I watched the last part in the brilliant series Faulks on Fiction on BBC Two this week (the whole series is available on iPlayer for another week). Sebastian Faulks' take on the history of the novel involved focussing on characters rather than authors, putting them into four groups: the heroes, lovers, snobs and villains of modern literature.
This got me thinking about which group the characters in my novel would fit into, and the third programme caught my interest in particular. Faulks labelled as snobs such different characters as Emma, Pip, Pooter, Jeeves, Jean Brodie and James Bond, and it certainly made for a thought-provoking account of social mobility, not to mention the novel itself and its entrenched social mores.
The novel as a literary form has been described as beyond heroes, describing not the epic heroics of Odysseus or the green knight, but the small actions of everyday people. That also involves dragging down those who think too highly of themselves, and showing that their story is not only not unique, but replicated again and again in rooms across the world. "Let us sit upon the ground", a defeated Richard II says, "and tell sad stories of the death of kings". There may be many kings, he is conceding, but there is only one death, and there is pleasure to be derived from telling this singular event in many varied ways, from different perspectives, and in numerous stories. Some novels have no hero to speak of even, the eponymous character being a bit of a blank at the centre, functioning only to interact with other more appealing characters: Wilhelm Meister, say, or Nicolas Nickleby.
So it’s interesting to think of the snobs in books – those characters who turn their backs on their old life, or look down on other people – as active agents. Faulks calls them the novelists’ “secret weapon”, and argues that Ian Fleming, in creating a character obsessed with the correct brand for everything from cars to martinis, borrowed our shared awareness of these products to bring his character to life.
This version of the snob is a modern reflection of consumer society, Faulks argues, but I wonder if it is not so dissimilar from a common theme of dissembling that has been around since the sixteenth century and the birth of what cultural historians call the modern man. Angry at the pretence of grief in his father’s (now uncle's) court, Hamlet insists "I have that within which passes show, /These but the trappings and the suits of woe". Grief is mediated through black cloaks and ceremonies, and not truly felt by anyone but Hamlet, and in this, one could argue he is an early "snob" in Faulks' sense.
This got me thinking about the fans in my book, who see themselves only in relation to another thing, and seek to delineate and express themselves through another person altogether. Is to be a fan to be a snob? Certainly it is an act of distinguishing oneself from "normal" affection for an object, whether that object is a TV show or (ahem) pop star. Is Hamlet's paralysing grief for his father remotely related to a fan's pointless longing? What is in that longing? Is it love only, or a desire to pull down one's object of affection to one's own level?
Okay, so I just compared my book with Hamlet. Enough for now I think.
Word count this week: 1,717 Running total: 8,783