Thursday, March 27, 2008

Alors, who really wrote Shakespeare's plays?

So I borrowed Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair because I wanted some light, amusing reading for the Easter break. I was expecting something along the lines of Terry Pratchett, funny and satirical, especially after reading the blurb: "Thursday Next is a literary detective without equal, fear, or boyfriend." I love this linguistic tweaking: taking a rule that works in some situations and applying it to one of the rare situations where it doesn't work. What I mean is, in most situations you can add a theoretically unlimited number of nouns after the words 'with' or 'without'. But when using the phrase 'they were without equal', you don't usually do that. So go blurb writer!

I don't think I came across that phrase in the book, though I might be wrong. If I'm right, it means that the writer of the blurb is a better comic writer than Jasper Fforde. I have to admit I was disappointed. His writing style is, frankly, boring. I was anticipating the dry, ironic wit similar to Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. This book frequently bordered on the amusing and sometimes approached outright funny, but I never laughed out loud. Fforde's strength is in his concept.

It's not a bad plot, for sure, though I've known better. Ingenious is a good word to describe it. He does all the stuff with popping in and out of time - Thursday (the main character) is in hospital when a car appears in her room. In it is herself. The Thursday in the car yells at her "take the job in Swindon!" before disappearing, sans puff of smoke. Thursday realises she's just been visited by her future self. So it creates a neverending loop. Later in the book she inadvertently travels back in time and yells at herself to keep it working. The question is, how did the first Thursday know? I guess the only answer is that there was no first Thursday.

One of the themes of the book that keeps popping up is the question about who really wrote Shakespeare's plays. I spent most of the book going w...t...f...surely no self-respecting author really cares? I mean, it doesn't matter who wrote them. The fact is, we have a bunch of pretty amazing plays, and even if experts analyse them and say that they weren't written by the same person, it doesn't matter. The plays are what matter! The beautiful, glorious use of language in ways it was never used before is what matter!

The only argument that I can see having any merit is the one that if it was actually Anne Hathaway who wrote them, and then used Shakespeare's name to cover up the fact she was a woman, she deserves credit for the sake of feminism. But that's only a valid argument to feminists, of which I am one. Even so, it's a bit feeble. The plays are what matter! I was surprised that Fforde cared, or appeared to care. It was the resolution of this subplot that redeemed the book in my eyes. I won't spoil it (I detest spoilers), but dammit, it's smart, and mind-boggling, and revolutionary, and quite funny too. And it convinced me that Fforde thought the same way as I do, or at least similarly.

But, as I mentioned earlier, it's the concept which is best. A parallel universe which is very similar to our own, save that the Crimean War, by 1985, has been going for 131 years, Winston Churchill never existed, and several other trifling differences? Brilliant! Or not, depending on the mood I'm in. What I loved was the fact that in this universe literature is important enough that they have a special department of literary detectives and the death of a very minor character from one of Dickens' books caused 150 000 people to attend his funeral. Great stuff!

Also, you can put 10 p into a little box and it will start reciting Shakespeare at you. Also, Jane Eyre was stolen from her book and held to ransom, and the whole of England was up in arms. I can't help but think there wouldn't have been such an outcry if it happened in our distressingly aliterate universe.

So, strong concept, decidedly mediocre writing. The ending saved it for me. I loved the way it twisted up history and time-travel, two of my favourite ingredients in any book. Nevertheless, I doubt I'll be reading another one.

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