Archive for ‘fanfiction’

November 14, 2014

Jenny Boully, Not Merely Because of the Unknown that was Stalking Toward Them and J.M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy

Though it’s not really that much about Boully’s book, since I can only speak of it slantwise. Always useful to be reminded of how big and lonely and yearny a book Peter and Wendy is, though.

From a recent column.

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There’s a play, first performed over a century ago in 1904, and a book, first published in 1911, that is about two children and the inevitability and horror and okayness of growing up. The book is named after both of the children, but it (and the play as well) is really about the girl. It begins with the revelation that a two year old girl cannot stay two forever, and it ends with her, an adult, no longer “gay and innocent and heartless” and aching a little for it. The girl is the plot. But everyone forgets her.

I feel a great deal of anger on behalf of Wendy Darling. Possibly more than is merited by the side-lining of a fictional character.

Because of course J.M. Barrie’s most famous work was originally published as Peter and Wendy. And then it was Peter Pan and Wendy, and so over the course of a few title changes Wendy was eventually as cast out of the title as she is from Neverland.

Of course this is all about sex, and not just in the sense that everything ultimately is. Peter and Wendy (I will stubbornly continue to give it that title) emerges from a nineteenth century in which the image of the child is fetishized, in which childhood and desire and death are all tied up in one another in complex (and to this twenty-first century reader often disturbing) ways. The book may begin when Wendy is two years old, but the main action of the plot can only occur when she is on the cusp of adulthood, playing at “mother” in the knowledge that that is a fate that will be hers, about to be banished (and the book always makes it a banishment) from the nursery to a bedroom of her own. Peter is one of Wendy’s pretend children, but also her pretend partner. Peter is surrounded by girl-women who want him to be something other than “a devoted son”; Wendy, Tiger Lily, Tinkerbell, even the mermaids. Everyone desires Peter in his unchanging, unsatisfying youth—even Captain Hook spends an unreasonably long time looking at his sleeping form. Everyone desires Peter and it’s easy to see why he, rather than Wendy, is the iconic figure (Wendy does at least give her name to the “Wendy Hoboully-merely-cover-largeuse”). And yet. That long line of generations of women, growing up and passing through Peter Pan’s life as a line of indistinguishable “mothers” before passing the mantle on to daughters of their own. It’s a compelling image, and an upsetting one. I can’t help but think that the heart of the book is Wendy.

Which is only one of the reasons that Jenny Boully’s Not Merely Because of the Unknown that was Stalking Toward Them is as stunning as it is. Taking its title from the moment of the pirates’ first appearance in Peter and Wendy, Boully’s short book picks up, plays with and refracts everything in the original that is unsettling and intense, all its sex and death and yearning—and of course Wendy is at the heart of it. It’s hard to know what to call this; a monologue or a critical essay or a prose poem or a remix (quotes from Barrie’s novel make up a sizeable part of the text). It’s a joy to read aloud, but we’re never allowed to simply sink into the flood of words—in part because the doubled/split format doesn’t permit this. There are two parallel and intertwined texts here; Boully divides her pages horizontally as if the lower text functioned as a footnote, but sometimes the footnotes overwhelm the “main” text. You’re forced as a reader to read the two simultaneously, holding both in your head at once.

The result of this is a connection with the original work that is multifaceted and intuitive and very hard to write about. It’s a reminder of the ways in which complex texts work, of the sheer volume of meaning contained in a work, that these meanings can be contradictory or unrelated and still sit together in our heads. It’s the adaptation Wendy Darling deserved.

 

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July 13, 2014

Megan Milks, Kill Marguerite

The whole time I was reading Kill Marguerite I was conscious of an undercurrent of yes these are my people yes in my head. On twitter, I described it as “genre-blend-y, queer, outsider-y, perverse fiction that is also about 90s girl pop culture and myth”(I ran out of space for “intertextual”); I was never not going to love it. It all got quite personal, and now I’m afraid that if I ever meet Milks I will embarrass myself in some awful way.

But even if it hadn’t been so obviously relevant to my own interests (and I’m sometimes dismissive of readings that value recognition above all else, but on the rare occasions that I find it I realise that it can be incredibly powerful), I’d think a lot of this collection. It’s fiercely intelligent, it’s energetic, it’s just very good writing. There are entire sections I’ve marked simply for how perfect those words in that place are.

(Also, I want someone to read this alongside Charles Yu’s How To Live Safely In a Science Fictional Universe, just for their complementary covers)

A slightly shorter version of the piece below was published as my regular column on Sunday.

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Somewhere in suburban America teenaged Caty is making out with a boy on a rope swing. The setting with which Megan Milks opens her collection of short fiction, Kill Marguerite, is a familiar one to me, as I suspect it would be to most people reading this. Not because I’d lived it (Delhi in the ‘90s was short on rope swings) but because scenes like this seem to belong to a mythical preteen/teenagerhood of the 80s and 90s that is part Instagram-filter and part the result of reading too much American preteen fiction. Not that Caty is thinking of the genre she belongs in; she is preoccupied with how kissing this boy on this swing will help her relationship … with her best friend, Kim. And shortly she will be embroiled in a series of attempts to kill her rival Marguerite, in a universe that follows the conventions of a video game.

This title story encapsulates a number of Kill Marguerite’s concerns. A preoccupation with girlhood in popular culture; the queering of relationships; dizzying shifts between genres that test out the limits of each.

Some of these limits are of format. There are fourteen stories in the collection but only thirteen included in my ebook—“Circe”, which requires its recto and verso pages to be read simultaneously, had to be left out for formatting purposes but is available on the website. Meanwhile “Sweet Valley Twins #119: Abducted!”, fanfiction with large chunks of text borrowed from the original series, is in the form of a choose your own adventure story, to which the ebook format is far better suited than the print versions we had to grow up with. Many of the stories are collaborative—“Floaters” is written with Leeyanne Moore, “Earl and Ed” illustrated by Marian Rink and “Traumarama” pieced together from the responses of several friends. It’s obvious that other texts, whether classical or popular, are closely interwoven into these stories, sometimes less obviously. “The Girl With The Expectorating Orifices” doesn’t gender its narrator and doesn’t draw the reader’s attention to this, until a throwaway reference to Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body which famously did the same.

Myth and metaphor and reality blur into one another in these stories, and it’s never possible to claim that, for example, “Dionysus” is “about” a relationship with an alcoholic. In “My Father and I were Bent Groundward” the “sword” that impregnates the narrator and her father (both of whom claim a dislike of penetration) is also able to slice off their legs. In “Slug”, a young woman who has been on a disappointing first date has sex with a giant slug while turning into one herself. “Tomato Heart” is, literally, about a woman with a tomato for a heart, and has the distinction of being the only story (in a collection full of stories about bodily fluids and slug erotica) to make me feel a little ill. In “Circe” the myth and video game genres slot neatly together as Hermes “drops bottle of immunity into Odysseus’ lap”. The connections between stories are as startling and as perfect; the “Patty has died” in “Slug” which connotes orgasm comes shortly after the series of “Caty has died” in the previous story that signify her failing to beat a level in the game. A metaphor from the relatively mundane “Floaters” resurfaces in the weird, liminal space of “Swamp Cycle”. As each story progresses it becomes clear how much about this world each protagonist takes for granted; the resignation with which one narrator, for example, explains “that was when I knew we were to bear immortal children from our wounds” is very appealing. When the lovers in “Earl and Ed” (an orchid and a wasp) enter into a transgressive relationship, the text immediately turns them into a singular Earl&Ed.

Yet my favourite thing about this collection is its interest in a particular kind of adolescent girlhood in which other girls are all that matters and where aspiration, desire and the urge to wound are all tangled together; particularly if you’re the sort of girl-reader (too not-blonde, not-white, not-straight, not-etc) for whom this model of adolescence is fundamentally impossible. A story based on a column from the magazine Seventeen, for example, and another told through Tegan and Sara lyrics. This last is “Elizabeth’s Lament”, another piece of Sweet Valley High fanfiction and also an angry, incestuous declaration of love. All of these stories, with their young female narrators, begin from the assumption that teenage girls are fascinating. It’s particularly pleasing that Milks does much of this through fanfiction, a medium that has developed in large part through unravelling and queering received narratives.

This is an area of popular culture which literature rarely draws upon—possibly because of its association with young girls, whose tastes are always particularly vulnerable to mockery. That Milks sees it as important would be itself be enough to make me love her work. That the collection deals with it in this way—smart, queer, perverse, intertextual—means even more. The stories in Kill Marguerite are unsettling and often unpleasant but they feel like a gift.

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February 12, 2014

The Krum Theory (or burblings about fanfiction and authorial … authority?)

J.K. Rowling said the end of Deathly Hallows was about “wish-fulfillment” and I had some thoughts. Again, very sparse; I’d love to hear of more examples of authors who have written fanfiction set in their own universes.

From this weekend’s column.

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One of the difficulties of a book or television series that generates a great deal of fanfiction is the possibility that while we wait for the next installment, the (unpaid, non-professional) fan writers are doing it better. I spent much of the most recent series of the BBC’s Sherlock series comparing it (usually to the actual show’s disadvantage) to other, fan-produced works. But this is hardly the only instance in which a ‘real’ author’s work has reminded me of fanfic.

The last of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, came out in 2007. Like what felt like most of the world at the time, I read it the day it was released. It was all going so well until we came to the book’s epilogue. Here was a piece of writing that had all the characteristics of a particular sort of fanfiction, the kind that generally isn’t very good. The neat pairing off of everyone with everyone, the weird and wonderful names given to the characters’ offspring; it was uniformly dreadful. Years later, the movies would drive this point home further by fake-aging their actors to film this scene, thus making of it something truly unsettling.

I reread this unfortunate chapter recently, after Rowling herself admitted to the wish-fulfillment nature of it all. More importantly, she suggested that having her character Hermione Granger end up with the gormless Ron Weasley may not have been the best idea, and that Harry Potter himself might have made her happier.

Naturally this has pleased a section of her fans who always thought that Hermione and Harry were meant to be, and others who simply thought she could do better. Some of us grumpily asked why she needed to be paired off with a man at all when there were so many other options available to her. She could be Minister for Magic. She could be queer. She could have a torrid affair with Bulgarian Quidditch player Viktor Krum, before choosing career over personal life and inventing something world-changing. She  could work towards the inevitable house-elf revolution and be reviled among polite wizard society for her supposed treachery.

But that is one of the things fanfiction allows us to do—to take characters, and imagine that they have an independent existence outside the text, and explore the possibilities they offer us. It’s one of the luxuries afforded to fans of a work, and I’m sure that all of these (and thousands of other) potential futures for Hermione have been explored by writers who are more willing to put in the effort than I am.

But Rowling isn’t a fan of the Harry Potter books, or at least not a typical one, and I find myself intrigued by the implications of an author thus elaborating upon or rethinking events set in the world she created. If Rowling reveals ‘facts’ about the characters that were not stated in the books (as with her assertion some months after the series ended that Professor Dumbledore was gay), are they necessarily more canonical than my own belief that Luna Lovegood is right about the Nargles (admittedly, there’s more textual evidence for the first of these theories than the second)? If Rowling were to write a ‘corrected’ version of the final book with a very  different version of that last chapter would we accept it as the ‘real’ sequence of events? What are the limits of story, to what extent do the millions of people who have already read the book own the plot, so that it cannot now be changed?

All this is hypothetical, since Rowling has shown no sign of wanting to correct her books. And while her pronouncements on the series will presumably always be listened to more seriously than those of her fans, I suppose it would be unfair to ban her from playing with her own creation.

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May 15, 2013

Frederic Tuten, Tintin in the New World

I thought of doing a dramatic reading of the Tintin-Clavdia sex scene and putting it up online, but I read a bit out loud and it was awful (and there were many foreign words to trip me up) so I decided against it. All you really need to know is that it contains this exchange:

“To Brazil perhaps. To the moist green nights of Rio or Bahia, where I’ve never been. To hot sheets and hotels, to sexlove and sexkiss and sexsigh and sexbreath to sex longings and sex spendings, and more.”

“Oh! Tintin, your words compensate for your inexperience. But leave words now, and let’s swim longer in the flowing wet of love.”

I wrote this for the Left of Cool column, which you can also find on the newspaper’s website, here.

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Henri Matisse’s The Dance hangs on the wall. In front of it sits a young man in an armchair, a table lamp at his elbow and a dog lying at his feet. The young man has a tuft of hair that looks familiar. Someone is trying to kill him, judging by the knife flying through a crack in the door.

The painting is by Roy Lichtenstein, the young man is Georges Remi’s Tintin. Lichtenstein was famously a fan of the Belgian artist and writer who was better known as Hergé. He also seems to have been a fan of Matisse; he created another version of The Dance (this one did not feature Tintin) as well. But this layered painting, featuring artwork within artwork and tributes to more than one artist, was created for the cover of a book by one of Lichtenstein’s friends, Frederic Tuten’s Tintin in the New World.

One of the things that make the Adventures of Tintin so appealing is the character’s complete lack of any personality, making it possible for every reader to identify with him. He is a bland do-gooder, unaffected by any strong political beliefs, appetites or emotions. It’s his companions who provide that element—Captain Haddock with his anger management issues, his passion for his ancestry and his love of whiskey; Professor Calculus and his singleminded obsession with science; even Snowy the dog displays more emotion than Tintin himself. As for sex, it’s hard to imagine the young reporter even contemplating the possibility.

Tuten’s book plucks Tintin out of this comfortably emotionless existence. At the beginning of the book Tintin dismisses the world of “Adults … all for lust and murder”. “I shall always be glad to have stayed stunted at twelve,” he thinks, but this situation is about to change when an anonymous letter from Belgium sends Tintin, Haddock and Snowy to Peru, to investigate some mystery within the remains of Machu Pichu.

Like the Lichtenstein piece on its cover, Tintin in the New World is a tribute to more than one master. In Peru, Tintin meets a group composed of Herr Peeperkorn, Herr Naptha, Signor Settembrini and Madame Clavdia Chauchat, characters who will be familiar to readers of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. All four characters embody wildly different worldviews and Tintin is sucked into their debates. Simultaneously he falls in love with Clavdia, leading to a sexual encounter that would be permanently scarring were it not so entertaining. (“Oh! Tintin, your words compensate for your inexperience. But leave words now, and lets swim longer in the flowing wet of love.”)

In many ways the book is deliberately outrageous, playing on the incongruity of Hergé’s character in this setting and often creating an over-the-top parody of its own genre. We see Tintin discussing Second Empire architecture, being psychoalalysed, and turning to vegetarianism; about a quarter of the book is taken up by an extended dream sequence in which Tintin and Clavdia grow old together and fight persecution from the villainous Peeperkorn. Eventually, Tintin will be goaded by his emotions into doing something unforgivable. The world is no longer simple, its lines no longer clear. How can Tintin go about the world bringing justice when, he now knows, “all are guilty, even as they sleep, guilty of mischief done or yet to be done?  The human womb breeds human monsters, sucking eel mouths of desire and wilfulness.” If this all seems a bit excessive, we’re never in doubt that it’s meant to.

There can be no doubt that Hergé knew of Tuten’s book. While the whole thing was published some years after his death, chapters were published during his lifetime, and the book as a whole is “dedicated to the memory of my friend Georges Remi (Hergé)”. Created with permission of a sort, then, it falls somewhere between parody and authorised sequel, homage and critique. I suspect Hergé approved.

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(Many thanks to Shreyas for lending me his copy of this–it is good to have friends who are so willing to pick up strange and terrible books for my entertainment.)

January 6, 2012

Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar, Sita’s Ramayana

There’s lots of Ramayana-related literature coming out at the moment. The thing I’m most looking forward to is Zubaan’s Speculative Ramayana anthology (not least because I’m in it), but there are also Arshia Sattar’s book, the furore around the “Three Hundred Ramayanas” essay, various people angsting over Sita Sings the Blues, Sanjay Patel’s Ramayana: Divine Loophole (I don’t have this yet, but it looks beautiful), and others. I spent a big portion of my New Year’s Eve arguing for the Ramayana’s complexity – my interest in it has begun to feel proprietorial – and this flowering of derivative works is a strong argument in its favour. The pick of them so far (for me, at least) remains Sattar’s, but I think I’d have to write a separate piece on that later. For now, last week’s Sunday Guardian review of Arni and Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana.

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In Lost Loves, her collection of essays on the Ramayana, Arshia Sattar suggests that many retellings of the epic “are prompted by those aspects of the text that have made the tradition uncomfortable, for example, the times when Rama acts unrighteously and violates dharma.” This is a big part of the reason that there are so many feminist retellings of the epic – Sita’s fate is, by any yardstick, unjust. Following her husband into exile out of loyalty, she is kidnapped and held captive as part of a feud in which she has played no active part. Upon being rescued she is accused of being unchaste and even after proving herself pure (the idea that she should have been considered guilty if her kidnapper had raped her is itself vile) she is banished in order that her husband’s kingly status not be besmirched. Rama’s treatment of Sita may be the right thing to do for the kingdom, but at a personal level it is a horrendous betrayal.

Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana opens at the moment when the pregnant Sita is abandoned in the forest. Lamenting her current plight, she tells the story of the events leading up to this point.

Sita is offstage for many of what we might consider the main events of the Ramayana – Rama’s search for his wife, the building of alliances and formation of an army, the journey to Lanka and the war itself. One result of shifting the narrative voice to Sita, then, is that these events are telescoped through multiple perspectives – first Hanuman, then Trijatha (Vibhishana’s daughter) fill in for Sita the gaps in her story. This often creates an interesting ambiguity. For example, in telling the story of the death of Valin and the crowning of Sugriva, does Rama’s devotee Hanuman really focus on Tara’s anger and grief at the loss of her husband and at being bundled from one king to another, or is this Sita’s extrapolation (bearing as it does some resemblance to her own fate)?

The extra layer of commentary that these multiple voices adds also allows the text to describe certain acts as outright wrong – the killing of Indrajit for example – something that might have been didactic were it not in the context of a centuries-old tradition of glossing over these sections in mainstream accounts. Though Sita is quite capable of making these judgements on her own; of the Surpanaka incident she claims that “an unjust act only begets greater injustice. Rama should have stopped him. Instead, he spurred him on”. Sita’s voice is a strongly feminist one, and throughout she empathises with the other victimised women in the story – Surpanaka, Trijatha, Tara, Mandodari. It’s a position that sometimes lacks nuance (the “war…is merciful to men” section quoted on the back cover is an example of this). But the polemic is a style in itself, and this one is, for the most part, handled with style.

Of course Sita cannot be the narrator of the whole of her story, since someone has to tell how it ends. When her story reaches the point of her abandonment in the forest (the point which forms the frame narrative for most of the book) it is taken up rather abruptly by a third person narrator. This narrator (possibly Valmiki himself?) tells of Sita’s refuge with Valmiki, the birth and education of Lava and Kusha, and finally the events that lead to Sita’s final encounter with her husband and her departure from the world. It’s hard to see how this particular narrative shift could have been avoided but it is a shame – this last section lacks the layered thoughtfulness of the earlier parts.

Moyna Chitrakar is the real star here. According to the afterword, Sita’s Ramayana was painted before it was written, and it’s obvious that the art is at the heart of the book. Chitrakar is unafraid to play with the panel layout, and often focuses on startling images. The entire book begins with an unusual dramatis personae. The sequence in which Sita arrives in Lanka and refuses to marry Ravana is told in three panels with no human (or divine, or rakshasa for that matter) figures – one depicting the waves of the sea, one the ornate architecture of the city, and one a tree in the palace gardens. Earlier, when Surpanaka gazes upon Lakshmana’s beauty, the artwork objectifies him with her, actually labelling those of his attributes that are most desireable.

In some ways, of our two great epics the Ramayana is even better suited to retellings than the Mahabharata. This is partly because the former has a more contained story to work with, partly because its protagonist is still held up as a moral ideal in ways the latter epic has been spared. Sita’s Ramayana is part of a strong tradition of feminist retellings, yet it manages to feel fresh and to stand up to them.

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December 26, 2011

P. D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley

I’ve enjoyed what P.D. James I’ve read in the past. And Death Comes to Pemberley was far superior to many of the Austen adaptations I’ve read, but I’m still at a loss to explain the number of positive reviews it seems to have had. Everyone but me is wrong.

I wrote a short piece explaining my woes for the Left of Cool column. An edited version of that column appears below.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that all articles related to Jane Austen must open with some variation on the first line of Pride and Prejudice. Another truth is that Austen is brilliant. This is strenuously denied by some wrongheaded people, but she is read and loved widely enough for them to pale into insignificance.

So it’s not surprising that there have been so many Austen-derived works of art written and filmed over the years. Lots of perfectly respectable writers (Joan Aiken, who featured in this column last week) have written what is basically fanfiction, and much of it is very good.

In recent years, though, there’s been something of a deluge of literature based on Austen’s work – including versions that include Zombies, Sea-Monsters and Mummies, an entire series featuring Austen herself as a detective, the T.V. series Lost in Austen, the film Becoming Jane, the book (and soon to be film) Austenland. It’s all getting a bit excessive.

P.D. James’ contribution to this vast body of literature is a murder mystery and a sequel to Pride and Prejudice. In Death Comes to Pemberley, Elizabeth and Darcy have been married for six years and had two children. The Bingleys (Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband) live on a nearby estate, and all seems to be going well. Until, the night before a ball that Lizzie plans to host, her younger sister Lydia shows up, hysterical and screaming about murder. A body is found in the woods, and to all appearances Lydia’s husband Wickham is the only possible culprit.

As a murder mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley is not bad at all, with a satisfyingly twisty plot based on minor characters from the original text. The shift in genre affords us a glimpse of other parts of Austen’s world. Pride and Prejudice moves between a series of estates of varying sizes – here we see the cottages of the tenants of these estates, the prisons, and London’s criminal courts (much of what goes on would have been considered decidedly unfit for publication in Austen’s own time).

James’ novel is very clear about where it is situated in history. Characters discuss such subjects as the war, the changing role of women in modern society (Mary Wollstonecraft gets a mention), and the efficacy of the legal system. It’s clear that the author has done her research beyond a mere familiarity with Austen’s work.

Yet this ultimately becomes more of a flaw than a benefit. Because it seems unlikely that many people who are unfamiliar with Pride and Prejudice will be picking up Death Comes to Pemberley this Christmas – most of those interested in reading the book will be people who have already read, engaged with, and loved Austen’s work. We don’t need long recaps of the plot of the earlier work; nor do we need to see the main characters thinking over and analysing their own actions in Austen’s original text; we know. As for the politics and the war, these things are present in Pride and Prejudice for those who have looked closely enough. Austen is simply less blatant about it all. “Show, don’t tell” is a rather tired piece of literary critique, but in this case I feel that it is applicable. The only sense of Austen’s England as a complex, vital place comes from James’ characters telling us what a complex, vital place it is.

Moments that are targeted at people who are already Austen fans do occur – there are cameos from characters who appear in Emma and Persuasion. But these moments are few and far between, and like everything else they lack depth.

I’m not an Austen purist and have often enjoyed books and films that bounce off her novels and examine her world. But such works generally meet the reader as equals and take for granted that she is capable of participating in this game. James gets behind a podium and attempts to explain Austen to us; and the only thing we learn is that she lacks the earlier author’s lightness of touch.

 

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But I know there are some great Austen-derived works out there. I’m fond of John Kessel’s “Pride and Prometheus”, in which Mary Bennet meets a young scholar named Victor Frankenstein. Suggestions for others in the comments, maybe?

October 7, 2011

Maurice LeBlanc, The Blonde Lady (Arsène Lupin Contre Herlock Sholmès)

And the water was rising. It reached the soles of their boots. It covered their feet; they did not move.

It came above their ankles: the Englishman took his tobacco-pouch, rolled a cigarette and lit it.

Lupin continued:

“And, in all this, my dear maître, you must not see anything more than the humble confession of my powerlessness in face of you. It is tantamount to yielding to you, when I accept only those contests in which my victory is assured, in order to avoid those of which I shall not have selected the field. It is tantamount to recognizing that Holmlock Shears is the only enemy whom I fear and proclaiming my anxiety as long as Shears is not removed from my path. This, my dear maître, is what I wished to tell you, on this one occasion when fate has allowed me the honour of a conversation with you. I regret only one thing, which is that this conversation should take place while we are having a foot-bath … a position lacking in dignity, I must confess…. And what was I saying?… A foot-bath!… A hip-bath rather!”

The water, in fact, had reached the seat on which they were sitting and the boat sank lower and lower in the water.

Shears sat imperturbable, his cigarette at his lips, apparently wrapped in contemplation of the sky. For nothing in the world, in the face of that man surrounded by dangers, hemmed in by the crowd, hunted down by a posse of police and yet always retaining his good humour, for nothing in the world would he have consented to display the least sign of agitation.

“What!” they both seemed to be saying. “Do people get excited about such trifles? Is it not a daily occurrence to get drowned in a river? Is this the sort of event that deserves to be noticed?”

And the one chattered and the other mused, while both concealed under the same mask of indifference the formidable clash of their respective prides.

Another minute and they would sink.

 

 

My Kindle column for this month is about Maurice LeBlanc writing what amounts to fanfiction using his own characters and other people’s. I suspect if he’d lived in the age of the internet he’d be writing slash. The H. Richard Boehm translation is available here. A version of my review is below.

 

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As writers of fanfiction in particular know, there’s a certain joy in bringing together iconic characters from different series/movies/authors and imagining their interactions. Perhaps the published author most famous for doing this is Alan Moore, whose League of Extraordinary Gentleman series of comics picks up a bunch of classic figures from Victorian literature and gives them new adventures.

The classic Victorian icon is of course Sherlock Holmes. Moore may have chosen not to use him in the series (though at least one other important Conan Doyle character appears), but more than a century ago another major writer did. Maurice LeBlanc, creator of the French gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, had the two face off in Arsène Lupin Contre Herlock Sholmès – the detective’s name slightly changed because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had objected. This collection of two related short stories was published in America under the title The Blonde Lady, and Herlock Sholmès was further changed to Holmlock Shears.

Chief-Inspector Ganimard invites Shears and his colleague, “the unspeakable Wilson” to Paris to solve the theft of a diamond ring in which Lupin and a mysterious blonde woman seem to be involved. Lupin is thrilled; Shears is a worthy adversary. This leads to a prolonged cat-and-mouse game, with the two men working to outwit each other and occasionally (though briefly) succeeding.

Traditionally, if  Holmes has a nemesis it is Professor Moriarty. Yet for me perhaps the most engaging villain in Conan Doyle’s stories was Irene Adler – not because she was a woman (though beautiful adventuresses are always welcome in Victorian fiction) but because the two of them seemed to enjoy the game so much. Holmes presumably respects Moriarty as an adversary, but there’s an underlying grimness- when it comes to it, these men are willing to kill each other. Whereas Holmes may be angry at being bested by Adler, but there’s always the sense that it’s all an elegant bit of play and they’d get along quite well under different circumstances. It makes a difference, of course, that Adler’s crime in the one story in which she appears is not particularly serious. Lupin is more of an Adler than a Moriarty.

LeBlanc’s hero is always amazing – rakish, charming and forever one step ahead of everyone else. Every encounter between him and Shears is a delight in this book. On the occasion of their first confrontation the two sit down to whiskeys-and-sodas. They often compliment each other, and in the second story, “The Jewish Lamp”, engage in a showdown that is quite a spectacular mutual admiration society. Of course there’s a bit of France vs England going on, and Lupin leaves Shears furious and humiliated more than once. But there is still the feeling that they could have been friends (or even lovers, though I highly doubt LeBlanc meant us to read it this way). Of course it helps that (as with Adler) Lupin isn’t totally morally repugnant – he tends to steal only from the rich and does not commit murder (as well as being witty and attractive). It’s much easier to like him than it would be with a more hardened criminal.

If there’s one thing over which this odd crossover book can be faulted it is its treatment of poor Wilson. Conan Doyle’s Watson is a perfectly ordinary, intelligent man; LeBlanc’s Wilson is an idiot. In a way it foreshadows the idiot sidekick trope in fiction – Wilson is closer to Agatha Christie’s Captain Hastings than to our favourite army doctor – but it seems unfair to a character who really doesn’t get enough love. Perhaps if LeBlanc had been allowed to use the original Conan Doyle characters this would have been different – and what a great novel that would have been.

 

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