söndag 7 juli 2013

To write pastiche or not to write pastiche? On balance, not.

I've been a bit on the fence when it comes to pastiches. I confess that I hate historical novels set in medieval times to be written in a Ye Olde Style - as if medieval times weren't strange enough already. But when authors try to write in the style of Jane Austen, or the Victorian novelists, I do see what they're aiming for. If some of the best novels around are written in a certain style, I can understand if you want to emulate it. "Finding your own voice" is all very well, but if you could sing in perfect imitation of Kiri Te Kanawa, who would ask for "your own voice"? I'd love there to be even more Dickens novels, so if someone were to be able to pull off writing a novel or two exactly in the style of Dickens, I don't think I would complain.

The thing is, though - can you pull it off? I remember thinking Jane Dawkins succeeded in capturing a credible Austenesque tone in Letters from Pemberley and More Letters from Pemberley, but otherwise, Austen's style seems rather harder to copy than sequel-writers think, and the best "Austenuations" are mostly those written in the writer's own style. As for Dickens - well, he is called The Inimitable. And though he has been successfully (and funnily) parodied, I doubt that his style could be captured and held up for a whole novel, by anyone but the man himself.

What I'm trying to get at is that if pastiche is not 100 per cent credible as "the real thing", it comes between the book's content and the reader. It is, quite simply, an extremely tricky genre, and I'm not sure that attempting it instead of writing in the style that comes naturally to you is really worth the risk. What's prompted me to think about this was reading D.J. Taylor's Derby Day. It is written in a mock-Victorian style which simply didn't work for me.

I was disappointed in Derby Day, to be honest, because I got the distinct impression from reviews that it would be colourful, frothy fun and a bit of a guilty pleasure. Booker prize-covering articles sounded surprised that it had made the long list. In effect, it is an ambitious novel, especially when it comes to describing the atmosphere around Derby Day (which takes place at the end of the novel) a little in the manner of Frith's picture, by weaving all manner of little scenes involving different characters - more or less important to the book's plot - together. But as for froth - no. Though some of the characters were interesting, none (barring perhaps a long-suffering governess) was particularly pleasant. It was easier to root for the horse Tiberius than for any of them. There was a woeful lack of romance, and the villain was the kind of superficial cad I can't get much out of. Above all, I found the style a bar to my enjoyment of the book: it wasn't like Dickens, or like Collins, it only seemed unnecessarily knotty. The Victorian fondness for simile especially seemed to get in the author's way a bit: I didn't get the feeling that coming up with similes came naturally to him, as it did to Dickens, and in that case it might be better not to attempt it in the first place.

I'll give Derby Day its due, though: I finished it, because I did want to know who won the race. But it is not really a good advertisement for pastiche. If you enjoy richly textured description of scenes of Victorian life (I don't much - social-history phobia again), it's well worth giving this book a try: just don't expect high-jinks and melodrama.