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Wanting - Richard Flanagan
You see, reason, gentlemen, is a fine thing, that is unquestionable, but reason is only reason and satisfies only man's reasoning capacity, while wanting is a manifestation of the whole of life.
-- Fyodor Dostoevsky

I’ve rarely read anything as compelling and heartbreaking as Flanagan’s description of the failed marriage of Charles and Catherine Dickens, except perhaps his account of the devastating adoption and “civilizing” of a beautiful and precocious Aboriginal orphan girl named Mathinna by Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin, or his take on the disaster that was Britain’s attempt to colonize Australia by exterminating the native population, or his telling of the love affair of Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan, or his account of the catastrophe that was Sir John’s final Arctic expedition, all of the above being at heart about conflicting desires and the resulting ironies, i.e., the potential for ruin inherent in so many good intentions. It’s all part of this story, which should tell you that this is a tragedy, and all good tragedies begin and end with wanting.

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There is no wanting quite like hunger, as in the extreme craving for food when starvation takes hold and the mad scramble for survival kicks in. Mere sustenance is needed, but there’s nothing mere about the emptiness. It opens like a bottomless pit into which sanity plummets, and anyone who gets in the way of filling that hole is likely to suffer, at least until exhaustion overcomes strength and will and every other thing and there is no more scrambling to be done.

Did Sir John Franklin become hungry enough in 1846 during his catastrophic Arctic voyage to resort to cannibalism? The evidence said yes, and his wife, Lady Jane, simply could not bear it. As if the failure of the mission was not humiliation enough, it rendered her husband – “the embodiment of all that was most virtuous in English civilization” -- no more than a savage in the end, and the shame was too much for her fine British self to handle.

The best one could hope for was that the last survivors – who died before being found – did not kill their fellows in order to eat them but ate only those who died naturally, in which case it could be rationally argued that appropriating their flesh for survival was a comparably “natural” act and only made sense. Nonetheless, it was repulsive and horrific, and anyone overcoming such awful instincts would, in Lady Jane’s opinion, secure what she wanted most for her husband – honor.

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She would be nine years simply finding out what had happened to the expedition. For nine years nothing was heard or seen of ship or crew. Disaster was assumed, but she determined to find Sir John alive and spared no expense making it so. “For how is it possible,” she said, “for so many so remarkable to vanish off the face of the earth?”

When at last a report came in, the findings instantly hit newspapers around the world, and it was not what Lady Jane wanted to hear. All aboard had perished, “and from the mutilated state of many of the bodies and the contents of the kettles it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative – cannibalism – as a means of prolonging existence.”

Lady Jane reacted by proclaiming this a lie – at best base sensationalism, at worst a conspiracy by her husband’s detractors. She then solicited the help of the one man capable of rewriting the story such that the public would believe her version: Charles Dickens. And a sympathetic Dickens complied, but for reasons to do with his own survival.

He had a vision that would become inescapable, at once a talisman, a mystery, an explanation and a lodestone -- the frozen ship, leaning on some unnatural angle, forced upwards and sideways by the ice, immense white walls rearing behind its dipping masts, the glitter of moonlight on endless snow, the desolate sound of men moaning as they died echoing across the infinite expanse of windswept white. In its strange hallucinatory power, Dickens had the odd sensation of recognizing himself as ice floes, falling snow, as if he were an infinite frozen world waiting for an impossible redemption.

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Redemption of one kind or another is at stake throughout. Every character of any note is wanting redemption, ultimately of his or her soul, or to put it another way: validation of the beliefs and desires that give life meaning. It's all ardor and misery, and nobody does ardor and misery quite like Dickens, even in a note he nails it, as in this one written to Ellen Ternan. Wanting, indeed:

I wish you to know that you are the last dream of my soul. In my degradation, the sight of you has stirred old shadows that I thought had died out of me. Since I have known you, I have been troubled by remorse that I thought would never reproach me again, and have heard whispers from old voices impelling me upward that I thought were silent forever. I have had unformed ideas of striving afresh, beginning anew, shaking off sloth and fighting out the abandoned fight. A dream, all a dream, that ends in nothing and leaves the sleeper where he lay down, but I wish you to know that you inspired it.
Burn this card,

Flanagan borrows some lines, but this is, in fact, Flanagan writing Dickens, and he writes each character as vividly, and though the book is not long I finished feeling like I’d read the like of a big novel by, say, Dostoevsky or . . . Dickens.
Recently I ruled Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish my favorite novel read in 2012. Half of Wanting occurs in the same place and time, in the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Island, now Tasmania, circa 1830, but featuring different historical characters – Sir John Franklin as the colony's governor and the Aboriginal child named Mathinna that he and Lady Jane adopt as an experiment in attempting to “civilize the savage.”

Because most “savages” are simply being exterminated, this seems a decent thing to do, or at least a preferable alternative, and there’s the fact that the Franklins want a child and can't have one of their own. That story parallels the book’s other half, in which Charles Dickens, nine years after Sir John's death, is producing and acting in a wildly popular play inspired by Lady Jane’s request to restore her husband’s honor. He casts and falls in love with an actress named Ellen Ternan.

NYT reviewer Michiko Takukani called Gould’s Book of Fish symphonic and fantastic, Wanting more like a carefully structured but deeply emotive chamber piece. She writes: In cutting among the stories of Dickens, the Franklins and young Mathinna, Mr. Flanagan creates a musical echo chamber in which thematic leitmotifs – dealing with reason and its limitations, imperialism and its social fallout, self-delusion and its consequences – tie their very different experiences together.

I agree, but unlike Takukani I don’t consider Wanting a lesser work. I’m still marveling over Flanagan’s talent for crafting such different but comparably good compositions, and I found this one more intimate and personally satisfying. It’s intricately intimate, sans symphonic flourishes and grandeur, which makes it the more difficult piece in some ways. A symphony can cover a multitude of sins; in a chamber piece there’s little room for mistakes of any kind.

As for Sir John Franklin, I've gone from one novel to another involving him. The hero explorer of the first novel, Sten Nadolny's The Discovery of Slowness, is in Wanting a clueless governor: "Sir John and Lady Jane were keen observers of everything, save the people around them." And with this I’ll lodge my two complaints. First, that the hapless character of Flanagan’s Sir John veers so far from the historical record. Second, that a couple of passages toward the end of the book felt rushed and I wanted them to be longer, particularly about Dickens and Ternan.

I can see where Flanagan gets his take on Sir John – it’s basically that of John’s political antagonists, who for a stretch wreaked havoc with his reputation, unjustly as far as I can tell, but Flanagan doesn’t include that qualification, maybe because he considers them right, maybe because their take serves the purposes of this story. In any case, Sir John is rendered an almost completely unlikeable and even despicable man. Even so, the story is damn near perfect, and the language too, even at its most brutal.

All around her were trees older than knowing. If you held your face to their taut mossy bark, you could hear it all. It passed understanding. It defied words and spoke in dreams. She was flying through wallaby grass, her body no longer a torment but a joy. Soft threads of fine grass feathering beads of water onto her legs. The earth was her bare feet, wet and mushy in winter, dry and dusty in summer.

Mathinna managed to lift her head out of the puddle once. Walter Talba Bruney slipped the filthy red scarf from her hair down onto her throat, and twisted its greasy loop into an inescapable garrotte. The track in front of her shuddered. Time and the world were not infinite, and all things end in dirt and mud. She finally saw her father's face. Long, with a slightly bent nose and a kind mouth, it was, she realized with rising terror, as she felt herself being forced back into the wet void, the face of death.