Thursday, 22 July 2010

FIVE NOSTALGIC CROSSOVER EXPERIENCES by Adèle Geras

Crossover fiction is the name given to a novel on the YA lists that’s also enjoyed by adults. There’s A Gathering Light. There’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. There is even The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, though that was written for slightly younger children. What I’m interested in here, though, is fiction that travels the other way - originating on the adult lists and ending up appealing to teenagers. I’m going to do this from my own experience, and I’m not claiming that modern teenagers would share my loves, but they’re worth an anniversary blogpost, I reckon. As a kind of extra, let me mention that Kevin Brooks, on a recent panel discussion about books for teenagers, said that two Booker winners, Vernon God Little and Life of Pi were perfect YA books. I’ve not read either and can’t comment, but I offer you those two recommendations.

I’ve never gone back to these texts that were so important to me when I was about 14 or so because I fear that some of them at least may not stand up to scrutiny. I had a terrible shock recently when I revisited my beloved Malory Towers and I don’t wish to repeat the hideous disillusionment. I’m writing more about the memory of what they were like to read, and anyone who’s interested can rush to the internet and find out more about them or even try to buy them and read them. If anyone does this, I’d be fascinated to know how they seem to you and how you enjoyed them as adults.

The first of my crossovers is a long string of novels known as The Whiteoaks Saga. There were lots of novels in this series (Finch’s Fortune, Renny’s Daughter, The Whiteoaks of Jalna etc.) and series were just what we needed back in the olden days (I’m talking 1958-61 or so) because we didn’t have soap operas on telly. Actually, we hardly had telly at all where I was, which was at boarding-school. So these novels about a Canadian family of British origins living in a fine old house called Jalna were seized on and adored by lots and lots of us. I even refer to "Renny's Daughter” (which as I remember was my favourite of the whole lot) in my own novel The Tower Room. My heroine loses her copy and looks everywhere for it because she can’t bear to go to bed without it. These books were full of adultery, passion, children in conflict with their parents, handsome men, beautiful women, delicate poetic types, neurotic and beautiful women and so on. The staples of such fiction I suppose, but I loved the whole family. They had terrific names: Renny, Finch, Eden, Adelaide, and so on. There was even a girl called Pheasant and it says something about us and the books that we read about her without once cracking a smile at the ridiculousness of her name. That’s how besotted we were with the whole of the Whiteoaks crowd. There’s a website here
http://www.mazo.ca/
which tells you a lot more about Mazo de la Roche and the origins of the books. I’m still not going to go back and read them, but I do recommend them heartily for lovers of no-holds barred romantic fiction in a slightly exotic setting.

My second backwards-crossover is John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga. If you Google the name, the whole of the first page brings up references to the television adaptation. And who am I to quarrel with that, when it brought together the gorgeous Damian Lewis, the delicious Ioan Gruffudd, and the lovely, lovely Gina McKee? There was also an earlier tv version with Eric Portman and Susan Hampshire and this was the one that had vicars changing the time of their Evensong services to fit in with the schedules because they found their congregations had all stayed home to watch it. Television is fine and dandy, of course, but long before it there were the books and these, I’m quite sure, WILL stand up to re-reading and scrutiny and I do intend one day to go back to them. Galsworthy may be an old-fashioned writer but he was a good one and his tales of an upper middle class family from the last years of the nineteenth century till after the Great War are enthralling, absorbing and totally gripping...or they were to me when I was about 15. I loved Irene, I loved Fleur. Old Jolyon, the aunts, the children, Soames – I was fascinated and intrigued by the whole lot of them. I adored the houses, the fixtures and fittings, the clothes and jewellery- the world that Galsworthy described appealed to me enormously. I’m sure that it’s from reading these books that I became interested in that period of history and went on to study Proust. I enjoy books which are panoramas of a whole epoch, summed up in the goings-on of a single family with a lot of off-shoots. Any family story is full of conflict, jealousy, betrayal, great love, problems with errant children, clashes with siblings etc and this is one of the great examples of the genre. I think some of my admiration for A.S Byatt’s The Children’s Book stems from my devotion to The Forstye Saga. [Another of the best books of this kind and a true masterpiece is Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann but I came to that as an adult so it doesn’t count. I also think it might defeat most teenagers, though I could be wrong about that.]

The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake was a complete revelation. I never liked the Tolkien books nor the C.S.Lewis novels and so this was a most uncharacteristic choice for me. I started it under the impression that it was ‘difficult’ and felt chuffed with myself for being clever enough even to consider it. The first few hundred pages had me completely baffled but also totally knocked-out by the sheer bizarreness of everything: the setting, the characters, the world that Peake created was literally mind-blowing. I don’t think I fully understood it. I don’t think I fully understand it now, and in this case the television adaptation was a huge disappointment because I’d imagined this castle and its inhabitants so vividly that the ‘real’ thing was a pale shadow and not nearly as doomy and black as what I’d had in my head. These are truly fantastic books and I think ones that are still popular with a certain kind of teenager.
You may have noticed that I’m a fan of series. This is because if you can make characters you like last for lots of stories, the pleasure goes on and on. My last two choices are, however, single books: stand-alone novels, in today’s parlance. For present-day teenagers, finding books which tell them all they need/want to know about sex is easy. From Judy Blume’s Forever to William Nicholson’s Rich and Mad not to mention the availability of all kinds of information (and worse) on the internet, the subject is fully covered. Today’s kids can be well-informed about such matters at least on a theoretical level if not on an emotional (or a practical) one. We weren’t so lucky, back in the day. I’m talking of a time even before the Lady Chatterley fuss....after that book came out, we had a copy of it going round school and I have to confess that I found it boring then and I’ve never got to grips, so to speak, with D.H. Lawrence even now. My fault, probably, but he’s a writer I don’t like very much. All this is by the way...I’m writing about the wonderful and thoroughly naughty and therefore totally delicious Peyton Place by Grace Metalious which was published in 1958 and stayed on the best seller lists for an amazing 59 weeks. I remember what the book looked like: the name picked out in glossy red letters, the first example of a bonkbuster any of us had ever seen. Gosh, it taught us a lot, that book! It was a terrific story whose details have now disappeared into the mists of the past but from which I vaguely recall an illegitimate baby, a person loving someone from the wrong side of the tracks and the hell that ensued between parents and children over one thing and another. It’s recently been reissued and I could easily get hold of it, but I just want to preserve the memory of reading it after lights-out, by the light of a torch under the blankets.

The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault has to stand for all her books which I devoured. I’ve read The Bull from the Sea as an adult and still think it’s wonderful but I haven’t gone back to this fantastic story of the love between Alexias and Lycis which so thrilled me when I was a girl. I love historical fiction and Renault is the one who set the standard. She’s been a huge influence on my own writing, too, I think. So that’s my five....but I can’t resist, in these days of perfectly justified Wolf Hall mania, mentioning an outstanding novel set in the time of the Tudors and called Man on a Donkey by HMF Prescott. It’s about the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Pilgrimage of Grace and for anyone who likes Mantel and CJ Sansom, it makes fascinating reading. It’s in print from Loyola Classics and deserves a much wider readership. I urge you to try it.

20 comments:

Joan Lennon said...

Oh - Mary Renault - how I loved her books! Would you recommend re-reading her, or shall I stick with my memories of utter deaf-to-the-world enthrallment?

Elen Caldecott said...

I think a lot of adult horror has an appeal to teens (it did for me, anyway, I'm hoping that didn't make me weird!)
I also loved a lot of historical novels; I, Cladius and The First Man in Rome especially were both brilliant.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Great post Adele. Yes, Vernon God Little and Life of Pi both work as YA. Vernon God Little is very gritty. Breath by Tim Winton (I think it was Booker listed)could be there too with its exploration of fear and adrenalin and the protagonist's self-realisation in a sexual encounter that he's out of his depth... some YA readers might be out of their depth too... (I won't be a spoiler here). It's really fast paced and beautifully written in spare prose.

As to an earlier era, I remember devouring Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged as a teenager... felt very grown up reading them!

bookwitch said...

Very wise not to go back, Adèle. Why ruin an old love? I'm certain many of my old favourites wouldn't do so well now.

Andrew Strong said...

I continued reading books to my son long after I should have given up, but in his sleepy verge-of-adolescent state, he was a captive audience. I read 'Titus Alone' to him and we both agreed, it went on a bit. 'Vernon God Little' we loved, hilarious, and clever. Our favourite, however, was Kurkov's 'Death and the Penguin'. It was also the last book I read aloud to him (sniff) before he preferred his 'own company'.

hilary said...

The Jalna books still work! I used to read my grandmother's set long ago. A year or two back I bought the entire series from Oxfam, not without some trepidation because it had been a long time. There they all were, every hair in place (or in Finch's case out of place) as alive as ever. The intervening thirty years since we parted might never have happened. You can borrow them if you like!

adele said...

Oh, Hilary...that is SO good to hear. I would love to borrow them sometime and I'll write to you personally off ABBA in a moment. But just wanted to add here: a suggestion from my agent for a very good adult book for teenagers: ABOUT A BOY by Nick Hornby.

hilary said...

High Fidelity had my 16 year old son hooked too.

Sue Purkiss said...

I loved the Jalna books too - thanks for reminding me! And I Claudius, and Jean Plaidy. But strangely enough, it was when I waa teenager that I galloped through big fat Russian and English classics, most of which would probably defeat me now.

Lynda Waterhouse said...

Ah the Jalna books! My mum still has the whole set on her bookshelf the 1950's Pan paperback edition - apart from The Governess which I borrowed aged 12 and never returned.
I also recall reading John Creasey novels and having Boccacio's Decamoran confiscated!

Keren David said...

Slumdog Millionaire worked well for my daughter when she was 12.

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Mary Hoffman's Newsletter said...

Funnily enough, I had managed not to read ANY Mary Renault in my teens. I caught up lat year with the King Must Die, the Bull from the Sea and the Last of the Wine - loved them all. Must read the Alexander books some time too.

When I was a teenager, just a year after you, Adèle, I used to read Georgette Heyer (favourite: the Devil's Cub), Ursula Bloom, Nigel Balchin,Pearl S Buck etc.

Because I had a sister 7 years older than me and grabbed her library books! I felt very grown up reading Ursula Bloom when I was about nine.

And I do remember Peyton Place. I wonder if teens reading e.g. Rich and Mad find it as inaccurate about sexual information as I now realise PP was!

adele said...

I loved Georgette Heyer as well...and Elizabeth Goudge. And In this house of Brede by Rumer Godden was marvellous. Ah, the snows of yesteryear!

Deb W said...

I enjoyed this so much because the Forsytes, Mary Renault and above all The Man on a Donkey were books I read again and again as a teenager. I never managed to like Mervyn Peake but read masses of Margaret Irwin and D.K.Broster's melancholy Scottish historical novels.

Nicola Morgan said...

Good idea for a post, Adele! I also adored Mary Renault's books, along with a lot of Graham Greene (helped by their shortness) and I was a huuuuge Gormenghast fan, as you'll realise if the thing I'm writing at the moment ever sees the light of day...

Sue Purkiss said...

Just read In This House of Brede a few months ago, Adele, and loved it - sort of a holy soap!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Yes... loved all the Georgette Heyer, Renault and Goodge books as well as In This House Of Brede... having gone to the same Convent for my entire schooling.

Elaine said...

My sister and I read all of the Jalna books by de la Roche and recently came across the entire series in tatty paperbacks in a second hand bookshop in Felixstowe. My sister bought the lot and when she has read them I am going to see if they are as great as I remember them. Somehow I doubt it, but just thinking about them takes me back to when I was 14

Tamar said...

I loved Mary Renault too! It was good to have my memory jogged about her books. I can see how her writing may have influenced yours.