Monday, May 31, 2010

Randolph Stow, 1935-2010

From the FaceBook page of Nicholas Pounder, legendary Sydney book dealer and self-described 'mild-mannered antiquarian', I've just learned of the death of Australian novelist Randolph Stow. (Link via Geordie Williamson.)

Not known for conviviality and for many years an expatriate, Stow is one of Australian literature's most overlooked and underrated writers, at least these days. I first encountered him when we 'did' The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea at school, and along with the rest of my generation got some early inklings from this book of the beauty and isolation and general weirdness of Western Australia and its coastline, and of the power of poetry to sustain life, and of what might have happened to some of the Australians who fought in the Second World War.

Under his sandals, leaves and nuts fallen from the Moreton Bay figtrees crunched and popped. Beyond the merry-go-round was the sea. The colour of the sea should have astounded, but the boy was seldom astounded. It was simply the sea, dark and glowing blue, bisected by seagull-grey timbers of the rotting jetty, which dwindled away in the distance until it seemed to come to an end in the flat-topped hills to the north. He did not think about the sea, or about the purple bougainvillea that glowed against it, propped on a sagging shed. These existed only as the familiar backdrop of the merry-go-round. Nevertheless, the colours had entered into him, printing a brilliant memory.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Who are you calling derivative?

One of the criticisms commonly levelled at J. K. Rowling is that her Harry Potter books are 'derivative'. By this people seem to mean that they are like countless other 'off to boarding school' books, in the great English tradition, or that they are like The Sword in the Stone, or that they're like The Little White Horse, or The Magic Faraway Tree, or The Lord of the Rings, or or or.

Why yes. Yes they are. They are a clever and loving pastiche of precisely all those things, and of a whole lot of other things. That, or so I have always assumed, is partly the point of them: that much of the pleasure in reading them, and a large part of the explanation why so many adults love them, is in the recognition factor and the clever play with the texts of the past. For a well-read adult, reading the Potter books is the same kind of experience as reading a good contemporary detective novel that skilfully uses and plays with and echoes all the most established conventions of crime fiction that we the crime fiction lovers have come to know and, erm, love.

In order to secure what turned out to be one of the great conversations of my life, a conversation that I will remember till I die, I once shamelessly manoeuvred until I was seated directly across the dinner table from the late, great and much-lamented Scottish writer Dorothy Dunnett, a Renaissance woman who who went to school with Muriel Spark, married the founding editor of The Scotsman, and in terms of sheer literary talent could hold her own with both of them, which did not stop her in earlier life from making a living as a portrait painter.

I asked her starry-eyed fan questions all through dinner, but she volunteered without being asked (I wanted to ask, but it would have been rude) the information that she had found Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey's mother the Dowager Duchess of Denver a wonderful model for her own Sybilla Crawford, particularly in the matter of her relationship with her heroic son, and was taking it for granted that many of the readers who liked her work would also be familiar with Lord Peter Wimsey and his mother, and would see the resemblance and appreciate it for the playful homage it was.

Part of the point of that characterisation, in fact, is the pleasure of watching Dunnett take a model in a very different genre (though she wrote some cracking contemporary thrillers herself, as well as the historical sagas) and, with an elegant flourish, show how certain archetypes of character and family relationship could be remodelled while keeping their essence in the telling of a very different sort of story in a very different sort of way.

But I digress, because actually this isn't a post about Harry Potter, or indeed about Dorothy Dunnett: it's about the reclusive British writer Jude Morgan, whose 'novelisation' of the lives of the Brontës under the unpromising title The Taste of Sorrow, published last year, turned out, against all (my) expectations, to be really good. Normally the 'novelisation' of real people makes me very squeamish, but Morgan somehow -- I'm not sure quite how -- manages to overcome the very real and very obvious disadvantages of this kind of writing, to the point where he's made a successful career out of it and is clearly on a roll.

For, less than a year later, he has a new novel out. A Little Folly is set during the Regency (he began his career with Heyeresque Regency novels) and again 'derivative' not only of various 19th century novelists -- there's one character straight out of Dickens (who was a year old in 1813, at the time the novel is set), one straight out of Thackeray (who was two), one straight out of Charlotte Bronte (who was born five years later), one straight out of Henry James (whose birth was still 30 years in the future), and pretty much everything else is straight out of Jane Austen, who was 38 and at the height of her powers: a pastiche of various Austenesque characters, situations and conventions, as well as some pretty impressive imitation right down at the level of sentence structure and the way Austen uses grammar in the service of her wit.

Not only is it homage to Jane Austen et al, it's also, at the meta-level, homage to Georgette Heyer, who herself, of course, in a way only historical novelists can (and must, one way or another), was attempting to echo in her style and characterisation the era of which she wrote.

The word 'derivative' applies only when the deriver doesn't really know what she or he is doing, as with the numberless hordes of Candace Bushnell wannabes, vampire novelists who don't get the metaphor(s), historical novelists whose fashions in skirts and dialogue quirks are from the wrong century, and humourless fantasy writers whose furry and leathery characters all talk like Yoda and have names full of gs and ths. And neither Dunnett nor Rowling nor Heyer nor Jude Morgan could for a moment be thus described.  When you write, you're placing your work into a set of traditions that already exists, whether you like it or not; even writers who pride themselves on being innovative or original are doing so in conscious resistance to what has gone before. Writers like Morgan aren't 'derivative'; they're entering into a conversation with literary history.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

But wait, there's more

A sub-genre appears to be emerging from the vampire revival, as more and more vampire writers go for series instead of just the one-off, with very deliberately open-ended plots, and given the extraordinary post-Anne-Rice, post-Buffy commercial book-to-screen successes of Stephenie Meyer's sparkly teenage vampires and Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse, why wouldn't you.

David Wellington did this (again) with his most recent novel 23 Hours, in which the fiendish 300-year-old vampire Justinia Malvern escapes in the end to drink blood another day and the righteous Laura Caxton likewise survives and escapes custody, presumably to chase Justinia down through the next volume and so on ad infinitum.

And now we have Jasper Kent's Thirteen Years Later, sequel to Twelve (they do love their numbers, these vampirists) and second in a projected 'quintet' (Kent is a composer and musician as well as a novelist). It's as though the 'vampire novel' form were declaring itself, like its subject, conditionally immortal; I guess stories of the undead just naturally lend themselves to open-endedness. I haven't read the Kent books, but they look like classy generic hybrids: historical horror fiction, up the literary end of 'genre'.

My friend and former colleague Prof Ken Gelder published a book about vampires in 1994. Given the current crop of vamp lit in all its diverse flowerings, he'd be crazy not to be thinking about a sequel himself.