9.5.11

Vintage Classics Day

     On Saturday I attended my second event of the Vintage Book's 21st birthday celebrations (the first being the Vintage Open Day; read my account here), the Vintage Classics Day, at Foyles on Charing Cross Rd. It was a star-studded event that sold out days in advance and served very well to illustrate the beauty and depth of the Vintage backlist and our own literary heritage, the idea being that we were ‘celebrating classics with the writers who will be the classics of the future’. These writers were, namely, Sebastian Faulks, Lionel Shriver, Mark Haddon, Sadie Jones, Jake Arnott and Rose Tremain.


     The day started with a discussion of ‘Vintage Villains’: the task at hand being for the three writers to convince us that their villain was the most evil by way of argument and some helpful readings. Firstly, Jake Arnott championed Long John Silver as the villain du jour, then Sadie Jones bigged up Dracula and Sebastian Peake then argued on behalf of Steerpike. Viv Groskop was the irrepressible host, building the literary tension and doing an impressive array of comedy demon laughs. Arnott, author of The Long Firm and The Devil’s Paintbrush, cited LJS’s integrity and dastardly intelligence, saying that his duplicity and cunning could teach us all (Jim Hawkins included) a lessons or two about life. Sadie Jones, known for The Outcast and Small Wars, then stepped in with Dracula as the model of ‘evil incarnate’, his corrupting and seductive sexual power an unsettling threat to morality upon publication and a present day antithesis to the contemporary cult of youth. Sebastian Peake spoke about his father’s creation ‘Steerpike’ from the novel Gormenghast, relating his terrible tyranny to his father’s experience of the Nazis and saying that ‘Gormenghast represents a whole world pitched on the edge of reality, but every flint and brick Steerpike pushes past is real to us,’ as he represents the duplicity and light and darkness that exist concurrently within ourselves. All were very convincing arguments (featuring, at times, some less than convincing accents:), but Dracula and Sadie won the day, with Steerpike a close second. 

     We were then treated to a talk with Rose Tremain and Di Spears, Editor of BBC Radio’s London Reading Unit and judge of the BBC National Short Story Competition, about Tremain's Orange Inheritance selection, Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet. Tremain said that she chose this because she felt it important that there was a European novel amongst the Inheritance choices, and also that the themes of preservation and family betrayal run parallel with those of Trepass and those of her other works: Pierre Grandet wants to preserves his own wealth whilst Audrun Lunel so desperately wants to preserve her family’s history and the land. Also, Trepass's Anthony Verey has always lavished the highest of his attention on his ‘beloveds’, or favourite possessions, in the same way that Pierre Grandet reserves his highest affection for his gold. It was very interesting; a perfect illustration of the concurrence of the classic and the contemporary and a great endorsement of EugĂ©nie Grandet, which I am now keen to read. 

     We then continued with the Orange Inheritance theme, with Mark Haddon and Lionel Shriver talking about their selections, which were, respectively, Virginia Woolf’s 'To The Lighthouse' and Richard Yate’s 'Revolutionary Road'. The conversation started in a distinctly non-classics-supporting way as they both stated that they no longer had the patience to read long, drawn-out novels and that often classics should stay in the past (!), but Shriver qualified this by saying she’d chosen Revolutionary Road for the precise reason that it is written plainly and directly in ‘language you don’t notice’ and that the themes are ‘enduringly contemporary’ and have not/will not date. There are also aspects of it that relate to her own work, namely the persistence and seductiveness of the idea of a personal Valhalla, be it Europe, as for the Wheelers, or anywhere else, and the idea (or delusion) that people possess of being special and better than their circumstance. Also, as a small aside for her fans, she said that she saw a preview of the film of her book 'We Need to Talk about Kevin' last week and that it is fantastic. Mark Haddon stated that when you find a book who adore ‘you love it in a way that is almost physical’ and that you ‘feel it in your gut’. His choice makes him feel like this as Woolf conveys so brilliantly ‘what it is like to be inside the human brain’ and that her writing is ‘more like dancing than architecture’ for its rapid and concise ascerbity, stream-of-consciousness structure and kind and warm perceptions of humanity and its frailties. Both agree that it is impossible to predict the classics of the future, as there is no telling what will remain accessible or relevant; there was an agreement though that great tragedies are often classics as ‘the structure of life is tragic’ and we look for the reflection of this in literature. Also, the novel is the most enduring of forms as we all read everything differently; ‘a novel is incomplete without you’ and that upon reading they ‘become half your own’. Great stuff, topped off by Shriver's (mock?) indignance at an audience member's comment that We Need to Talk about Kevin should have had a different ending...

     Archive Hour next, with Alison Hennessey and Jean Rose, Manager of the Random House archive. Did you know that the Random House archive library in Rushden puts, on average, 62 books a day into 9.8 miles of shelf space, which in total houses 1.2 million books, amounting to 590 tonnes? Me neither. The oldest book stored there is Joe Miller’s Jests, from 1739 (that being the short version of its epically long title), and that the current king of archive shelf space is James Patterson, thanks to endless publication, reprints and reissues, with Robert Louis Stephenson a close runner-up. Recent rediscoveries from the archive include A.A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery, novel in that it was his only crime novel, and The Magic Key to Charm by Eileen Ascroft, a period style and beauty guide from the woman who established the women’s pages within the Evening Standard. Mrs Dalloway’s Party has also recently re-emerged from the Archives, complete with an updated cover aimed at the re-imagining of her image and engagement with a new contemporary audience. 

     The day rounded off then with ‘Faulks on Fiction’, with James Walton, critic, writer and presenter of Radio 4’s The Write Stuff, in conversation with Sebastian Faulks about the recent Faulks on Fiction programme on the BBC (which he said was ‘like the old Soviet Union [in terms of bureaucracy], only less humourous’). The programme itself celebrated memorable characters within modern and classic fiction, so he was a great fit for this event. He also talked about his most recent best-seller A Week in December

A Week in December (Vintage International)     Having re-read a great deal of the classics in the making of the programme, Faulks said that Clarissa, Great Expectations and Emma were better than he remembered (Emma being 'the most perfected crafted novel in English'), and that The Golden Notebook and The End of the Affair were amongst the ones that weren’t; namely because Faulks said he felt that 'Greene could have been so much greater if he hadn’t always pulled back from full exposure' and had been more willing 'to make a fool of himself'. An interesting take for anyone who's even read Greene. Anyway, he said, very jovially, that writing is ‘like sky-diving’ compared to the pace of TV production, so I don't think he's considering abandoning his writing career in favour of it, although it was very interesting to hear him remark that he imagines himself as one of the last writers who can manage to make a full-time career out of it, an author's value now being so low. Speaking of his writing career, he was told by an American publisher that 'the modern world was waiting for him', having of course always set his stories in the past. A Week in December’s is the fruit of that comment, he said, and although its main theme is detachment from reality, it turned out, to his surprise, much angrier and more satirical than planned. A sort of condition-of-England, Bonfire of the Vanities piece, he said. He feels that he’s only started writing in the first person in his more recent books as he previously shied away from self-revelation, which naturally I found very interesting indeed. A great insight into his work which I, as a fan, very much enjoyed. 

     Again, another great event from Vintage that did full justice to the classics, to the featured writers in attendance and to the uniqueness of Vintage's 21 year career. Long may they reign!

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