Tuesday, 12 June 2018

First person by Richard Flanagan

Eight Minervans read this novel with varying degrees of enjoyment.  Briefly it is novel as fake memoir based on a real life experience endured by Richard Flanagan. The novel has various levels of subtlety.  On one level it is a curious mixture of tirade against present day society and the problems brought on by a lack of morals and evil.

The story is about a young writer with a wife and child living in Tasmania who is asked to write a biography of a fraudster, Ziggy Heidl in six weeks. So there is great urgency and tension from the beginning. It is set just before his court case. It is thought that Heidl will probably be sent to jail for the rest of his life.  Heidl is accused of swindling the banks of $700 million. The acknowledged criminal is reluctant to tell the young writer his story and obfuscates. The writer is totally frustrated by his subject. ‘First person’ is also trying to control the situation at home in Hobart where his wife is shortly expecting twins. They desperately need the money for this first book and to complicate the situation the writer has to go to Melbourne to write it. Heidl is killed (but by whom?) and the book becomes a total fiction and is not accepted by the publisher. Then the story skips to the current day and we learn that the writer now middle aged has had a second unhappy marriage and worked in television. However he is still haunted by Heidl and his weird and dangerous theories and stories, and the events of the short time he spent with this character.

The story is loosely based upon the fact that in 1991 Richard Flanagan helped Australia’s most notorious conman John Friedrich write his autobiography. However there are few other similarities of the ‘First person’ writer to Flanagan. Flanagan has a happy marriage and no career in TV. Friedrich killed himself 3 weeks before the trial. Friedrich had received an OAM. He was executive director of the National Safety Council of Australia during the 1980s. He was a West German national who arrived in Melbourne in 1975.

See the Wiki entry on John Friedrich – it is quite fascinating. 

Our round of comments include :

  • Well written but not his best novel
  • Could do with a good edit as it is too repetitious
  • No empathy with any of the characters except the writer’s wife, Suzy
  • Clever and funny in places
  • Critical of Tasmania – why is that?
  • Ray is based on a real guy but actually very different in many ways (one member knew of the real guy)
  • Found it hard to keep going, listening to the audio read by Flanagan was good
  • Loved the irony that Flanagan ghost-wrote John Friedrich’s memoir, and then wrote a pseudo-memoir.
  • Bleak view of society eg the writer mentioning that his daughter Bo was dead in a very offhand manner and his lack of fatherly feelings for his twin boys, who had separated themselves from him too
  • Self indulgent, very cynical and a bit smarty pants
  • Birth scene of the twins was brilliant – we could relate to this scene
Very quickly in the conversation other books were mentioned that Flanagan’s book reminded people about. Reminiscences of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad in the end (is this a 3rd memoir?) I haven’t read Conrad so can’t comment. Another member thought that Flanagan was channelling Dostoyevsky.

In discussing these books we also talked about the words of philosophers in this story – some true like Nietzsche but Heidl’s Thomas Tebbe  we could not validate. Other thinkers mentioned were Socrates and Albert Camus.

We discussed the main character at some length – Siegfried Heidl. Is he a sign of the present with public characters such as politicians like Trump? Why doesn’t Heidl understand what is important in life, with a wife and family? He continually plays games so that there is no certainty about any details. He is also tantalizing the writer and influencing him in subtle ways. Not everyone accepted the writer’s reactions to Heidl but many of us were convinced. Friedrich was a charmer and probably Heidl was too but it was not easily conveyed in the novel. 

Some members thought the story was metaphorical – society faced with the situation that money is the main aim of most people at the expense of intimacy and normal life. Life is always more complicated than that though.

Heidl also had a long term impact on the writer – does Friedrich exert such power over Flanagan? I don’t think so but obviously he does worry Flanagan and so maybe this book is cathartic? A lack of moral fibre is a terrible characteristic and both criminals, the real and the imagined, seemed to be so inclined. But Heidl is more than a lack of ethics, his is a powerful anti-moral stance.  It gets to the core of trust in institutions and organisations by the public. We didn’t delve into Trump similarities but they are pretty self-evident we felt. Truth is another issue we briefly discussed. How can I keep myself in control?

The writer’s frustration at losing connection with family was sad. It meant he lost goodness in his life and couldn’t regain it. So consequently he had had a dysfunctional life in some ways, losing contact with his children and his 2 wives, and ending up with nothing much to live for?

The death scene caused some comments – some felt that the writer had killed Heidl but others were not sure. Flanagan writes it with a light touch. It is clever how he makes it slightly ambiguous. We also mentioned how Heidl’s last day was so calm despite all the fanfare of the weeks before.

We thought the writer was so na├»ve and funny when asking the publisher for a small sum to cover his living expenses in Melbourne. The writer talks a lot about publishers, and this is unusual and quite a diversion from the family story. We thought some of the sayings were comical – ‘roger that’ and ‘hold that thought’ were two which stood out.

The opening of the novel was a fascinating comment on modern literature we thought – that is: The excerpts from the Minutes of evidence of the Select Committee on Transportation of convicts London 5 May 1837. A little bizarre !

One member asked what a non-Australian would make of this novel. It is hard to know.

There are many interesting aspects of the place dichotomies raised by Flanagan eg Tasmania versus mainland, and Melbourne versus Hobart (are they like Melbourne versus New York?).

A final point was the cover of the hard text which shows a black jay and a white jay.  

PRESENT: 8 members