Saturday, 27 July 2013


In the Guardian today, Neil Gaiman said, "I think everything I've written with the exception of Ocean [at the end of the Lane] has a sequel I could start tomorrow." And it got me thinking.

pinguino k from North Hollywood, USA, 2007
There is a passion for sequels. I can't tell you how often fans have written to me asking for sequels to books whose story seems to me to have come to a definite end. And it can go on after an author is dead; just how many James Bond, Sherlock Holmes and Jane Austen spin-offs can there be? (Especially now you can just add zombies).

Another way, the more elegant to my mind, is to have a minor character from a book become the dominant one in another, as Paul Scott did with Booker-winning Staying On, after writing the Jewel in the Crown series. Susan Howatch made it the dominant feature of her Starbridge series of novels.

Giorgio Bassani's Romazo di Ferrara was five novellas linked in this way, of which the most famous is The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

Yet another method is to write a prequel, explaining something about the earlier life of one of a novel's characters : Philippa Gregory, whose The White Queen is currently being shown on British TV, is releasing The White Princess this summer, which is at least chronologically later, being about the White Queen's (Elizabeth Woodville's) daughter (Elizabeth of York). But the novels were written out of historical order.

3rd in the Cousins' War sequence but a prequel to The White Queen
Still, Shakespeare wrote Henry Vl (all three parts) and Richard lll before Richard ll, Henry lV (2 parts) and Henry V. Perhaps the groundlings shouted, "More! More!" and Henry Vll would have been a bit too close to home. (Even though he did probably later write Henry Vlll with John Fletcher).

How do you feel about sequels? Which novel would you most like to have one? My candidate is Michael Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White.

Monday, 15 July 2013

What's in a name?

A famous name
A lot, apparently. Robert Galbraith's d├ębut crime novel, The Cuckoo's Calling, was published quietly on April 18th by Sphere and gained some enthusiastic reviews from fellow-practitioners Val McDiarmid, Mark Billingham and Peter James among others. Today it is Amazon's Number 1 Bestseller. Not because of word-of-mouth or Amazon reviews but because - you'd have to be living under a stone not to know this - "Robert Galbraith" is actually the pseudonym of J K Rowling.

Joanne Rowling published her first adult novel, A Casual Vacancy, last year with Little, Brown (of which Sphere is an imprint), under her own name  and received quite a lot of flak from reviewers. I don't in the least blame her for trying another route with her first crime novel. But did she? Cynical speculation is rife on the Net that the release of this information three months later was a calculated  marketing ploy.

I would like not to believe that of Rowling, towards whom I am generally well-disposed.

Still, this post is not about her but the thousands of extra readers who have bought Galbraith's book since the news broke. What is the mentality here? I haven't bought it myself because I don't want detective fiction in hardback or on my Kindle. but I might when it is paperbacked.

Not because it is by J K Rowling but because the reviews make it sound good and - here's the crucial bit - I hadn't seen any of these reviews until the author was outed.

Presumably the hundreds of thousands of new purchasers (and they are bound to rise before I can even put this post up) thought "Ooh, I love JK" or "I love Harry Potter" or even "I really enjoyed A Casual Vacancy"?

Once a certain number has been reached, the sales bonanza finds its own momentum.

What will happen in future ? Will the Cormoran Strike series be labelled "J.K.Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith"? The way that some books tell you they are "by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine"? (I buy all those).

What I find a bit odd is "Robert Galbraith's" biography on the Sphere site:

"Born in 1968, Robert Galbraith is married with two sons. After several years with the Royal Military Police, he was attached to the SIB (Special Investigation Branch), the plain-clothes branch of the RMP. He left the military in 2003 and has been working since then in the civilian security industry. The idea for protagonist Cormoran Strike grew directly out of his own experiences and those of his military friends who have returned to the civilian world. 'Robert Galbraith' is a pseudonym."

Should it perhaps have added "This biography is a work of fiction"?

I'm interested that J K Rowling should have invented not just her pseudonym but a whole back story for him, as if he had been one of her characters.

I remember E.V. Lucas's anecdote about W.P.Ker; when told that William Sharp dressed up in women's clothes when writing "Fiona McLeod's" poems, Ker exclaimed, "the bitch!"

Do we feel deceived? What do you think?

Photo credit: Daniel Ogren

Friday, 5 July 2013

Private Lives

Opening Night at the Gielgud Theatre on Wednesday and your Maven was tirelessly there to see what a new production made of this 1930 classic. (Well, the audience has been described as "star-studded" but the reporter might possibly have meant Dominc West and Helena Bonham-Carter).

Noel Coward's hardy perennial opens with the most famous balcony scene since Romeo climbed up that creeper in Verona. Two honeymooning couples in Deauville have neighbouring bridal suites in a hotel with balconies overlooking the harbour and a yacht whose lights are reflected in the water. Out comes newlywed Sibyl to rhapsodise over the view, shortly followed by Elyot Chase, her new husband.

You get an extra frisson if you know that Toby Stephens, playing Elyot, actually is married to Anna-Louise Plowmam, playing Sibyl.  You can't help wondering what it does for their marriage to have Stephens yelling at her within minutes that he'd like to cut her head off with a meat-axe. Because Sibyl will keep talking about Elyot's first wife, Amanda.

When they go in to dress, it doesn't take long for the penny to drop that the "Mandy" the man on the next balcony calls out to admire the same view is that very Amanda. That Victor Prynne (Anthony Calf) completely misunderstands his new wife, with whom he is coincidentally honeymooning next to her ex, is apparent from that first moment.

The first act unfolds with a delicious inevitability in this wittiest of plays, incredibly written by Coward in three days (one for each act?). It's vital in any production that the two principals must be cast as equally as Antony and Cleopatra and that's certainly the case here. Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor as the sparring exes, whose passion immediately re-ignites across the flimsy barrier between balconies, are so much better-suited to each other than either of them is to their new, conventional spouse.

Anna Chancellor, seen here in Act Two, in particular seems made for the part - a perfect Amanda. Lithe as a panther, enviably graceful even when flinging herself across the stage in her silk pyjamas or dancing a parody of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring choreography to annoy Elyot, and elegant in palazzo pants and a cloche hat in her final escape scene.

I like my Elyots a tad taller and darker than Stephens (Alan Rickman was perfect in the role a decade ago, even though it was Lindsay Duncan's Amanda which won the prizes). But Toby Stephens has a nice line in subversive mugging asides.

Of course Victor wants to punch him when the new spouses catch up with the old ones who have scarpered to Amanda's flat in Paris. But the way that Anthony Calf carefully rolls up his tie after taking off his jacket for the affray is a perfect stuffy foil to Elyot's line about whether they are to have a battle or a conversation.

In fact both Calf and Plowman make a lot of their deliberately lesser roles. Again, the costumes do a lot: scratchy tweed for Victor and ridiculously fussy Ginger Rogers-type pink feathered gown for Sibyl, while Amanda outshines her in sculpted bottle green velvet.

The way that Victor takes "Brioche?" as an unspeakable insulting invitation brought the house down.
Even Sue Kelvin's French maid Louise, grumbling and snuffling through improvised comments on her employers' domestic habits, makes the most of a little.

Other bits of dialogue feel less comfortable to a 21st century audience. There's no doubting that Elyot's line about some women needing to be struck regularly "like gongs" is witty but it makes for awkward laughter now.

But mostly, the play is imperishable. This production, directed by Jonathan Kent, has transferred from Chichester for a summer run at the Gielgud. It is as English as a Pimms No.1 on a summer day and should be a big hit with both visitors and residents. Catch it while you can.

(Photos all courtesy of Gielgud Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre, Old Vic Productions and APT Productions, poster credit Uli Weber)