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Tasmanian Richard Flanagan

'A writer has no more social responsibility than a hair dresser'


RICHARD FLANAGAN: Practising the art of subversion

Tasmanian Richard Flanagan is a writer with an unusual CV. After finishing his studies at Oxford, Rhodes Scholar Richard Flanagan returned home to Tasmania, to begin work as a bushlabourer and a river-guide, taking groups of tourists up and down the Franklin River every evening. But Flanagan also scribbled away in his spare time. Hard up for money, he published his first novel in his early thirties, and was subsequently told by his mother to 'get a real job'. Today Flanagan's achievements are too numerous to mention. He has written five novels, including the critically acclaimed 'The Sound of One Hand Clapping' and 'Gould's Book of Fish', which bagged the Commonwealth Writers Prize. He is also a prolific writer of non-fiction, has co-written a movie and also directed one. On his first visit to India, Flanagan talked about the highs and lows of a writer's life.

You have dabbled in several forms. There have been many books of fiction and non-fiction, even a screenplay some time ago. But the novel remains your first and only love, doesn't it?

The novel is one of the great inventions of the human spirit. Because it allows stories to be told in pure and extraordinary forms. Movies are a tyranny, and the tyrant's money is all that matters there. What surprises me more than the fact that there are so many bad movies made is that anyone manages to make a good movie in this tyranny. Whereas novels are made in a republic of letters. It is a foolish and a crooked and a stupid republic, but it is still a republic and I would rather live here than in a tyranny. The novel is a much more subversive and free medium, and you can do more radical things in it. In movies, that isn't possible, as you have the monster of money seeking to destroy all the creative possibilities. Another thing about novels is that by nature they are the most powerful when coming from the edges of the society. Unlike other art forms, like theatre or painting, which come from the centres of power. The novel is the revenge of the periphery.

Does the job of a novelist come with any special social responsibilities?

A writer's only job is to write something good. And that's where it ends. A writer has no more or less social responsibility than a hair dresser or a rickshaw driver. Kafka, whose works sort of predicted so much in the twentieth century, was supremely uninterested in great events. I mean his diaries, on the day when WWI is declared, he writes: 'Morning - War declared. Afternoon - went for a swim. ' (laughs) I think that's about right. In the end we don't care whether Tolstoy's opinions on land reform were valid or invalid. We care that he wrote stories that resonate with us still.

So opinions and ideas don't much matter. At least not as much as the work does.

Yes. But still there is a pitiful history of writers siding with tyranny. A writer being the conscience of a nation is a relatively recent idea. The history of writers, and artists in general, tells us that they tended to go where power was. And were fairly mute on the horrors of power. There is a great line by the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare: 'To share power is to share guilt for crimes'. So it's wrong to think of writers as elevated beings. And yet I find it very sad that there is so much emphasis on heaping derision on a dead writer's grave because he failed in his personal life. I think the work matters more than his opinions, and if the work is great, it survives.

Proust said that the artist's life is the only life worth living? How do you rate a writer's life? Is it really worth living?

Actually Proust slept a lot (laughs). F Scott Fitzgerald said that he lost a little something of himself as he created his works. His idea is a terrifying one, an ancient one - that as we create things we corrode our own soul. I think there's possibly a lot of truth in that. When I read him it frightened me, because I identified with it. If you look closely you will see that writers, of all the other artist groups, have the highest suicide rate, highest drug addiction rate. They don't end up at all well.

That is a bleak prospect. Being a writer can't be that bad?

See, if it is the vale of horrors you choose to walk in, you shouldn't rue the decision, you know. And I like it. I just don't think it does well to romanticise it. As you start off with writing, it's like having sex for the first time - you think you're terrific. But after a while you realise that there is no perfection here and you're destined to always fail. In the end you can only hope that somewhere in that gaping chasm between your ambition and your failure, there's something that might be worth reading for others. In Madame Bovary, Flaubert, oddly, steps out of character half way through the novel and writes: "All human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, when all the time we long to move the stars to pity". I think every writer at a certain time realises this.

So the aim is to find some mid-point between the kettle and the stars, I guess. Which according to you are the novelists who were, or are, closer to the stars? Your personal pantheon.

One thing you get out of writing is that you become a much better reader. The greats are so many - Chekhov, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Faulkner, Kafka. There are just so many. I do think that the 20th century was the golden age for the novel. Then you have all the South Americans. And then this country - India - is starting to come up in a big way in terms of literature.

You are from Tasmania, and you have said earlier that your country has been misrepresented by writers. Can you talk about that?

Yes. Ever since Jonathan Swift, who placed his Lilliput just north of Tasmania, such has been the case. The place has got a long history of being oddly represented. HG Wells wrote War of the Worlds after he heard the fate of the Tasmanian aborigines. I mean, India also has been a source of exotic colour for bad novelists for so many years now. So you would know the ignominy of it far better than a tiny place like Tasmania. I suppose this is the fate of everywhere. And it rankles when you feel that there is an authentic voice which hasn't been given expression.

What is the authentic voice of Tasmania, or for

that matter, of any country?

I was going to write an essay on my favourite Tasmanian novels, and I was going to begin with Kafka's novel The Trial and move on from there to some Borges' story. I actually discovered my country from the writings of the people around the world, and I am sure this is true for others as well. When you are born as a writer you belong to a place, but you also belong to the universe of letters and you shouldn't forsake either. It is in the merger of the two where you find an authentic voice.

Let's talk about writing. There is the art of writing and the craft of writing - where do you focus more?

The older I have got the less I know about writing. I knew a lot about writing before I wrote anything (laughs). I don't drink as much now, because I have to work harder at it, that's about all I know. There are two aspects to writing, I think. One is the fairly mundane image of the human being sitting or standing at the table and confronting the horror of the blank page or the blinking cursor. Then there is the other aspect of it, which is mysterious. Sometimes you do write in ways inexplicable, and you can only be grateful for that, and that is where art comes from. Both are essential.

You don't have many kind words for politicians. So are you an apolitical man, or perhaps an anti-political man?

I think I am an anti-political man. I have seen in my own country politics become largely the plaything of corporate power. I think this sense that politics could achieve everything grew out of the twentieth century. But politics can't achieve anything at all. The cult of politics, money and power makes us believe that social change is somehow beyond the normal human beings. Read Tacitus' Histories - it is much better political journalism than what we have now. In his works, politics is all about jealousy, or rage or madness. Whereas now we pretend it is about policy and national interests. We should be more honest about why people seek power and what they seek to do with power. I wrote in one of my novels that politics is the enemy of love, and that is what I believe in.

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