What is the greatest love story in literature? Take your time. No need to rush. I’ve been thinking about this since spending some time with Richard Flanagan last week after launching a new book on his work, Richard Flanagan: Critical Essays. I launched the book alongside its editor, Robert Dixon, professor of Australian literature at the University of Sydney. We were on the stage at Sydney’s Gleebooks. Flanagan, in his no-nonsense fashion, came up from his home in Tasmania and sat in the audience.
The interest in love stories stems from Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2014. While it is a novel with the unconscionable brutalities of the Thai-Burma Railway at its centre, I have always thought of it as a love story, one that involves several of its characters. Certainly the genesis for the book was love: that of Flanagan for his father Arch, a survivor of the railway.
American academic Nicholas Birns focuses on love and war in his essay in the new book. Flanagan, he writes, is “suggesting we should not speak of love amid war — of love as a respite from the horrific but discernible horrors of war — rather than war amid love”. The 12 critical essays, by scholars from Australia and overseas, are detailed, thoughtful and at times provocative readings of Flanagan’s novels, from Death of a River Guide (1994) onwards. Richard Flanagan: Critical Essays will be reviewed here next week by Geordie Williamson.
It’s another new book by Flanagan that I want to mention: Seize the Fire: Three Speeches (Penguin, 83pp, $12.95). The title comes from a poem I like a lot: William Blake’s The Tyger. The three speeches are ones Flanagan delivered at writers festivals in 2014 and 2016 and the National Press Club this April. They were passionate at the time. Interestingly, though, I found the passion amplified by reading them as connected essays right now. Part of that is the power of the written word.
It’s the first one that prompts my opening question. In it Flanagan says that while writing Narrow Road he realised “to make this story of war work, I needed to write a love story”. He goes on: “This was a terrifying revelation.”
Little wonder he was scared when Leo Tolstoy and Gustave Flaubert were lurking behind him. Flaubert reckoned the “vapidity of language” fell short of the human soul. Tolstoy thought Anna Karenina’s death mattered much more than a book. Flanagan adds, perhaps to his own relief, “yet the paradox is this: it has taken us reading a book to know this”.
Flanagan mentions some of the works that he considers great love stories. Anna Karenina is there, as it is on most of the “best love stories” lists I perused online. The one that came up most often, though, was Anton Chekhov’s Lady With Lapdog, which Flanagan thinks “one of the greatest". Also on his list are Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell. He thinks Nineteen Eighty-Four was “decisive in reshaping the love story for our times”. I agree. On the online lists, Jane Austen and the Brontes are prominent. Romeo and Juliet is remembered. One critic, Jason Diamond, made me laugh out loud by naming Moby-Dick as one of the great romances. “Sooner or later you get the feeling that, if it were possible, the crazy-ass captain would just want to hug the massive whale …”
OK, my top-of-the-head picks are Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. When I mentioned this to my other half, who is far more sensitive than I am, she said: ‘‘They all end badly!” I paused over that … until she named hers: Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
As Flanagan puts it, love stories are not about love but about “life itself”. “The essential nature of a love story is that it is true.” With that thought, over to you.