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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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The New Outlier Fiction: a look at Evie Wyld

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After The Fire, A Still, Small Voice by Evie Wyld             Published by: Vintage, $19.99

One of the fascinating aspects of Granta’s Twenty Under 40 list is the range of countries from which the young novelists originate. Yes, the list features writers who were born in Britain, but there are also writers born in many other countries including India, Africa, Australia and Canada who now live in Britain. Over the next few months, I’ll try and look at a number of these young writers. Some, like Zadie Smith, are well-established and need no introduction. Others are new to me and I’m looking forward to exploring them.

Twenty years ago, Granta’s list was predominantly male with few foreign-sounding names among them. The 2013 list has more women than men and its sheer cosmopolitan quality shows the literary revolution that has occurred over this time. Today’s young writers explore the world through a well-travelled lens. They may be called “Best of Young British” but their formative experiences often lie elsewhere. This brings a richness to their writing but also a sense of displacement. Do the writers feel more at home in Britain or their birth country?  Is home more than once place? Or are they still searching for a place to call home?

These existential dilemmas are often explored through their writing. In a recent Guardian Books podcast, Michelle de Kretser was interviewed about her Miles Franklin prizewinning novel, Questions of Travel. Born in Sri Lanka, she now lives in Sydney and admitted to feeling neither particularly Sri Lankan nor Australian. She is both a part of, and no longer a part, of two continents. She writes, she says, with an outsider’s gaze that has learned to categorise and appraise many countries. This strange limbo state has no precise term in English but the French would call it dépaysement, alienation from an intimate connection with place.

It gives rise to what I’ll call Outlier Fiction, and I suspect we will see more and more of this as Generations Y and Next continue to publish. It’s evident in one of Granta’s Best of the Under 40s,  Evie Wyld. Her  first novel, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, published in 2009, is set in Australia, in particular the rugged border between Queensland and New South Wales.  Her second book, All The Birds Singing, which was released a few days ago, alternates narratives between a sheep station in Australia and a bleak island off the British coast.

Though born and living in Britain, Wyld has an Australian mother and since childhood has frequently travelled to Australia to see her family. What strikes the reader of After the Fire…. is the vivid technicolour brushstrokes with which Wyld paints the Australian bush. You feel the heat, the barren landscape, the wide sweep of miles and miles of dusty, dirt roads. For someone who isn’t a native Australian, this is an extraordinary tour de force.

In an interview with Granta earlier this year, Wyld commented that she was able to write so convincingly because being away from Australia allowed her to uncover a narrative freedom she couldn’t have developed if she lived there. She was able to write more easily about Britain when living in Australia, she confessed, and about Australia when living in Britain. This surely, is a characteristic of Outlier Fiction – the cultivation of distance and objectivity that gives rise to a heightened sense of awareness, allowing the writer to conjure an unique image of place because of their status as outsider. And yet the danger here is that this very distance may give rise to a distortion of the truth, a personal fiction that may not be unbiased.

In After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, two narratives intertwine. Frank moves to a ramshackle shack off the east coast of Queenland that once belonged to his grandparents. Escaping from a broken relationship, he’s trying to rebuild his life in the wilderness. In alternating chapters, we also meet Leon, forty years earlier, and follow him through Aussie suburbia, then as a soldier after he’s drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. As the novel weaves their lives together, the reader discovers the link between the two men and the ties that bind them.

The assuredness with which Wyld adopts the male voice is striking. There is blood and violence here, the horror of war, desperation, loneliness. Wyld mimics Aussie demotic speech perfectly. Her men are rough and unsophisticated, as unpredictable as the weather and the bleak and barren landscape in which they live. At the same time, she paints a highly unflattering portrait of Australia: in the space of a few chapters, we’re presented with wife beaters, incest, rampant drunkenness, bigotry, blatant racism and child abuse. This is a country infested with huge, malign spiders, biting insects and dangerous sharks. Reading this book, you’d be forgiven for thinking the whole of Australia was, as former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating once put it, the “arse end of the world”.

As a city dweller, I admit this is not the Australia I personally live in, and it isn’t a portrait of a society I recognise, although I suspect isolated, rural communities share similar problems the world over. Unsurprisingly, Wyld hasn’t been adopted by the Australian establishment (notorious for figuring any excuse to claim a rising star’s Australian roots) as one of its own. This is especially notable as many ex-pats, including Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer, Peter Carey, who haven’t lived in Australia for years, are still trumpeted as being “Australian” in our press.

As an exponent of Outlier Fiction, Wyld’s cool analysis may lead her to over-sensationalise occasionally. But she is also able to raise  the curtain on unseemly aspects of Australian society that we’d prefer to forget. I’m intrigued to see how she paints Australia again in her new novel. (Interestingly, the novel she is currently working on is set entirely in Britain.) And I will be eagerly comparing her to many of the other novelists on the Twenty under 40 list, to see if they share her divided, distanced view of what was, and is, no longer home.

Read it: For a haunting evocation of the Australian landscape by a powerful new voice in fiction