Boyd Tonkin: Ghosts and giants on and off the page
The week in books
Friday 04 February 2011
Tomorrow, Sebastian Faulks begins his BBC 2 series about characters in fiction. On the same day, the National Theatre brings to the stage, via Nick Dear's play, the latest incarnation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Although absent from Faulks on Fiction, the hapless creature given life by Dr Frankenstein might qualify for a place in three out of four of its categories. Into them Faulks slots the 28 protagonists from British fiction that he opts to treat "as though they were real people". The deathless monster created in 1817 beside Lake Geneva by a shockingly gifted 19-year-old could count, at various moments, as one of Faulks's Heroes, Villains and Lovers. Only his fourth section, Snobs, would elude the DIY giant. Significantly, Faulks thinks that "the snob and the mainstream novel could almost have been made for one another".
It is excellent to have a prime-time series about great fiction on terrestrial TV. On screen, and in Faulks's attractive and enlightening tie-in volume (BBC Books, £20), the novelist employs his schema as a sort of burglar's tool. It lets him pick the lock of many varieties of fiction and gently usher his guests inside. Within, they might have expected to meet Sherlock Holmes and Becky Sharpe (heroes); Tess Durbeyfield and Mr Darcy (lovers); Emma Woodhouse and Jean Brodie (snobs). Less predictably, Faulks's cast – and the spectrum of novels they inhabit – stretches from James Bond in Fleming's spy capers to Winston Smith in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four; from Steerpike in Peake's Gormenghast trilogy to DH Lawrence's Connie Chatterley and PG Wodehouse's Jeeves.
Faulks plays a cannier game here than his project's billing might suggest. At first glance, his pitch looks antediluvian: ink-and-paper fabrications analysed as flesh-and-blood. The author-presenter knows very well that - at least since the Shakespearean scholar LC Knights flayed the tendency to consider imaginary entities as living beings in his 1933 polemic "How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?" - every rival school of criticism has agreed on the utter folly of this approach. Yet most readers, of course, do not belong to any school of criticism. And they persist in breaking all the academic rules to love, hate and cohabit with these papery phantoms.
But Faulks's truculence about "critical theories" amounts to more than another stolid helping of English Common Sense. He enlists, or pretends to enlist, an out-of-fashion attitude in order to vanquish what he perceives as a much shallower, in-fashion alternative. For Faulks believes that the biographical "based on" treatment of fiction as if it were disguised memoir or confession now threatens to flatten the whole canon under its juggernaut wheels. Even Vince Cable, he recalls, once said that he admired Birdsong because it drew on the First World War ordeals of the writer's grandfather. It didn't. Faulks made it up. That's what novelists do.
Faulks on Fiction revels in the creation of vital, unruly characters as an antidote to this "based on" baloney. In practice, however, many essays stray far from a purely character-driven agenda. They explore just those issues of genre and form, culture and context, that his model of novels as star vehicles seems to overlook. Faulks talks in detail about the "branded" texture of the Bond books (having written one, Devil May Care); about the links between the art of fable and the "limited" psychology in Golding's Lord of the Flies; about Martin Amis's John Self, in Money, as a semi-allegorical "avatar" of his greedy times as much as a fully-rounded figure. So don't come to Faulks on Fiction to cheer, or jeer, a resuscitated Great Tradition of transparent psychological and social realism. You will find yourself on shifting sands, not solid ground.
Which brings us back to Frankenstein, and the shadow-side of Faulks's "mainstream novel" of character-in-society. From Swift and Sterne via Mary Shelley and Lewis Carroll to Angela Carter and JG Ballard, powerful currents of fantasy, satire and romance have fed into that mainstream and often changed its route. Faulks's selection nods to this mighty counter-tradition and its landmarks: in Wuthering Heights or Money, in Gormenghast or Nineteen Eighty-Four. To do it full justice, though, would take another sort of series, and another kind of character.
Novel news in the Arabic Booker
This year, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the "Arabic Booker") deserves even closer scrutiny than usual. The shortlist hits one topical bull's-eye after another. Two titles by Egyptian authors deal with migrants who have left their paralysed homeland, either for New York – Brooklyn Heights by Miral al-Tahawy (right) – or London: An Oriental Dance by Khalid al-Berry. "Extraordinary rendition" drives Bensalem Himmich's My Torturer; corruption in Mecca underlies Raja Alem's The Doves' Necklace; Mohammed Achaari's The Arch and the Butterfly explores the gulf dividing secular father and jihadi son. The winner will be revealed in Abu Dhabi on 14 March.
Save libraries – and save money
This Saturday, a day of action in support of public libraries will see read-ins and marches, rallies and performances, in places from Doncaster to Dorset, Lewisham to Liverpool. Evidence of local opposition to library closures looks overwhelming: Hounslow has postponed plans to shut eight branches after a consultation over the level of cuts found a large majority in favour of none at all. Out of touch, on the defensive, the Coalition – in particular, confused culture minister Ed Vaizey - is floundering. None of its weaselly efforts to shift the blame for closures onto town halls has softened opinion – and rightly so. Yet campaigners still need to talk about quality, efficiency and waste reduction rather than just shoring up the status quo. An example: one of consultant Tim Coates's reforms involves shrinking the six pricey stages in the library supply chain that sends a book from its publisher onto a shelf near you down to three. Activists must have these arguments at their fingertips – because most councillors won't.
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