On Monday night, in the chapel of Ormond College at Melbourne University, College Master Dr. Rufus Black sat down to begin a conversation with Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan. Flanagan’s fame has not been restricted by the edges of his antipodean island, as his fiction debut Death of A River Guide caught the eye of the Times Literary Supplement in 1997, followed closely by The Sound of One Hand Clapping. In more recent years Flanagan has come out with The Unknown Terrorist and Wanting, while also writing the script for Baz Luhrmann’s 2008 film Australia. Flanagan’s most famous novel though is entitled Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish; a magnificent combustion of tales within tales that went on to win the Commonwealth Prize. The book’s ostensible narrative is a mad conman who is trying desperately to recall, word-for-word, the fascinating story he has read and lost by one William Gould: a convict forger imprisoned on Sarah Island in the early 19th century. With conmen as the narrators, the words quickly lose much of their credibility. Thus the sentences, written in and around drawings of fish, tower into a crescendo of imaginative fantasy and mythological impossibility, filled with violence, excrement, and beauty. The book eventually tailspins into itself, starting from a high modernist prose style into a postmodern collapse of words, images, and towns. It is an ambitious novel and utterly astounding.
It was surprising and comforting then to find Flanagan’s presence on Monday night thoroughly down to earth. Speaking mostly to an audience of undergraduates, some of whom had organized the event through the college’s Sustainability Society, he talked about literature, about politics, about his great love, the environment, and was candid when questions from the audience stumped him. “I don’t know,” he replied when someone asked him how individuals could learn to be more sustainable and how he made himself sustainable. “I don’t think I’m sustainable at all. I’m a trashy human being.”
Despite his self-effacing humor, Flanagan spoke at length about the kind of world he saw and loved and the world he believes in perpetuating. He grew up in Rosebery, a small rainforest town in Tasmania. As a child, he recounted, Tasmanian tigers still existed and towns were swallowed up by the forest rather than the other way around. He could walk into old abandoned railway towns where empty rusting carriages were being pushed by trees into the forest canopy. Near his house grew a 12,000 year old huen pine tree. “The measure of things was not man-made,” said Flanagan thoughtfully; the history of nature was powerful. When he went to Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar he found Europe “a dying place,” and he was horrified by the domestication of nature, that rivers could not be drunk from. He felt “a loss to the human spirit.” He returned with relief to Tasmania, a place that seems to have sustained him not just through its powerful nature but also through the family and friends he had. “I have never felt alone, I existed in the love they had for me and I had for them,” he said. And that human connection has always been key to Flanagan’s work. “Novelists write entire novels to write one word. For me it’s ‘love.’”
Perhaps on paper or website Flanagan’s words read a little clichéd. “Believe in what you can see and touch,” he told the undergraduate seeking to better himself. “Honor truth.” But Flanagan made the words like “love” “honor” and “truth” ring out sincerely, as though they were forgotten ideas that we needed to be reminded of. “The older I get, the more hopeful I get. There is a great despair in our age – we look to power, we fetishize politics – but we need politics like we need a good sewage system… Everyday acts are too easily dismissed as everyday act, acts of kindness and goodness.” Flanagan looked deeply into the individual’s ability to do right things, good things, from making a beautiful piece of furniture to being kind to one another, and he repeatedly spoke of his belief in the democratic ability of kind individuals to change things from the ground up.
“We can be larger,” he said in response to people’s fears of Australia’s growing population and allowing more people into the country. And perhaps he didn’t mean more populous, but for Australians to be more generous to the people who want in. And as he welcomed more people in, he also turned to the people within the country. “We still have a fear about indigenous Australia. We ought to embrace it. It offers another idea – many ideas! – of the universe. Some countries only have one idea.” A world of many universes would always be growing, he said. “I would like to live in a world like that.”
“Why choose fiction?” asked somebody in the audience, perhaps knowing that before Death of A River Guide Flanagan wrote four non-fiction books. “Once it was a passion,” joked Flanagan, “now it’s probably the only thing I can do and get paid for.” But then the romantic in him took over and he responded seriously. “It’s what defines us as a species, this capacity for story. From the beginning man sought to interpret his world. Religion. Science. Good stories. Terrible stories. And novels are the purest version of story that we have. We recognize in them fundamental truths about ourselves. They are the great inventions of the human spirit.”
And what makes a good novelist a great novelist? “The great writers walk naked,” replied Flanagan. “With their pot bellies. Everything hanging out. Great writers achieve a transparency between their soul and their words.”
How about his favorite book, asked someone else tentatively. Anna Karenina, responded Flanagan without really hesitating. “Just as Faulkner replied when he was asked to list the three best novels. Anna Karenina. Anna Karenina. Anna Karenina. It’s a beautiful book about love.”
Flanagan paused when some of the audience questioned his simple idea of human connection, of love and kindness, and the democratic ground-up framework he espoused. Why not support top-down public policies, for example in the case of dealing with climate change? Flanagan took a large view, as he looked at western society’s habit over the last century to rely on politics and politicians as sources of change. He cited the Tea Party in the USA and the global Occupy movement as expressions of frustration against the political framework. “People feel that politics has failed. They want change but can’t find the right form for change. There is nothing to replace politics with. New forms are needed. You must find the new forms. We live in a modern moment in history.”
Having only a little while earlier seen through his eyes the impossible image of a railway carriage soaring through a rainforest in a lost corner of the western world, finding new forms for our new moment seemed less impossible than it might have the day before. And as the conversation ended I wondered if Flanagan had just managed to give the audience a new idea of the universe.