The BBC currently seem to be having a literature season, and they’ve given some slots to Sebastian Faulks to pontificate on the novel. (And some other people too).
Faulks’ first approach has been to discuss the novel in terms of its heroes through history.
By history, of course, Faulks means English history (no, not even the history of the English-speaking peoples – just English history). The significant heroes in the history of the novel so far have been: Robinson Crusoe, Tom Jones, Becky Sharp, Sherlock Holmes, Winston Smith, Lucky Jim, and John Self.
Faulks demonstrates how, in portraying their heroes, the authors of these novels were the “first” to do something – since, as we all know, being the “first” to do something is the most significant thing about novels and is in fact why we read them. So:
- Defoe was the first to have a hero who was an ordinary individual (this is connected to the Enlightenment’s alleged “greater interest” in the individual)
- Fielding was the first to have a hero who wasn’t wholly morally upright
- Thackeray was the first to have a hero who was a heroine, and whose ambition while perhaps not moral we still somehow admire
- Conan Doyle was the first to create a superhero
- Orwell was the first to portray totalitarianism and to have a hero who loses
- Amis Snr was the first person to make us laugh, possibly since the first world war
- Amis Jnr was the first to have a hero we don’t actually like much
OK, perhaps this is a slight caricature of his views – but it isn’t far different, I assure you.
The significance of literature is naturally connected to a more general politcal history and to a history of ideas, which modus operandi leads Faulks to make some incredibly unlikely claims, such as:
- After the first world war, people didn’t believe in heroes any more and so didn’t write books about them
- After the second world war, people lived in a state of austere depression, until Kingsley Amis came along and had the insight to crack a joke or two.
If this masterclass in cherry-picking isn’t to your taste though, there’s also a second programme, The Birth of the British Novel, with Henry Hitchings (?!!), which at least mentioned Laurence Sterne – although then, to my chagrin, then interviewed Tom McCarthy in order to establish his importance (only the avant-garde can truly appreciate the avant-garde). – One thing left Obooki perplexed however: in The Birth of the British Novel, in order to beef up Sterne’s risqué outsider credentials (such as all good writers need), they claimed that the Church was shocked by the publication of Tristram Shandy; whereas in the book “Enlightenment” which I’m currently reading, which wishes to demonstrate that England was a thoroughly enlightened and consequently largely irreligious country, seemingly no one was the slightest bit surprised Tristram Shandy had been written by a clergyman, least of all the Church – after all, the English clergy were well-known throughout Europe as a bunch of faithless infidels. – It’s funny how different things can seem when you’re determined to prove something.