Lists are fine things, particularly if you’re in an argumentative mood, and FAULKS ON FICTION, being a list of great fictional British characters, is especially provocative. Faulks, the author of ‘Birdsong’ and other very fine novels, has divided his book into four headings: ‘Heroes’, ‘Lovers’, ‘Snobs’ and ‘Villains’, offering seven examples in each section. Thus the book takes us on an odyssey through British literature that begins in the Caribbean with ROBINSON CRUSOE and meanders right through to the present day, culminating in Faulks’ take on Barbara Covett, the villain of Zoë Heller’s NOTES ON A SCANDAL.
Along the way we encounter some of the greats of the British novel, including Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Henry Fielding, Emily Brontë and Thomas Hardy.
Given that the book was written as a tie-in with the recent BBC series of the same name, the style is unsurprisingly light and breezy. It’s also very readable, in part because Faulks spends a good chunk of his introduction debunking the various literary critiques that bedevilled the development of the novel in the late 20th century. It may be ‘old-fashioned’ he says, but he is determined to treat the characters as if they were real people, gauging their worth in terms of the impact they’ve had on the reading public.
It’s a laudable ambition, although Faulks’ modus operandi works better for some characters than others. When writing about personal favourites, such as Emma Woodhouse or Sherlock Holmes, Faulks is intensely engaging (although prone to hyperbole: “Is there no flaw in this dazzling, Mozartian performance?” he wonders of Jane Austen’s EMMA). On the other hand, some chapters have a cursory feel, and read like little more than synopses with occasional digressions.
What is most disappointing about the collection is its predictability. “The novel was, from the start, a popular and middle-class form,” says Faulks during his chapter on Fielding’s TOM JONES, and his selection of characters seems determined to prove that the novel - or more properly, the literary novel - is still very much a middle-class obsession. The roll-call of names will be familiar to most readers, from Daniel Defoe to Dickens, Jane Austen and Emily Brontë to William Golding and Doris Lessing, up to the present day and Martin Amis, Alan Hollingsworth and Monica Ali.
In fact, and despite the ‘British’ flavour promised in the subtitle, the collection is a very English one, even when the characters under discussion are marooned on a desert island, mired in the Indian Raj, or immigrants from Bangladesh.
Furthermore, there is very little that is challenging to the status quo. No Lawrence Durrell, for example, who was being touted in the 1960s as the next James Joyce. Indeed, there’s no James Joyce. John Fowles merits only a line or two; Mary Renault only one, and that in terms of her early, ‘lesbian’ novels. Olivia Manning goes unmentioned, as does Kazuo Ishiguro, while Jonathan Swift, Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson merit only token references, if that.
Stevenson, perhaps above all others, has good reason to be miffed at his exclusion. Long John Silver and the Dr Jekyll / Mr Hyde doppelganger are two of the most memorable characters in the history of the novel, and it beggars belief that not even one of Stevenson’s heroes or villains was deemed worthy of inclusion.
One non-literary character who did sneak into the collection is James Bond, in the ‘Snobs’ section of the book. Unfortunately, Faulks does himself - and his argument in favour of literary snobs - no favours by spending most of the chapter talking about his own very enjoyable experience of writing a Bond novel, DEVIL MAY CARE (2009). Not that there is anything wrong with the chapter per se, but it’s telling that Faulks’ mini-biography at the end of the book lists all of his own novels bar DEVIL MAY CARE.
This snobbishness about the literary novel reaches a climax late in the collection, when Faulks discusses Wilkie Collins’ THE WOMAN IN WHITE, which is regarded as one of the earliest examples of the thriller. Rather than celebrate the crime genre on its own terms, however, Faulks prefaces his exploration of the novel’s villain, Count Fosco, by recounting how plot-driven novels fell out of favour in the 20th century, only to be reinvigorated not by the various genre fictions of crime, science-fiction and romance, but by Proust’s A LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU and Flaubert’s MADAME BOVARY. Were he not so serious, the proposition would be laughable.
At times, Faulks is so beautifully precise that you almost forgive him his blinkered outlook. The happy-go-lucky Tom Jones is “a jolly cork on a choppy sea”; writing about love, or Graham Greene’s version of same, Faulks says, “All culture is for it; almost all history is against it.”
Such insights are few and far between, however. FAULKS ON FICTION makes for an entertaining read, but it’s little more than a primer for those who have forgotten the main plot points of some of the great English novels. - Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Sunday Business Post
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.