Wanting by Richard Flanagan

Awesome, mate.
First encounter with Flanagan came via Gould’s Book of Fish in hardback, a victim of some aggressive pre-post Christmas price slashing back in twenty tickety boo (along with a first edition of Martel’s Life of Pi in hardback at 2 for £20), and with the beautiful colour plates so sadly missing from future flimsier incarnations. As much as I loved and coveted more of the same, it’s taken me nearly ten years to catch up on the backlist, and I still haven’t gotten to Death of a River Guide – there are just too many things that need doing.

 ‘Oh, woe is me!’ etc etc. Time-theft from work isn’t often available to be recycled as reading time when in full view of the open plan office. But I have managed to squirrel away a bit of reading elbow room in which to fully appreciate the latest offering from Tasmania’s answer to Thomas Bernhard.

At this point I should perhaps clarify such a throw-away remark as that just this second made, just there.  In no way does Richard Flanagan resemble Thomas Bernhard, except in one very specific instance. He is not wiry of hair (having none), a playwright (to my knowledge), and did not spend any time in a sanatorium as a youth due to a severe lung condition which robbed him of the opportunity to become a professional actor or singer. Unless you know any better. In fact, the only way I can compare the two is by revealing a very personal reading of his work which could, gallingly, be seen to be a misreading. How embarrassing for me.

Here goes.

Bernhard clearly hated Austria, the land of his birth and death, and made use of every opportunity for contumely. In my reading, Flanagan has a similar (but slightly diluted) misanthropic distaste for all things historically Van Diemonian, despite some rather beautiful passages towards the end of this particular novel where he traces the sunlight on the water and portrays the nobility of work in the fields with a respectful nostalgia. In general he seems to feel a degree of shame for his unfortunate heritage. Of course, it’s not restricted to Tasmania – his descriptions of Dickensian London are equally vitriolic and gruesomely tactile. However, from other books I have spotted the trend. Feel free to disagree and disabuse me of the notion.
Back to Wanting and Flanagan’s dissection of desire, and it is an achingly good read, with some great passages, notably depicting Dickens and Wilkie Collins and, amongst other pieces, their periwinkling trips to various houses of disrepute. The back and forth between Van Diemen’s Land and London are well spaced, allowing free flow of his copious imagination, and historical detail be damned! he wilfully uses the main points of history as threads on his wonderful literary loom. The result is a soulful, crushing and ultimately addictive novel, and Dickens’ avatar is quite remarkable.

Ultimately, I have probably done a stupid thing by reading Gould’s... first as it really did blow my literary mind at the time, so every follow-up is likely to be a disappointment, but Wanting is a significant harking back to that scent of greatness, and is probably a book I will come back to in the future. And it’s not often I can find the time for that sort of thing. 

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