Wednesday 11 December 2013

Faulks on Fiction (audio) - Sebastian Faulks

As you see from this post's title, I didn't read Faulks on Fiction (2011) in the traditional sense, but rather I listened to it on audiobook.  This was something of a novel (ho ho) experience for me, as I haven't listened to an audiobook all the way through for more than a decade, perhaps nearer 20 years.  Indeed, for me - when I had trouble sleeping as an undergraduate - audiobooks were basically lullabies.  I'd stick Diary of a Provincial Lady, or Felicity's Kendal's White Cargo, or the letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham in the cassette player, and go to sleep to the sound of their voices.  Those were the only cassettes I owned, so I got very familiar with first ten minutes of each side...

But I asked for the CD (how times have changed) of Faulks on Fiction for Christmas a couple of years ago, and my parents kindly gave it to me.  I listened to it gradually, mostly last winter on my iPod, because I had daily walks into town of 45 minutes each way (and couldn't afford to get the bus all the time).  Then I got the job at OUP, could afford to take the bus, and somehow left the final CD of ten until last week...

I haven't even properly mentioned the author yet, although you'll have worked it out.  Sebastian Faulks (known for his novels, particularly Birdsong, none of which I have read) presented a TV series looking at selected novels in the history of British literature, and this was the tie-in book.  I only actually watched one of the episodes - on heroes - and didn't bother with the rest, because it all seemed a bit dumbed down.  Someone told me that the book was better (well, duh) and they weren't wrong.

Faulks addresses various 'categories' - heroes, villains, lovers, and snobs - and tracks each through the history of literature. So he'll start with a Defoe or a Swift, moving on through Austens, Eliots, Brontes, via Woolf, Lawrence et al, and finally an Amis or an Ali.  It is of course a subjective overview of literature, and the four categories we suggests could only ever be a necessary structuring device (arguably all four appear in most of the novels Faulks chooses), but I liked the idea of picking out these motifs.  With only one or two examples per century for each category, it could hardly be considered comprehensive, and I baulked a bit when Faulks attempted to draw wider conclusions from his chosen examples - but no matter, I suppose it is what is expected of anything with so broad a title.

There is always that main problem with books which summarise books: that you've either read the book being summarised or you haven't.  If you have, you don't need to be given the outline of the plot (although I found it did often help my faulty memory), and if you haven't, you don't want spoilers.  I appreciated the run-through on books I never intend to read, but did end up fast-forwarding through sections on tbr pile candidates.  Having said that, I listened to his thoughts on The End of the Affair by Graham Greene before I read it, and had still fortunately forgotten everything he said.

In either case, my favourite moments were when Faulks was talking about the books, rather than giving summaries.  I didn't always agree with him - see my post on Faulks and Pride and Prejudice - but I'm a sucker for intelligent, accessible discussion of great liteature.  His groupings are intriguing and his discussion is warm, witty, and well thought-through.  Of course, it's been so long since I listened to most of it that I can't really recall what he said, but the CD I listened to last covered Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, and I enjoyed hearing what he had to say about the creation of Barbara, and how the novel differed from the film.

As for how the format affected my listening... Well, I found it impossible to separate the speaker from Faulks, even though they were definitely different people (the narrator, incidentally, is James Wilby).  I could definitely have done without his attempts at accents - I can understand the eager actor relishing the opportunity to wander from Russia to Yorkshire and back again, but it was rather distracting.  But, aside from that, I quite enjoyed listening to an audiobook.  There were times when skipping would have been easier than fast-forwarding, or skimming backwards easier than rewinding, but Wilby has an engaging voice and it was the perfect entertainment for walking to and from town, as it could be listened to in discrete bursts without much being lost.

1 comment:

  1. I have his Pistache on my TBR, which I bought after I read his parody of Dan Brown (at a cash machine!) somewhere, but, again, one has to know the original to appreciate the parody and I already know I have some tricky gaps (e.g., Martin Amis). We'll see!


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