man who thought his wife was dead (in the war.) The man searched for two years to no avail. Then years later, he was remarried and migrated to Longford (NSW?) and was walking down the street in Sydney when he saw her coming towards him, with two small children. It was his Latvian wife. The question was did he acknowledge her there on the street or not. Flanagan thought ‘if I could put this in a novel, it’s the centre.’

(I have a note here. ‘I would say he failed.’ To me, he pulled back, too worried about those bung notes he mentioned above. Dorrigo was always controlled, he never really seemed to lose himself to love. Even the most controlled people can get very messy when they are in love. This, to me, would have made a more interesting read. A man, restrained in every other way, who manages so well in the terrible, is brought undone by love. Now that’s a story. People are so frightened these days of sentimentality or I should say writers are so afraid of it. I don’t think readers are. See this article for a really interesting discussion which touches on this issue; that to write in a way that creates sentimentality in the reader, or to write from a sentimental place, is to be considered naive and anachronistic, and even worse: uncool.)

Like all the best writing everything that matters is left out

– Richard Flanagan (I didn’t note the context)

Flanagan referred to Sappho’s 3000 year-old poem, of which a fragment is three words: You burn me. He said the essential nature of a love story is that it’s true but it doesn’t answer all the questions, the who, where, how etc. He mentioned Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He mentioned Chekhov’s Lady with Lapdog, also Alice Munro’s The Bear Came Over the Mountain. He talked about a Nabokov story where the wife Nina is dead, the love story is an elegy, he said.

Then Flanagan started talking about Reza Berati’s death on Manus Island less than a week before and I don’t have any more notes.