Billy Gould, prisoner, Sarah Island Penal Colony, Tasmania, 1830ish:
“The truth is that there is something irretrievably fishy about us all.
For many years I have been painting fish, & I would have to say that what once was an imposition – what started out as an order, became a cosy push then a criminal act – is now my love. At first I tried, in spite of my artistick shortcomings, to create a record of this place, a history of its people & its stories, & all of it was to be fish. At the beginning, it was to be every last one of them, all those faceless people who have no portraits, who only exist beyond their bodies as a sentence of exile, a convict indent record, a list of floggings, a tattooed initial on a fellow felon’s chest or arms, gunpowder blue and hair-forested; a penny love token hanging around a heavy wrinkled neck recalled as a young woman’s firm, sweet flesh; a memory fading quicker than hope.”
This is my favorite read of 2012 (not published this year but read this year). It’s my favorite sort of novel, which is the kind that takes some oddment of historical fact about an obscure character – in this case a 19th century prisoner in an Australian penal colony who painted a book of fish -- and from it spins a fantastical yarn, part chronicle, part myth, narrated by (and this is the most important part) an irresistible voice. It is part eccentric explore, part irreverent but wondrous reverie, inevitably a love story, and wildly digressive, but like my favorite jazz it can riff away on the melody without losing it. The love part doesn't mean falsely sentimental because always there are harsh realities, and often these favorite novels of mine are tragedies, dealing as they do in the conundrums that are the life of “the common man” and his/her apparent insignificance in the grand scheme of things, the twist being that one way or another we (us common men and women) do somehow anyway and goddamnit matter.
Arthur Miller wrote an essay called Tragedy and the Common Man
that gets at the heart of tragedy like no one else I've read on the subject. Always there’s a character's “tragic flaw” (and in a penal colony, flaws abound), but Miller writes that the flaw “need be nothing but his unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity,”
as in his human dignity. “No tragedy can therefore come about when its author fears to question absolutely everything, when he regards any institution, habit or custom as being either everlasting, immutable or inevitable. In the tragic view, the need of man to wholly realize himself is the only fixed star, and whatever it is that hedges his nature and lowers it is ripe for attack and examination . . . everything is in suspension, and in this stretching and tearing apart of the cosmos, in the very action of so doing, the character gains ‘size,’ the tragic stature. The commonest of men may take on that stature to the extent of his willingness to throw all he has into the contest, the battle to secure his rightful place in the world. . . In truth, tragedy implies more optimism than does comedy, in that its final result ought to be . . . the indestructible will of man to achieve his humanity.”
It's the struggle at the heart of all great novels, but tragedies most of all, and when honestly and well told, comedy is inherent in tragedy because you have to laugh, and there’s no doing irony well without humor, and as for Billy Gould’s tragedy -- I lost track of the times I laughed out loud, sometimes while also horrified or revolted, but that’s the brilliance of Flanagan's telling of Gould's story, and it left no emotional stone unturned in this reader.
Next to my painting I intend to make a bonfire of words, say anything if it illuminates a paltry moment of truth.
Come closer, listen: I will tell you why I crawl close to the ground: because I choose to. Because I care not to live above it like they may fancy is the way to live, the place to be, so that they in their eyrie & guard towers might look down on the earth & us & judge it all as wanting.
I care not to paint pretend pictures of long views which blur the particular & insult the living, those landscapes so beloved of Pobjoys, those landscapes that trash the truth as they reach ever upwards into the sky, as though we only know somewhere or somebody from a distance, while the truth is never far away but up close in the dirt, in the vile details of slime & filth along with the Devil, along with the Angels, & all snared up in the earth & us, all emobodied in the single pulse of a heart -- mine, yours, ours . . . The criticasters will say I am this small thing & my pictures that irrelevant thing. They will beat a bedlam outside and inside my poor head . . . But I am William Buelow Gould, party of one, undefinable, & my fish will free me.
Why I am just getting around to reading this when the book was published 11 years ago I don’t know, but once again I have GR to thank – in particular Tony’s review – for bringing it to my attention. There’s a decade of great reviews out there, and I’ll now defer to a couple of favorites.
Tony's at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/290157509
and Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times