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CLASSICS VANDALISM: HANDS OFF JANE AUSTEN!

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As I was cleaning the oven this morning (a thankless if necessary task made only marginally more acceptable by a fresh crop of this week’s arts, books and music podcasts, the family sensibly staying away from me as I swore and scrubbed with a mad gleam in my eye), I reflected on the current Austen debate.

Cleaning the oven and thinking about Jane Austen may, at first glance, seem an oxymoron, but as I battled with seemingly irremovable burned-on grime, it appeared a suitable metaphor for a malaise spreading through the literary world: scouring the classics, re-inventing the déjà-vu.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all in favour of the next film adaptation of Wuthering Heights or David Copperfield, but it seems to me that Classics Mania is spawning a new breed of literature: Classics Reinvention, whereby contemporary writers are commissioned to write sequels to, or radically review our well-loved favourites.

In the columns of the British press, we’ve seen a sparring match between writers Sam Leith and Elizabeth Day in The Observer over the so-called “Austen Project”. For those not in the know, this HarperCollins publishing initiative involves six novelists reworking Austen’s oeuvre for the 21st century. Joanna Trollope has just published (and note the ampersand) Sense & Sensibility; out soon are Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Pride and Prejudice and Alexander McCall’s Emma.

Leith is all in favour – there’s nothing wrong with dressing an old aunt in new clothes, he says, citing Bridget Jones as the obvious pastiche-to riches phenomenon . Day, however, is scathing. “I’d much rather read a new book….containing inventive ideas and new ways of seeing human behaviour than a novel that is constrained by someone else’s plot devices handed down through the centuries.”, she writes.  “I don’t need to read about Mr Knightley listening to Arctic Monkeys on his iPod to be convinced that Jane Austen is ‘relevant’. I already know she is.”

There are in fact two ideas here. The first stream is the homage novel, inspired by a piece of fiction, but remaining highly original, with its own take on character and plot.  Although I’m not a Helen Fielding fan, Bridget Jones clearly falls into this category.  So does a work such as Zadie Smith’s fabulous On Beauty which revisits Howard’s End in a completely individual way.

A few years ago, BBC TV produced a superb series where a number of Shakespeare comedies, including Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were re-interpreted for today. Although plotlines were subscribed to in principle, the writers enthusiastically fitted them to contemporary mores, so they became free-standing works of art.

The second stream is where pure spin-offs or sequels of original works are written, which I have greater difficulty accepting. It’s all very well to say such books acquire a separate personality and should be judged accordingly but why tamper with what already works? Cynically, this seems to be an exercise in pure greed and commercialism, with publishers and the media cashing in on our seemingly unending appetite for much-loved classics.

There was a ghastly reworking of Pride and Prejudice on television a few years ago called Lost in Austen where a modern day London gel time-travels  back to the 19th century and finds herself living and acting out the role of Elizabeth Bennett. It was so unbelievably awful that I can’t recall it now without shuddering.  As a spoof, it was crass beyond belief and seemed to me to be merely exploitative, with no artistic merit whatever.

It’s not only Austen, of course.  David Benedictus has revisited Winnie-the-Pooh. This year, Sebastian Faulks has given birth to a new Bertie Wooster and William Boyd has launched a revamped 007. I’m sure that the authors who have been commissioned to write these “new” works have done so with respect, a high level of craft and great intelligence. And yet, and yet, I remain unconvinced. I truly enjoy the work of Sebastian Faulks but  have absolutely no interest in  a 21st century version of Jeeves.  I’ll keep on reading Wodehouse as I’ve always done.

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18 Comments

Confessions of a Biblioholic

 

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Hello. My name is Dina and I’m a Biblioholic. I’ve been in denial for years but now it’s time to come clean. My addiction to books is ruining my life. I went out shopping for groceries yesterday and came back with the complete works of John Cheever. My fridge is empty, the washing neglected. I haven’t cleaned my house in weeks. I’m even finding Patrick White easy to read. I need help.

Thanks for the applause and synchronised hellos, and the warm welcome, Ms Facilitator. It’s such a relief to discover that I’m not alone. All of you here, drinking camomile tea, understand my affliction. Sally, I really appreciated sharing your Jane Austen obsession. How well I know the sharp pangs of Darcy Syndrome, although I was afflicted by Knightley Disease myself – the lure of the older man –  which progressed into Rochester Phenomenon for far too long, as I recall….Martin, your Henry James fixation is perfectly natural, who wouldn’t empathise with the desire for intricate, meticulously observed sentences, where the passion for detail – every element of a room’s furnishings, for example, carefully notated – mingles with keenly-fashioned dialogue, edged with sound psychological realism and a hint of authorial comment?

I apologise, Ms Facilitator, believe me,  I’m not trying to reinforce behaviour patterns, I’m simply saying – of course I realise Fay’s suffering from Novel-induced Tourette’s. But here’s my take on it: she’s in the grip of Gritty Millennial Realism.  There’s only one way out, going cold turkey on all novelists under 35. How about a mammoth dose of Hemingway? OK. OK. Maybe that wasn’t such a great idea.

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Let’s chant. Hold hands. Close our eyes. Our mantra for this week is inspired by our Bible, Biblioholism: The Literary Addiction by Tom Raabe (paperback).

We shall destroy our credit cards

We shall answer the telephone and speak to friends

We will not read book reviews

We will cross the road when we see a public library

When we spot a bookshop, we will turn the corner and pop into a café for a coffee and muffin instead.

I admit it was flippant, Ms Facilitator, to say swapping this class for a Weight Watchers weigh-in was taking the cake. And naturally I recognise the gravity of our condition.

Peter, I’m sorry your wife has moved out, I really sympathise, although negotiating this pile by the kitchen – just one week’s reading, I think you said – must have been pretty awkward.

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Peter, stop crying, I’m not being judgmental – come back – we’ll get through this. All of us. We just have to have faith.

Let me get this right, Ms Facilitator: by watching the movie of the book, you’re saying we’ll be drawn into an appreciation of other media, and gradually increase our consumption of competing distractions? I get it – a gradual weaning, a softly, softly approach – how about Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper in For Whom The Bell Tolls? Oh, that’s on your Recommended Next Steps, is it, along with Omar Sharif in Dr Zhivago? I’m impressed. And I think you’ve got a great track record, only losing one group member to Game of Thrones.

See you all next week.