Read from April 20th to May 3rd 2018
I’ve often told, to whoever wanted to listen to, the story of a lawyer friend of mine who, in the process of redecorating his apartment, put all his books in three or four huge plastic bags and left them in the (not quite secure) hall of the building. When I asked him how come he was not afraid someone would be tempted to take them, he answered: “Whenever have you heard about book theft? I, in my ten years or so of law practice, I have never encountered such a case.” And this happened almost twenty years ago, when e-books were still a dream of the future and folks like me were spending long hours in old bookstores in search of cheaper paperbacks, so the obvious moral of the tale is that for most people books are not valuable objects; even those who occasionally read don’t have the urge to be surrounded by books, nor to invest in them.
But how do you imagine life in a world in which not having books would be inconceivable, where they are the most coveted items, so that all human beings cherish, fight, steal and often die for them? What a dream world would that be, don’t you agree with me? Well, this is the world that generously opens for you in Jasper Fforde’s novel, The Eyre Affair. It may not be Borges’s paradise (it is not, for sure!) but man, how I would like to live there, if only for a while! In the circumstances, following the Literary Detective Thursday’s adventures it’s the best next, pun intended, of course.
Here you enter a parallel universe in which time and space are so relative that it is the most natural thing in the world to ask whereand whensomeone is, to learn that Beatles sometimes split in ’70 and sometimes they did not, or to accept that a simple ChronoGuard worker can compress more than two hundred years in his work and remain younger than his children.
Conflicts could reach epic proportions in this universe either, for there are wars soldiers go to from camps called “Deleted by Censors” (and when they return home they become veteranbeggars who recite “Longfellow from memory for a couple of pennies”), and there are xenophobic manifestations as in the case of the legalisation of surrealism, after whichyoung surrealists are sometimes “stabbed to death” by gangs of French impressionists, when they are not assaulted by Raphaelites while inside some N’est pas une pipepublic house.
Here books don’t need their original authors to re-write themselves, and they have covers that open not only for reading but also for breaking and entering (thus the phrase “a short excursion into the novel” focuses more on the literal meaning than on the figurate one), and they have characters that can be kidnapped and killed and they can even become efficient prisons for some evil reader.
Therefore,if you have ever wondered why Mr Quaverley is missing from Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, here you have the answer:Acheron Hades ordered him to be killed. Moreover, you may want to know that without Thursday Next, Rochester’s first meeting with Jane would have been way less spectacular and their final reunion would have not taken place. Indeed, without her spooking the hero’s horse when she inadvertently stepped into the book as a child and without her whispering under heroine’s window during the second visit as an adult, we would have eternally complained about the dull, unsatisfactory previous ending, in which Jane accompanied her cousin to India, because the characters themselves may have the liberty to move inside their narrative and play the parts they like most, but they are not able to change it.
It goes without saying that this to and fro from “fiction” to “reality” and back isn’t a usual thing not even in this universe. It needs a distracted genius like Mycroft and a villain of villains as Acheron Hades to change the rules.
Mycroft, the distracted scientist and Thursday’s uncle, who once gave a lecture at university about the practical side of mathematics that enabled the listeners to always win at Snakes and Ladders, is the author of many inventions, among which a method for sending pizzas by fax, a 2B pencil with a built-in spell-checker, a sarcasm early-warning device, and a Retinal Screen-Saver (with flying stars or toasters) to amuse those who have boring jobs. His most important project has been the creation of the "HyperBookworms”, a species of bookworms in whose DNA he stored information of “all the finest dictionaries, thesauri and lexicons, as well as grammatical, morphological and etymological studies of the English language”. He feeds them with what he calls somehow inappropriately “omitted prepositions” (for example, in Journey’s Endthere are three omissions – theend ofthejourney) and takes care that after every digestion they be “happily farting out apostrophes and ampersands” until “the air was heav’y with th’em&.” It is the HyperBookworms that build the Prose Portal through whichhe sends his wife Polly to visit Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’. Unfortunately, at this precise moment the villain appears, snatches the poem closing the portal and forces Mycroft first to open Martin Chuzzlewit for him, killing Quaverley as a warning and then Jane Eyre,kidnapping the heroine for ransom.
However, no need to worry. Like in any true heroic adventure, the end is apotheotic, the Good being rewarded by the fairy-tale marriage and the Evil punished by being locked up wherelse but in The Raven, from where he keeps protesting in an impotent fury:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary, o’er a plan to venge myself upon that cursed Thursday Next—This Eyre affair, so surprising, gives my soul such loath despising, Here I plot my temper rising, rising from my jail of text. ‘Get me out!’ I said, advising, ‘Pluck me from this jail of text—or I swear I’ll wring your neck!’
If the text is indeed a jail, Jasper Fforde has found a way to “pluck” the reader (observe the appropriate semantic area, please J) from it. Hisludic sense is absolutely amazing, the novel shamelessly flirting with science fiction and fantasy, with romance and adventure, with mystery and urban gothic, with metatextuality and intertextuality, mixing all of them together in an improbable but so reinvigorating brew. Literary common places are laughingly exaggerated, like the choice of names as hints of personalities: Thursday Next, the mighty heroine under the sign of Jupiter promising, like in the nursery verse "Thursday's Child has far to go" to forever fight and win, which does not prevent her from falling sometimes into a Bridget Jones sentimental state of mind, Acheron Hades, forced by name and first name, both on the dark side, to become the villain of all villains, Jack Schitt, who would like to play a Machiavelli role but whose name inexorably directs him towards the proverbial fan, Landen, word that in any urban dictionary describes the outgoing, nice, caring and mandatorily hot guy, and so on.
Intertextuality becomes sometimes a palimpsest technique, overwriting some Poe’s poem or including some otherwise inexistent character in a Dickens’ novel, and sometimes becomes an authorship claim, like in Jane Eyre’s narrative or in the tale of Thursday’s father, who, after visiting the 1610 London and learning that nobody had written Shakespeare’s works, not only gives them to the young actor Shakespeare, but also pretends to have contributed to Hamlet’s speech with this reminder of his work: “Time is out of joint; O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!”
Therefore, I think that Courtney Devores’s opinion, which I found quoted in Wikipedia , that Fforde "must have jotted a bundle of unrelated ideas on slips of paper", and, "instead of tossing them in a hat and choosing a few topics as the focus of his story, [he] grabbed the whole hat" sums up very appropriately this kind of writing, so original and rewarding. Its gentle parody puts a smile on your lips from the very first lines (“My father had a face that could stop a clock. I don’t mean that he was ugly or anything; it was a phrase the ChronoGuard used to describe someone who had the power to reduce time to an ultra-slow trickle.”), smile that not only never leaves you as the story goes on, but increases to the dimensions of a Cheshire Cat’s, to reach Homeric proportions by the end of the story.
By the way, has anyone noticed that the thirty-six chapters of the novel are in fact thirty-five for “Chapter 13 The Church at Capel-y-ffin” is nowhere to be found except in Contents? If you have not, this the author laughing at you for not paying enough attention (and this is me boasting that I have).
I will keep you informed about the following adventures of Thursday Next I am so looking forward to reading! Meanwhile I cannot help sharing with this delicious quote that challenges not only syntax and cultural knowledge but also the foretelling technique:
‘Good evening,’ said the barman. ‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’ ‘Because Poe wrote on both?’
P.S. My readings really talk with each other. Several days ago that I was given another answer to the Hatter’s question quoted above, this time by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, in her Ravenous Muse: “So the muse will come and mate with it, of course.”Moreover, it was only yesterday that Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant was complaining, just like Thursday Next, that the appearances of the dog Pilot in Jane Eyre are far too few. At the end of the day, maybe Fforde universe is closer than I first thought.