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Who loves longer? In conversation with Richard Flanagan

  • 01 December 2023
Michael McGirr spoke with Richard Flanagan about his new book, Question 7.   When I get a chance to sit down with Richard Flanagan, he reminds of a previous meeting, some years ago, when he quoted the words of his grandmother, who said, ‘never trust a Jesuit’. I was a Jesuit at the time and apparently I replied that I agreed because I had learned not to trust myself.

This grandmother, known to her family as Mate, features in Flanagan’s new book, Question 7, a beautiful and profound reading experience. It is a deeply personal memoir, a net woven from many threads. It traces the fine lines that link stories across time and around the world. It considers, for example, how a kiss in a library in London in 1912 set up a chain of events that led to the fact that Flanagan came into existence on the other side of the world in 1956.

Mate, his mother’s mother, was descended from the Whiteboys, a secret revolutionary group in Ireland, many of whom were transported. Mate was old enough to remember her grandfather speaking of how he found a person caught in a man trap, a brutal device for capturing escaped convicts. Mate was made of tough stuff. She was never going to be coerced into words or feelings that were not truly her own. Yet Flanagan remembers her grief when she shared this story.

Mate is the kind of person whose experience has created Flanagan’s approach to storytelling, one that goes against the grain in a culture infatuated with ‘messaging’ and ‘controlling the narrative’, more than the open-ended complexity of genuine story-telling.

‘Novels and literature are utterly distinct from journalism or politics,’ he says. ‘Instead of proposing answers, they are allowed to be contradictory. Bad novels pretend to have answers. Real literature simply mirrors the chaos and strange mystery that are human beings and life. With this book, I just had questions that absorbed me, and even those questions were not fully formed. I think the main one was what is it to live?’

Question 7 derives its title from an early short story, really a sketch, by Anton Chekhov (1860–1904), a writer with whose subtle power of suggestion Flanagan shares a great deal.

‘The older I’ve grown and the more I’ve read, the more remarkable and mysterious Chekhov’s work seems to be. How does he achieve such effects? You can turn his stories upside down and