Faulks on Fiction (Saturday, 9pm on BBC2 and you can catch up on the iPlayer) kicked off with a look at The Hero. Faulks introduced the programme by telling us he was going to focus on characters rather than the biographical details of authors, which apparently we’ve been paying far too much attention to in recent decades (though not in the academy, where the Death of the Author was proclaimed by literary theoreticians a while ago now – but, yes, best ignore that lot).
What followed had a lot in common with those entertaining Channel Four 100 Greatest… programmes where a succession of talking heads provide us with their reasons why such-and-such a thing was ‘brilliant’, illustrated by clips, this time from some of our favourite BBC costume dramas. In this instance, though, our top ten (or so), was chosen by Sebastian Faulks, novelist, rather than by us, the viewers.
Perhaps a disparaging comparison for a ‘major’ series in a season about literature; but it really was entertaining, if not very revelatory to anyone who’s read the books. I did have a quibble, however – quite a large one. OK, it’s TV, Faulks was covering around three hundred years in an hour, and simplifying things is sometimes necessary to make them accessible. But his overarching thesis was painted in such a broad brush that it obscured as much as it highlighted.
He followed the ‘never glad, confident morning again’ line: that the First World War marked the beginning of the end of the hero, someone able to impose himself or herself on the world around them. Before the War, characters from Robinson Crusoe to Sherlock Holmes were rugged individualists who shaped their environments and whose qualities eventually resulted in their triumph, or at least vindication; after the War, we could no longer believe in humanity’s virtues and the individual’s ability to overcome: as a result, the hero declined into victim (Winston Smith) before disintegrating altogether into a collection of modish appetites (John Self). At which point Faulks pronounced The Hero ‘dead’.
Of course, the First World War (and the Second, as well as the other horrors of the twentieth century) resulted in a sort of cultural disillusionment. But Faulks overstates his case to such an extent that it makes important parts of the history of the English novel incomprehensible.
To accept it we’d have to ignore the creations of some of the most interesting, indeed greatest, pre-WWI novelists. How many of Hardy’s heroes triumph? Does Jude the Obscure impose himself on his world, shaping it to his will? How about Tess? And who’s the conquering hero in Conrad’s Secret Agent? Or his Heart of Darkness?
Sherlock Holmes, we’re told, was our ‘first superhero’. But wouldn’t he also have to be one of the last, the disillusionment of World War I supposedly meaning we could never believe in such transcendent figures again? And then there are the non-supernatural but still considerable George Smileys, Harry Palmers and James Bonds: not unalloyed goodies but pretty accomplished post-WWI heroes of their stories nonetheless. Who would you back to get the mystery cleared up, Holmes or Bond? Not much in it, is there?
What’s more, the death of the hero in the early 1980s must have come as news to Robert Harris, who gave us his thoughts on Winston Smith (and to English novelists as diverse as Alan Hollinghurst, William Boyd and Henry Porter).
I could go on. But it might instead be useful to wonder what might have worked better. What struck me, seeing the parade of heroes and heroines dance across the screen, was how characters in the English novel seem to play off each other. Certainly, they inhabit different worlds, but not so much that they aren’t recognisable, one to another: John Self as an eighteenth-century rake let loose on modern-day New York; Becky Sharp manoeuvering her way through a succession of chick-lit novels; Tom Jones’s jostling against the proprieties echoed by the rather more repressed frictions produced by Jim Dixon. Intertextuality is one (ugly) name for it.
We may be living in a more disillusioned and cynical age (or have we merely lost some illusions to gain others whose illusory nature we haven’t yet managed to discern?). But fiction’s dance goes on, a circular one where the all-too-human foibles of the performers continue to look remarkably familiar.