Image for Reviewed! First Person ...

I do vaguely understand how drained writer Richard Flanagan would be after giving his all to a novel ...

“The intensity of the effort leaves him, he says, “less than I was before”.

Majda (wife) says: “Sometimes his writing consumes him and I worry I am losing him, particularly at the end of writing a book. It affects him deeply and I do worry about him, about how he can keep going. It takes its toll …”

Quotes from a Fairfax Good Weekend yarn by Malcolm Knox: After the Booker: why Richard Flanagan isn’t playing safe

Reading First Person ... as I just have ... is an arduous task. It is a relentless, a forceful examination of Flanagan’s experience of writing his first ‘novel’ for $10,000; he was commissioned in 1991 by publisher Heinemann to write the life story of con artist John Friedrich, as ‘evil’ a man as Flanagan has ever encountered. Friedrich blew his head off before the account of his life was published ...

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John Friedrich, con artist

Flanagan is interviewed in underline (for the love of reading), a freebie designed to promote the works of Penguin ...

In an interview with Samson McDougall, Flanagan describes why he wrote First Person: … In First Person Richard Flanagan explores the power of story, and the irresistible force of belief in a novel that is being hailed as a parable for the Trump age ...

Flanagan tells McDougall:

… And the novel form, in particular, he believes to be one of the greatest and most profound investions of the human spirit. For so many of us, he argues, there is an intrinsic need to believe in something. So it’s the job of fiction writers to relate stories that help us better understand what’s happening to us all. ‘To me, writing is about the abandonment of self and the discovery of what you share with others,’ he says. ‘At its worst it can be despairing, but at its best it’s liberating ... I think that if there’s a diffference between humans and other species it’s that we define the world through stories.
That’s how we got out of the cave, that’s how we we came together as communities. We called these stories superstition, clans, families. Then they became nations and religion, later science and politics and so on … We constantly try to find ways of defining the world through these stories … ‘

Here’s the scene-set ...

I quote from First Person ...

… Late one night, Bucirde rang and put Friedrich on the phone. “Friedrich asked if I would write the book for him and he’d pay me $10,000,” Flanagan says. “I didn’t trust him at all – he was the most notorious criminal in Australia – and I said I’d only talk to his publisher. If the money came from them, I’d consider it.”

The publishers knew nothing about Richard Flanagan, only Martin (Flanagan, who works for The Age in Melbourne). The managing director of the publishing company, Sandy Grant, recalls: “It was a wild project from the start. Friedrich was a proper fraud and we needed a writer of intelligence and subtlety. We approached Martin, but he said, ‘Why don’t you meet Richard?’ “

Grant signed Richard, but there was a catch: he had six weeks to write the book. “Richard was cautious and relatively reserved,” Grant recalls. “Friedrich was the opposite: everything he did had a sensual intensity and set out to be seductive. He was very flamboyant. We were aware he was a major fraud, it was in front of us all to see, so it was a real challenge for Richard to get beyond the myths Friedrich wanted to propagate. You had to be a strong character not to be drawn into the world he created …”

… Within 48 hours of Bucirde’s initial call, Flanagan was meeting Friedrich in the publisher’s office in Port Melbourne, where they would spend each day together for the next three weeks. “Jim warned me not to let him anywhere near my family,” Flanagan says. “I couldn’t give him any personal information because that would give him another hook into me. It wasn’t my way to withhold myself, particularly in something as intimate as trying to write someone’s life story. It was frightening because I felt I was toying with something that could turn on me and destroy me. It was hard to know what he might do. Perhaps he would have done nothing, but he frightened me in some fundamental way. Some people could enter that room and he had a power over them that I’ve never seen before or since.

“It was like being put into a pit with a panther. You’ve just got to keep moving, and when the panther rests you’ve got to be really alert. He believed in evil and had a cogent philosophy around it. I’d had an education of that era, which was that evil doesn’t exist, these things are relative – but then, whack, I’m there with it arguing for itself so calmly. I don’t think he wanted to hurt me, only to possess me, and it was terrifying because I didn’t know if he would win or not.”

Martin, with whom Richard was staying in Melbourne, recalls: “Richard came home one night deeply shocked. He usually played with my kids when he got back, but not this night. He sat in his room alone. I got the impression he had met a man with no soul … “

Up to around page 230 of First Person is relentless; also weirdly funny ... an inexorable building of tension as this semi-autobiographical novel intensifies. Then it absolutely takes off as Flanagan describes the birth of his character Suzy’s twin boys …

… A strange hiatus settled upon us. We were all now waiting. I sensed the diminishing smiles and conversation, and I understood whatever it was that was happening was no longer something preordained to end happily, but a moment where everything lay finely poised between life and death. A doctor, an athletic young man, walked up to me, and, looking at me as if I were the doorman
without introducing himself, said, tell your wife to push harder. Fresh contractions were hitting Suzy’s body with a rising violence, the breaking of which were marked by long, low moans of exhaustion. The doctor sniffled.

She’s trying as hard as she can, I said. I was defensive. But more than that I was, for the first time, frightened for Suzy.

If we don’t see some change in the next ten minutes we’re going to have to do an emergency caesarean, the doctor said, and sniffled again.

I asked what exactly was happening. Wiping his fine aquiline nose with a crumpled red polka-dotted handerchief he told me they thought the twins’ limbs had become locked together in the birth canal and they were jammed. The longer it went on the further down the birth canal the babies would be forced and the more inextricable the jam would become, making a natural birth impossible. Getting them out might require a major procedure.

He spoke softly, quietly, as if he were a teller advising me my bank account was overdrawn. He added the usual caveats, that this was only their opinion and a natural birth remained possible. However, to wait any longer than 10 minutes might mean babies and mother would all be risking grave consequences

… Try harder, I said. I felt such shame asking it of her.

I can’t, Suzy was saying in guttural gasps as a new wave of contractions slammed into her. I can’t Kif! No! she suddenly cried, Please don’t! Please! No!

She began a low moaning, a strange animal sound, and I was again losing her; she was tumbling into some void as her body heaved and convulsed. Her face was scarcley recognisable. I leant in close, telling her again that she could do it. But it was becoming clear she couldn’t I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see the handsome doctor. I walked with him to a far corner of the room.

Your wife is exhausted, he said, sniffled, and continued. The babies are increasingly stressed. We have to operate.

Five minutes, I begged. Just five more, that’s all I’m asking.

I went back to Suzy. I pointlessly wiped her face once more, and once more I begged her. She was far away. Her whole being seemed caught in some primal struggle that was not hers to share. She suddenly screamed in a way that I had never heard before, deeply, terribly as much an unrooted gasp of horror as a primeval cry. It was as if from somewhere deep within she was finding a strength additional to all that she had spent, summoning some will to push her exhausted flesh further …

I don’t know about you ... but I was absolutely blown away by that writing ...

First Person is a relentless examination of evil; a thorough-going examination of bad.

It’s appropriate I reckon, to quote again bits from the book I’ve quoted above ...

“Jim warned me not to let him anywhere near my family,” Flanagan says. “I couldn’t give him any personal information because that would give him another hook into me. It wasn’t my way to withhold myself, particularly in something as intimate as trying to write someone’s life story. It was frightening because I felt I was toying with something that could turn on me and destroy me. It was hard to know what he might do. Perhaps he would have done nothing, but he frightened me in some fundamental way. Some people could enter that room and he had a power over them that I’ve never seen before or since.

“It was like being put into a pit with a panther. You’ve just got to keep moving, and when the panther rests you’ve got to be really alert. He believed in evil and had a cogent philosophy around it. I’d had an education of that era, which was that evil doesn’t exist, these things are relative – but then, whack, I’m there with it arguing for itself so calmly. I don’t think he wanted to hurt me, only to possess me, and it was terrifying because I didn’t know if he would win or not.”

I want to quote again from Flanagan’s interview with McDougall ...

… Literary memoir is based on the idea that the only literature with validity is one based in your own experience. Yet we actually read literature, we go to art, we watch movies to discover we are not just one person but a million possibilities. People get trapped in this amber of one identity, but we really are many identities. And that’s a great strength of the novel as a form - it reminds us that each of us contains multitudes. There is a strange, constant surprise, when you’re writing because you discover all the things that you don’t know, all the things that you’re not: how you’re connected to all the living and all the dead, all evil and all love, and all these possibilities of the universe exist within your soul, as they exist in all our souls. We all know it but mostly we only know it in moments of extreme ecstasy or grief. The difference for writers is that they have to go to that place daily …

Perhaps surprisingly, given the unrelenting nature of First Person, Richard Flanagan is an optimist: as he revealed in his conversation with Phillip Adams ( TT: A treat, an absolute treat ... and TT: Richard Flanagan in conversation with Phillip Adams).

Phillip Adams is the opposite: He’s a pessimist ...

In his conversation Flanagan reiterated the one-step-forward, one-step-backwards of human life on earth. There have been immense advances in relation to slavery, disease, science, while the one-step-backwards reveals slavery, disease, science ...

*Lindsay Tuffin has been a journo since 1969, mainly in Tassie ...  apart from a few years in Pomland where he edited ‘Buzz’ for five years, a magazine dealing with church and social issues [beaten in audit circulation only by Aero Modeller magazine (Specialist Interest category)]; and, in Tassie, a brief stint as a Uni chaplain ...