Housman said that enlightening literary criticism was harder to find than creative literary talent. Indeed he said that true literary critics come on the scene less often than Halley's comet does. Here we have no less than the author of Birdsong expounding his thoughts on `the' novel and taking no fewer than 10 cd's over it. From such a talent we would expect the material to be intelligent, thoughtful, balanced, rational and insightful; and so it is. Will that do, or is something more needed for it to qualify as illuminating? With regret, I would say yes.
For one thing, there is not much of a `theme' to this long literary ramble. In particular, take with a pinch of salt anything you may see suggesting that it illustrates some distinctively British national character. What's `British' anyway, in these devolved days? There is not even a British national football team, and I learned on the BBC news just this morning that 800 street parties are planned in London for the forthcoming royal wedding, as against none in Glasgow. I would not argue with the proposition that Robinson Crusoe was something new in literature, thus staking a British claim, but it used to be said that in the old classical days Petronius Arbiter and Longus had produced `novels' in their Trimalchio's Supper and Daphnis and Chloe respectively. Does Sebastian Faulks not agree, or has the point just never occurred to him? On the other hand I am with him when he dismisses as sad nonsense what were once academic fads of trying to make some kind of science out of novel writing, and of trying to make novels a species of biography or autobiography instead of the original creativity that they ought to be. He makes this view clear, in a civilised way and without contentiousness, near the start. Near the end he warns against trying to read too much allegory into The Lord of the Flies; and I am happy to say that you will not hear the word `deconstruction' from start to finish.
It is all a civilised and enthusiastic stroll down the novelistic paths that Faulks likes best - that rather than anything really systematic. There are a lot of my own favourites here, but it is all frustratingly conventional. The first few discs are devoted to as ordinary a set of safe standard classics as you could find in the most conservative Eng Lit course 50 years ago. Robinson Crusoe starts us off, then here are Tom Jones, Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, and Tess of the d'Urbervilles. It is not, of course, just chronological in any mechanical way, and sometimes he picks a sub-theme, the first being some entertaining remarks on the `Hampstead Novel' (exemplified sadly by Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook), all psychoanalysts and organic hoummus. Naturally Faulks deals with a good many 20th century productions, but once again it is hardly adventurous to find Lucky Jim, Lady Chatterley, Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, Jean Brodie and even Brick Lane selected for comment. The Raj Quartet, The Lord of the Flies and Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal are about as modern as he gets. I need hardly say that his views are well worth listening to, but I am not really convinced that it all amounts to much more than a hugely extended Newsnight Review - the works concerned deserve thoughtful discussion, but very little of it bowled me over with its dazzling perception. Faulks is interesting, for example, when he discusses Greene's Catholicism, but Greene himself tells us that he had a deep need for Faith in Something, and if it had not been Catholicism there was a Plan B. That is much more enlightening, and I also sense that Miss Brodie is over-analysed. She was some kind of a snob, I suppose, but `pretentious' would have been a better word.
Faulks is at his most interesting with Jane Austen, and in two ways. First, his comments on Pride and Prejudice are not just the best but the best by far of all his ruminations. The statements made by the characters lend themselves ideally to the sort of analysis that Faulks gives them, and the insight that shows him at his best is of this analytical kind. The other interesting point is that Faulks has already dipped his toe into the 20th century, but it seems as if the consideration of Jane Austen brings him right back to where he would rather be, viz with Jane Austen again rather than with the 20th century, and he launches himself into his long discussion of Emma.
Among the other sub-themes are villains and the Gay Novel, wittily characterised as featuring personae who are not much more than body-parts with names. Popular novels appear briefly in the form of not only quality stuff like Sherlock Holmes and so great a writer as Wodehouse, but also of James Bond. Here Faulks has a story of his own to tell relating to the sequel he wrote. I can't say I'm interested, but he has every right to be. Significantly absent is `science fiction', and perhaps I can tie that in with one of his more interesting reflections, on plotless novels. Taking the genre by itself, John W Campbell Jr was asked where it fitted in English literature, and he replied that as it covered everything from the primal egg to the heat-death of the universe this was an odd question. Where is Olaf Stapledon in all these 10 discs? This is a monstrous omission, because here is a dark visionary with a colossal creative imagination whose greatest novels have no characters, whether or not you say they have plots. I don't call him science fiction, but Brian Aldiss does, and rightly traces his influence on Arthur C Clarke, whose Childhood's End has one of the most terrific plots ever conceived.
It should make a great quarry for Eng Lit essays, but it verges on futility.