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Reviving the literary dead

by Carody Culver , April 29, 2014Leave a comment

The Black-Eyed Blonde

 

‘I’ve never much liked the word “pastiche”’, observed author Lynn Shepherd on her blog back in 2012. ‘It always sounds rather condescending to me – as if the meticulous re-evocation of another’s style is some rather inferior form of passing off’.

Shepherd is well qualified to discuss such matters: in 2010, her novel Murder at Mansfield Park – a bold rewriting of Jane Austen’s beloved novel, in which Fanny Price is revealed as a scheming gold digger and a murder mystery propels the narrative – was met with a warm critical welcome. Shepherd has described the novel as ‘Jane Austen meets Agatha Christie’ and her approach to writing it as ‘literary ventriloquism’.

Is this a fair label to give writers who take what was essentially someone else’s idea and make it their own? Is it ventriloquism – a creative and clever act in itself – or more like lazy literary upcycling?

Whichever side of the fence you sit on, resurrecting the work of dead writers has become a weirdly meta subgenre of genre fiction. It’s hardly a recent development – Ian Fleming’s estate has been commissioning novelists to write Bond novels since 1967 (Kingsley Amis produced the first of these, Colonel Sun, using the pen name Robert Markham); after years of legal wrangling, Scarlett, Alexandra Ripley’s sequel to Gone with the Wind, was published in 1991 to a universally unenthusiastic critical reception and phenomenal sales.

More recently, however, the art of the literary revival – either as a one-off or as a series continuation – seems more common. In 2011, PD James turned her crime-writing prowess to the world of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and penned a murder mystery sequel, Death Comes to Pemberley, which turned out to be neither amusing nor thrilling (my book club never forgave me for making us read it).

This year, John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, published The Black-Eyed Blonde, a Philip Marlowe mystery that revives the original hardboiled PI and takes place before Raymond Chandler’s final Marlowe novel, Poodle Springs (which, interestingly, was finished by author Robert B Parker, since Chandler died before the manuscript was complete). Banville/Black’s novel doesn’t strike quite the same laconic, deadpan note as Chandler’s originals, but his language and characterisation feel impressively accurate; this isn’t just a case of mimicry, but a considered continuation of Marlowe’s adventures that many Chandler fans are sure to appreciate.

Has the growing popularity and prevalence of fan fiction made us more receptive to the practice of writers adopting other writers’ imaginative offspring? Perhaps so; and, like a lot of fan fiction, these literary revivals are respectful re-workings of someone else’s intellectual property ( as opposed to parodies such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which are, if you’ll excuse the pun, a different creature all together, since humour is their primary intention). From a creative perspective, carrying on another writer’s work offers us the chance to traverse hitherto unexplored facets of beloved characters and situations; from a practical perspective, it allows us to conclude narrative trajectories that were never finished in an author’s lifetime.

Of course, not all readers are likely to enjoy reading about their favourite fictional figures if a different author is behind the keyboard. I have to admit that despite enjoying The Black-Eyed Blonde, I couldn’t get past the thought that it wasn’t really a Marlowe novel because it wasn’t by Chandler – not so much because it felt inauthentic, but because it felt theoretical, somehow, an instalment of Marlowe’s story that never actually took place in the world Chandler created.

But perhaps that’s part of what makes these new‒old books an increasingly prevalent outcrop of the literary landscape. Ultimately, readers can choose their own adventure – and if you refuse to believe that Fanny Price was capable of the sly antics portrayed in Murder at Mansfield Park or that Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara encountered each other with the improbable frequency depicted in Scarlett, you need never pick up those books. Perhaps, just as a tree falling in a forest doesn’t make a sound if no one’s around to hear it, a literary revival doesn’t have to be real unless you want it to be.

Carody Culver is a Brisbane-based freelance writer, editor and part-time bookseller. 

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