Arifa Akbar: So many books, so little time. So must we recycle the same old stories?

The Week in Books

Arifa Akbar@arifa_akbar
Wednesday 11 March 2015 12:37

They say there are only a few core plots in storytelling. It boils down to seven in all, or that's what English literature students were once taught. That's why all adventure yarns begin to resemble Homer's Odyssey when they are stripped to the bone.

It's true that contemporary quest narratives such as, say, Life of Pi begin to look a lot like Odysseus's voyage (specifics such as Royal Bengal Tigers notwithstanding) and Jane Eyre or Pretty Woman look like rehashed Cinderella stories, when their plot structures are isolated. But fiction is judged on so much else – the freshness of its characters, the beauty of its sentences, its intellectual or emotional depth – and these are the elements that make each story discrete and innovative.

Recycling these core plots does not mean that we have to recycle the same old stories. Which is why I have never understood the lure of reimagining a classic for modern times - fiction that duplicates the same plot as well as characters of a canonical novel. Talking of which, Joanna Trollope's reworked Sense and Sensibility is due out in October while Jo Baker's debut, Longbourn, gives us Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants ("If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her petticoats, Sarah thought, she would be more careful not to trudge through muddy fields").

There is a long tradition in re-imagining classics thus, and it seems mostly to come wrapped in a Austen fixation: HarperCollins commissioned Trollope and five others for 'The Austen Project', which brings all six of her complete novels into the 21st century. Many Austen fans will be curious to see how Trollope will treat the story - what she'll throw out or keep.

This is not the first time she has been reconceived either. Helen Fielding was said to have used Pride and Prejudice as inspiration for Bridget Jones's Diary, and there have been those bizarre offshoots like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. By all accounts, we love these reinventions. Other authors have had the same treatment: Zadie Smith's On Beauty was a "homage" to EM Forster's Howard's End, and Francesca Segal won acclaim for her debut, The Innocents, a retelling of Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence set in London's Jewish community.

There is something comforting about hearing the same stories told to us, as reassuring in their ritual retelling as the bedtime stories we liked to hear repeated as children. But don't we have new, more topical stories to tell, and hear? Trollope's book is bound to be fresh: flicking though it I glimpsed talk of sex-kittens and texts, but there are so many books and so little time to read them, and arguably, even less time for a well-known, retweaked classic. Adaptations of all kinds don't always send readers to the original text but gives some a false sense of having done (seeing last year's film adaptation of Great Expectations was not tantamount to reading Dickens, just for the record).

Perhaps we can't leave Austen's oeuvre alone because her preoccupations are still our own. Finding love or a comfortable marriage is no less central to middle-class lives, it would seem, despite the fact that, on the whole, we no longer marry for money and position. Or do we? Austen's popular transposition into the modern age suggests that some of us might do. Some classics can't be reworked yet we get a great deal from them all the same. A modern Anna Karenina would have no cause to throw herself under a train after leaving her husband for her lover. And she would hardly be denied access to her son because of it. Madame Bovary would certainly not perish in a dull marriage, she'd simply have a cinq à sept.

Times might change, but classic literature doesn't always need to.

After Stoner's success, a second quiet classic

Stoner, the 1965 novel by John Williams that has taken the world's book charts by storm, may only be the first in Williams's oeuvre to become a latter-day bestseller. Waterstones is including his last novel, Augustus (which afficionados claim as his best) in its September 'book club'. A sticker will flag up the Stoner connection. Meanwhile, some are hoping for Stoner - the film. Not beyond the realms of possibility, given that Tom Hanks raved about it some years ago. Could he offer his services?

Super library as tourist hotspot?

A ten storey building has recently furnished the skyline of Birmingham. Designed by the smartDutch architects, Mecanoo, the state-of-the-art building look like, from the outside at least, a Tate Modern for the Midlands.

It will open its doors as the city's super library and as the flagship project of the city's 20 year regeneration plan, it is hoped that it will become a "cultural destination". It will house world-class collections of archives, photography and rare books with precious collections kept in a climatically controlled environment. A new gallery will have an exhibitions programme, two garden terraces and, charmingly, even a music rotunda.

At a time when smaller libraries are seeing closures, there is a reassuring symbolism in the opening of this impressive library, as long as the smaller fish aren't killed off elsewhere.

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