Something old, something new
Between us, we have noticed – with a progression of interest, appetite, and increasing alarm, rather swiftly replaced by boredom – a growing body of new novels that look very much like the old. Sequels, prequels, rewritings, updatings and various incarnations of the same-story-told-by-a-different-narrator have exhumed literary relics (many of them rightly well-loved) to be offered to a contemporary public. In new, and sometimes barely new, guises, they have collected on our shelves. We bought them in various states of curiosity, hope and remembered affection, either for the original work or for the bold author who, like a literary Frankenstein, has resurrected them. Pieced together, they have the style, plot and characters of the original with the unavoidable sensibilities and prejudices of the modern.
These are writers who lack neither ideas nor skills of their own, far from it. Sebastian Faulks has published a new, apparently rather good, Jeeves novel. Eleanor Catton channelled Dickens on the West Coast. Joanna Trollope showed neither sense nor sensibility in updating Austen. Damien Wilkins has been haunting Thomas Hardy’s house. P D James turned Pemberley into a feeble crime scene. Andrew Motion, in Silver, got stranded on Treasure Island. Many are the perils, and many have foundered in the attempt. Because, in this endeavour, even the failure to shine is a failure indeed, and none comes close to either Jean Rhys’s prequel to Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, or Peter Carey’s riff on Great Expectations, Jack Maggs.
Literary mimicry, always in danger of slipping into unintentional parody, shows no-one to advantage, and we’ve been asking ourselves what might motivate an author to the attempt.
• A homage to a work or writer one truly admires? Or a mercenary attempt to cash in on the established readership of an author truly admired by others?
• Proof of the infamous authorial ego: tending to masochism and self-flagellation, testing oneself against the unsurpassable? An act of hubris in the attempt to improve a great work? Or, conversely, the churlish attempt to prove that it’s not a great work at all?
• An exercise in the nature of a writing experiment, trying another’s style and voice on for size, using the original work as an apprenticeship for the training of one’s own talents?
Of course, this phenomenon isn’t new. Most of us have our own favourite revisionings (perhaps Bridget Jones’s Diary, perhaps The Jane Austen Book Club, perhaps even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), and every film adaptation is a rewriting of a kind (the witty Clueless and the exuberant Bride and Prejudice). But the recent deluge of volumes has pushed us beyond endurance, to cry enough! Just, please, leave poor Jane Austen alone.
Because, after all, it is a relatively small set of books which these projects circle around, endlessly; few writers recycle works outside the standard English canon. But mightn’t it be more interesting if they did? Imagine revisioning the local canon: Owls Still Cry, perhaps, or Back at the Bay, Came a Cold Saturday, even a present-day Erewhemos. Send us your own suggestions for the great New Zealand rewrite, sequel or prequel.
Louise O’Brien and Harry Ricketts
Congratulations to Robert White of Lyttelton and Valerie Thompson of Napier, whose new subscriptions to NZ Books won them boxed sets of Audrey Eagle notecards, courtesy of Te Papa Press.