Ever felt an all-consuming urge to rewrite Pride and Prejudice, amend The Lord of the Rings or append Harry Potter? Tolkien and Austen may well be spinning in their graves but the craze to revisit some of literature’s most cherished novels is going from strength to strength. Are such fictive urges a travesty or a goldmine of literary opportunity? Novelists Ali Smith, Philip Hensher and Lee Langley joined Jonathan Heawood (Director of English PEN) to discuss prequels, sequels and much in between.
Just as Harold Bloom famously likened writers’ relationships with their literary forebears to a kind of Oedipal struggle, so this evening’s event sought to explore such obsessions with our predecessors to see, as Jonathan put it, ‘how they dance to a twentieth century tune.’ Each writer on the stage had experienced some element of revisiting, be it a sequel (hot off the press) to Madame Butterfly, a return to Ovid or an exploration of online ‘rearrangements’ of classical novels.
For Lee Langley it was the fate of the characters in Madame Butterfly that inspired her to write her novel, Butterfly’s Shadow, as a sequel to the opera. ‘I suddenly thought, what about the others? There was a child, half Japanese, half American, torn between two cultures in a country of which he knew nothing. Puccini makes the characters sing beautifully but when they stop singing they are real people.’ She argued that the reality created by setting her book in the 1920s, amid the Wall Street Crash, The Depression and Pearl Harbour, abolished any difficulties in breaking through ‘the deep mystic roots’ connected to opera.
Meanwhile, and a far cry from Angela Carter’s proclamation that myth is ‘consolatory nonsense’, Ali Smith’s book Girl Meets Boy is a variation of the Iphis-myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Canongate Myths Series exists to update, adapt or rewrite an ancient myth for the modern world’, Ali explained. ‘The idea of a fixed myth is seductive… it offers the idea of things being changeable and mutable.’ The Iphis myth centers on the tale of a daughter raised as a son for fear she will be killed and who, on her wedding day, is saved by the goddess Iphis who orchestrates a convenient metamorphosis (as Ali explains: ‘the walls shake, her chest broadens, everything lengthens, actually’) enabling her to marry her bride as a fully-fledged male.
From myth to modernism, Philip Hensher discovered that the birth of the Internet proves just how widespread the urge to write ‘fan fiction’ has become, blurring the distinction between writers and readers. ‘Readers over the world are writing sequels to their favourite books as if they feel Tolkien or Austen had done something wrong! It’s a very odd phenomenon. Why would somebody engage in this sort of enterprise?’ Favourite topics are The Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice – one writer offered a five page alternative version of the latter. But the main targets are the Harry Potter novels which have inspired hundreds of thousands of sequels. Philip found one that was 350,000 words long – ‘the length of Bleak House!’ – an excerpt of which he proceeded to read aloud. But for Philip, by far the oddest form is ‘slash fiction’ whereby two innocuous characters from a classic novel enter into unexpected relations. One such example was an amusing pastiche on Jeeves and Wooster, from which he treated us to a passage. Bewildered, Philip grappled for some reasoning behind this craze. ‘I think there is an urge to rewrite and improve things’, he hazarded. ‘My next book can summed up in three words: “The Gay Cranford”‘. Jonathan asked whether he’d say any more on the subject but then conceded, ‘I suppose you don’t need to.’
It’s not just adolescent wizardry or C19th lake scenes that offer sources of inspiration. As Lee pointed out, Homer also offered fertile ground, from Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros set in the Caribbean to Barry Unsworth’s The Songs of the Kings that hones in on a small part of the story of the Trojan War. For Lee, the ending of Margaret Atwood’s novella The Penelopiad (also part of the Canongate Myth Series) which relates the death of the maid ‘outdoes Homer… it is so moving, it’s tragic beyond words.’
Lee also cited a version of Gone with the Wind from a slave’s point of view called The Wind Done Gone and Steven Berkoff’s retelling of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, called Greek, which trickles through the millennium and arrives at ‘the unimaginable wastelands of Tufnell Park.’ Ali deemed her friend’s plan to rewrite the Just William books in WW2 ‘a glorious idea’, while Philip was full of admiration for George MacDonald Fraser, who wrote the Flashman series; but was a little more dubious about someone’s idea to write a sequel to The Magic Mountain: ‘what an extraordinary thing to do. It’s like “Nieces Karamazov” – I can’t imagine.’
So, Jonathan asked, is anything fair game or are some things sacrosanct that you wouldn’t dare touch? Ali made a case that the myth project ‘invited you to touch’ while Lee argued that curiosity offers ‘the possibility of transformation’. She added: ‘When we take on these things a bit of hubris is involved. You’re taking on the old gods. It’s the possibility of a second chance, another go at life… I’m rather drawn by that.’
Audience opinion was equally divided. Deborah Moggach thought that William Brown was sacrosanct – ‘he shouldn’t grow up’ – and argued that some writers are simply ‘riding on the coattails of other writers and getting publicity’. Philip agreed there are some characters that should be left alone. He cited the famous case of someone who wrote a sequel to The Catcher in the Rye which focused on Holden Caulfield growing up. ‘It was quite exploitative I think because the sadness of Holden’s adulthood hardly needs saying.’ However, in a similar vein, he discovered a ‘wonderfully sordid’ sequel to Billy Bunter, which led him to conclude: ‘It’s difficult to tell whether something’s exploitative until you’ve read it.’
Two audience members had been faced, separately, with the daunting challenge of writing sequels to earlier novels and begged advice from the writers. Philip suggested the characters all have children or a sex change. ‘Alternatively’, he suggested with a wry smile, ‘introduce a dog. It’s amazing how much energy is introduced to a novel by a new dog.’
‘What we’re focusing on really is the character’, he added more seriously. ‘Don’t worry about the setting but what happens to these people. I tell my students to forget about mystery. My test for realism in a novel is to ask whether the characters could say, “God, you’re boring tonight” or, “that dress looks nice”. The mark of a really skilful novelist is that they can make you watch a woman walking down the road and nothing really happens.’ Ali seconded Philip’s sentiment: ‘Katherine Mansfield said, “I hate mystery”. She tells things so blatantly they become mysterious. Narrative is an open road, that’s the seduction.’
Report by Alexandra Masters
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/sequelsprequelsandzombies/