Magazine article The Spectator

Names to Conjure With

Magazine article The Spectator

Names to Conjure With

Article excerpt

Sebastian Faulks's latest book, examining the great characters of British fiction, may be scorned by the literary establishment, but Sam Leith salutes its enthusiasm and humour

Faulks on Fiction: Great British Characters and the Secret Life of the Novel

by Sebastian Faulks

BBC Books, £20, pp. 376,

ISBN 978184607597

Golly gee. Academic literary critics are going to hate Faulks on Fiction like sin.

Here is Sebastian three-for-two Faulks, if you please, clumping onto their turf with a book of reflections on a couple of dozen great novels.

And he declares in his introduction, with some pride, that he intends to take 'an unfashionable approach' and examine characters in these books 'as though they were real people'.

And he then divides them into four character types - Heroes, Lovers, Snobs and Villains - without so much as footnoting a structuralist ethnographer, instead declaring excathedra that these are 'the four character types that British novelists have returned to most often'.

And he blithely describes how 'we' react to books.

And he uses the words 'universal human truth'.

And he describes how he, personally, blubbed at the end when he reread Emma .

And it's the tie-in to a blasted TV series.

The introduction alone is enough to keep the correspondence columns of the TLS filled with words like 'jejune' and 'undertheorised' and 'palaeolithic' and 'intention - al fallacy' for a good six months. And don't think he doesn't know it. You have to salute that.

We're in the library with the large Scotch rather than in the seminar room with the magnifying glass. The tone is conversational, airy, not afraid of the odd cliche- a 'slowmotion car-crash' here; a 'firework display' there - and not afraid of gush. 'Nothing made by humans can be perfect, but surely Emma comes as close as any novel in English, ' he writes at one point; not 20 pages later, he's on to Great Expectations , which 'probably comes as close as anyone in Britain contrived in the 19th century to the perfect novel.'

However, a certain wideness and imprecision of gesture here is not the mark of sloppiness but of enthusiasm. This is a book determined not to be pinched or cautious, and the disclaimer that it 'does not purport to be a work of literary criticism, still less of scholarship', though likely to be ignored by its detractors, is absolutely fair.

Here is somebody who has read or reread, intelligently and very carefully and with a technician's experience, a number of big and sometimes difficult books, and striven to see how they go about the business of being interesting to ordinary readers. Then he's tried to explain it in a way that's also interesting to ordinary readers - jokey, aphoristic, full of personal anecdotes and warm-blooded opinions.

Nor - in Faulks's actual readings of the texts - is he either philistine or imprecise.

He's very decisive and particular about what works in a given novel and why it works and how it works. He's quick to spot when plotting becomes voulu , and he's sharp in identifying the centres of gravity of the very various books he writes about. He's attentive, too: one of his very rare footnotes tells us that Bertie Wooster's old headmaster, the Rev Aubrey Upjohn, 'appears in a late book as the Rev Arnold Abney', and regrets that successive editors have not picked it up.

So his 'naive readings' aren't as naive as they might sound. …

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