The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

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.

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