Monday, April 19, 2010

Originality

There comes a time when you've read so much fiction that every new book you pick up reminds you of something else. (If it's a Patricia Cornwell book, that "something" is usually her previous book). It's not necessarily a bad thing: there are only so many things to write about, and only so many ways of telling the story. Attempts to disguise this with innovative narrative stances often end badly. ("Hey, let's tell the story in second person plural!"*).

A couple of weeks ago I noted the similarities between Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Barbara Vine's Asta's Book. I had a similar experience reading AS Byatt's The Children's Book, a thoroughly researched, beautifully written study of middle-class family life in the late Victorian and Edwardian period. It reminded me of Howard Spring, a writer who is all but forgotten today, although a best-seller in his time (the 1930s through to the mid-60s). In terms of period, evocative setting, ensemble cast, the melancholy unfolding of the generations and the exploration of the damage artists can inflict on their families, a synopsis of The Children's Book would be all but indistinguishable from There Is No Armour or These Lovers Fled Away. Byatt is more detached in her voice, where Spring has more narrative drive. As a story-teller, I prefer Spring; Byatt I find easier to admire than love. Spring was born in 1885, and so writes of a period he remembers, while Byatt comes from a later generation. With sometimes lengthy , if usually absorbing, disgressions on women's suffrage, public museums and anarchy, The Children's Book sometimes has something of the lamp, but Byatt rises to the arbitrary horror of the First World War.

A quick trawl around Amazon suggests that all Spring's work is out of print now, but if you haven't read him I'd recommend picking up a second-hand edition of just about any of his books: These Lovers Fled Away, Fame is the Spur and My Son, My Son! are all good places to start. Spring writes old-fashioned stories, unobtrusively plotted with vivid characterisation.

Sometimes it's good to be reminded of things you haven't read for years.

*I know Jeffrey Eugenides pulled this off in The Virgin Suicides, but even here I'm not sure it's because of or in spite of the narrative choice).
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6 comments:

Frances Garrood said...

How sad that Howard Spring is out of print. I used to love his books. You've spurred me on to read them again - thanks, Tim!

Neil said...

Ooh. Sounds like a candidate for a potential ebook publisher, Tim.

Tim Stretton said...

Or even an app...

Tim Stretton said...

Frances, it's 15 years since I read any Spring. I'm sure my tastes have changed over that time so I'm worried that I might not enjoy them now as much as I did originally.

Frances Garrood said...

Me too. Tim. Years ago, I read the whole of The Forsyte Saga, and couldn't put it down. I thought it was the best thing I'd ever read. Recently, I tried it again, and coulnd't get through two chapters. It happens with old films, too. Does this mean that we have changed, or that the book/film isn't really as good as we first thought it was?

Tim Stretton said...

A good question, Frances - and one I think I will address in its own post.