Friday, 8 February 2013

'An unfashionable approach': Sebastian Faulks

Sebastian Faulks isn’t afraid to nail his colours to the mast. In the first few pages of Faulks on Fiction, he spells out his methodology; fed up of the type of biographical criticism that assumes that famous characters must be based on persons or events known to the author, he has decided to focus instead on how they function as fictional creations within their own fictional worlds, and divides his targets into four categories (the better to televise them). So, is Faulks a hero, villain, snob or lover... oh, wait, he’s not fictional. But while we can safely exclude the latter two categories from our analysis, I found myself vacillating wildly between ‘hero’ or ‘villain’ as I read different chapters, which is the joy of reading this book; you may not agree with all of Faulks’ judgements, but you’re rarely indifferent.

Faulks’ approach

Faulks’ ostensible aim, as I’ve already noted, is to purge literary criticism of its lazy real-life parallels, and it’s an aim that I find extremely sympathetic. (There’s a brilliant ancedote in the introduction where Faulks, at a literary gathering to promote his novel about nineteenth-century psychiatry, Human Traces, jokes ‘now I’ve given up and just admit that yes, I’m really a 105-year-old woman, that I was parachuted into France for SOE in 1942 to write Charlotte Gray and wrote Human Traces only because my great-aunt was in a lunatic asylum in 1895.’ The audience laughs, but as Faulks is on his way out, a concerned woman asks him ‘What asylum was your aunt in?’) However, he has a number of other frameworks to impose, and I didn’t find these quite so useful; conveyed more subtly throughout the course of the book than his rants on literary critics, they are easy to miss. One such framework is his belief that ‘the trick of the novelist’s art’ is to reveal the universal through the particular; or, to put the point more strongly, as he does in his analysis of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, for Tess to work as a novel, we have to believe that if Hardy had selected another milkmaid to write about at random, he would have been able to explore the same themes and make the same points. Otherwise, Faulks insists, he will have ‘sacrificed [his] claim to universal resonance.’ Thus follows ten tortured pages or so of Faulks desperately trying to claim that Tess is typical, when Hardy spends hundreds of pages emphasising that she is anything but.

I’m not sure why Faulks doesn’t jettison this principle as regards Tess – he seems willing to allow exceptions to this rule – because it doesn’t seem to me that a story must be typical for it to possess resonance. But then, in some ways he seems as bound to theory throughout this book as are the literary critics that he lampoons. Another example pops up in his analysis of Oliver Twist; one reason that Dickens is so great, he argues, is that his best work shares ‘the odd sense of portraying something that was always there... It is as though these people and scenes were part of a collective memory, needing only the brilliant beam of Dickens’s imagination to illuminate them.’ While Faulks deserves kudos for having achieved the difficult feat of identifying something positive in Dickens, these further musings on the theme of resonance don’t go any further to convince me that it’s the most important aspect of a novel. While I do love novels that I feel I’ve ‘read before’, it’s not always the greatest novels that have this effect; actually, far more often, it’s well-written popular fiction. George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire has this in spades (wasn’t there always a Wall? Didn’t I always know about the six direwolf pups?) as does Rebecca (haven’t we all dreamed that we were at Manderly again?) It’s a dangerous thing to fix upon as a proof of the novelist’s art, because often it speaks to the way the novels have seeped into our wider cultural landscape rather than accurately measuring the effect they would have had when first published – how do we know if Dickens’ Miss Havisham, Nancy and Fagin feel familiar to us or simply are familiar to us? Therefore, his yardstick of a novel’s success isn’t doing the work that Faulks expects it to.

Faulks as hero

Faulks is at his best when he forgets to care whether a novel is ‘resonant’ or not. His essay on Mr Darcy is splendid. While his depiction of this beloved romantic lead as an egocentric depressive is bound to be controversial, I was cheering all the way through, having always felt deeply suspicious of Darcy as anybody’s happy ending. Faulks brilliantly analyses how a marriage to Darcy is still advantageous for Elizabeth but is not the love match that we might hope for. Comparisons with his equally fine essay on Emma are fascinating; Mr Knightley hardly gets off lightly, as Faulks continually suggests that Emma will probably outgrow him: ‘In order... to win Emma... he will need to catch her when she has just grown into him but before she grows out of him’  but ultimately, he shows himself to be a better man than Darcy because he wholeheartedly accepts his own failings. His analyses of Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal, Nick Guest in The Line of Beauty, and Anna Wulf in The Golden Notebook (a novel I have never been able to like) are also excellent, and although I’ve never read a James Bond novel, I enjoyed Faulks’ account of how he carefully inserted another book into the Bond canon (his Devil May Care of 2008).

Faulks as villain

Faulks’ two essays on Dickens frustrated me, not least because there seems to be a massive George Eliot shaped hole in this volume, and, given this, devoting two chapters to a single writer seems unbalanced. Faulks is pretty comprehensive on his Victorian novelists – he covers Jane Austen, Emily Bronte (so the Brontes get a tick, though I wish it was Charlotte), Wilkie Collins, William Thackeray and Thomas Hardy, as well as Dickens – so the omission feels particularly striking, especially as he moans a lot about how undergraduates no longer read Middlemarch at the beginning of this book. (He’s done nothing to encourage them). I’ve already explained why I think his claims about the resonance of Dickens are ill-founded, and when he tries to assert that Dickens achieves an ‘almost Proustian’ effect in David Copperfield – ‘he makes time disappear... we see through the events of the present and deep into the past’ I’m afraid I had to disagree again. The scene he is speaking of – a scene he adores so much he quotes it twice – is indeed one of the finest moments in David Copperfield (not that that’s saying much); it is when David finds Steerforth’s drowned body lying on the sand, and reflects ‘I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school.’ This is a beautiful sentence, but the implicit juxtaposition it contains between past and present is hardly something unusual; I’ve seen it done scores of times in novels of wildly differing quality.

Faulks is also guilty of the strange kind of hyperbole some Dickens fans seem to favour (I read once that if you do not appreciate Dickens, you do not appreciate life!) when he asserts that ‘Few people, I imagine, would disagree that Charles Dickens and Jane Austen are the two greatest British novelists of the nineteenth century’. I find this statement utterly bizarre, to say the least. Nothing wrong with Faulks expressing his personal opinion on this matter; but given that a large number of people think that Middlemarch is the greatest novel ever written in English, it seems unlikely that only a few people would disagree with his choices – and that’s without even mentioning the other contenders. I’m not sure why Dickens inspires this particularly fundamentalist brand of fan-worship; but then I was already suspicious when Faulks claimed he couldn’t analyse why Dickens’s novels work so well.

Faulks as neither

And then there are the articles in this volume that are genuinely interesting, but seem to me to be stymied by an assumption that Faulks makes at the start that hobbles the rest of his analysis. His essay on Jack Merridew in Lord of the Flies is a case in point. On one level, he analyses brilliantly what makes Jack tick, arguing that Jack, of all the boys, is the most concerned about the absence of adults, and sees it as his task to ‘become the man’ that the group needs. Fear and panic hence drive his subsequent actions, and Faulks is also good on the essential difference between Jack and the real villain of the piece, Roger: ‘Jack displaces fear into practical grown-up action – swearing and hunting; Roger looks coolly and direct at the taboos of an absent civilisation.’ However, his suggestion that the boys are intended to balance between archetypes and individuals, rather than being truly distinct characters, doesn’t ring true to me, and harks back to his earlier missteps over resonance. Jack, Ralph, Roger and Piggy feel very real, and I certainly don’t agree that for Lord of the Flies to work they need to be any-boys – or, as Faulks would put it, we need to be able to believe that a similar set of events would play out with any group of boys on any island, although I think we do believe that, as far as it is possible.

If there is a spanner in the works of Lord of the Flies’ bleak message about man’s propensity towards evil, it’s not Ralph’s memory of feeding sugar to ponies (eerily, Faulks picks this out as one of the novel’s greatest weakness, when I have always felt it was one of its strongest moments) but the existence of Roger. Faulks feels that ‘at the end of the book he [Jack] finds himself so revered by the other boys that he need no longer dirty his hands: it is Roger who levers the large boulder off the top of the hill to kill Piggy... It is his leadership and his example... that has allowed more naturally violent children, such as Roger, to overcome the taboos of civilised society.’ Actually, I believe it’s the other way round; Roger’s murder of Piggy, the first cold-blooded killing in the book, breaks Jack’s pretence of legitimate authority and civilisation down, and opens the way for the hunting of Ralph. If there is a problem for Golding, it’s Roger; every time I read the novel, I find myself asking what would have happened if Roger had not been on the island. As Faulks correctly notes, Roger is completely atypical, and there’s no way we can assume that there would be somebody like him in any random grouping.

Ironically, it is Faulks’ discussion of his own novel, Engleby, that finally crystallised my doubts about his approach to fiction. I’ve written elsewhere that Engleby is by far his best novel; but I’ve long suspected that he didn’t really know how to handle what was given to him. He writes that Mike Engleby is a ‘villain’, that when readers confess that they sympathise with him he can only see this as an acceptable response ‘until you find out what he’s done’ and that this means that readers apply ‘different standards to people in books.’ I’m not sure why we can’t sympathise with Mike, who is a vicious murderer but also, evidently, mentally ill; I certainly wouldn’t apply different standards if Mike was real (i.e. I would sympathise with him but agree that the best place for him is in a mental institution where he cannot hurt anybody else) and I cannot conceive of trying to write a complex character and then labelling him a ‘villain’. There is a lack of generosity, of fictional empathy, that surfaces in some of these essays; for example, when Faulks seems to think that snobs are fair game for tormenting or agrees rather too enthusiastically with some of Barbara Covett’s nasty comments; and I think this is what is missing in his analysis of Engleby, although it clearly wasn’t missing when he wrote the character. I see this as a failing, both as a writer and a reader; and I do wonder if this is why he doesn’t seem to appreciate George Eliot.

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