How do you write a sequel to a classic work of fiction? Thoughtfully, says Andrew Motion
A lot of people curl their lips at the very idea of literary prequels and sequels, and it’s easy to see why. The road to damnation is paved with examples that suggest the form is practically unworkable. Some disappoint simply by having a distinctly second-best prose style, some by creating a pallid version of the original, strong characters, some by unravelling the tension of the received plot and some by the sheer silliness of their reinvention: I, Sherlock Holmes. Little Women and Werewolves. Pride and Promiscuity. You get the picture. Time and again such books enter into a competition with the original they are bound to lose.
So why does anyone continue to try? Partly because there are a few contradictions proving the general rule. Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, for instance, which seizes on two minor characters in Hamlet, and uses them as a pair of spectacles through which we look differently at the main action of the play. It’s funny, and in a sense seditious, but like the screenplay Shakespeare in Love (which Stoppard wrote with Marc Norman), it allows us to think afresh about characters whose fame can otherwise make them feel inaccessible to new interpretation.
A similar kind of ingenuity – although less flashily done – appears in Wide Sargasso Sea, in which Jean Rhys imagines the life of the first Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre. In the novel’s luscious yet brilliantly well-organized prose, the “mad woman in the attic” is given a background, a life, a love and a tragedy that make it impossible for anyone who’s read it to think in the same way again about her husband in his subsequent Brontë-life. That’s quite an achievement. Rhys actually manages to enrich a book commonly agreed to be a masterpiece before she went anywhere near it.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Wide Sargasso Sea provide their own rich rewards – but they also teach a lesson, and anyone interested in sequelling or prequelling would be well advised to learn it: Don’t tread too hard on the heels of the original. Take the original text as a stable thing – and have serious fun with it. Imitation may be a sincere form of flattery, but something more ambitious than imitation is far more honouring.
Put like this, the whole business starts to look less like a form of literary piggybacking, and more like a sort of playfulness. Maybe, indeed, a sort of playfulness that is especially dynamic and relevant in our current age. Of course people wrote sequels back in the day: the instinct to make money a second time round, with a book that follows a roughly similar format to its predecessor, is as old as the hills. So is the human instinct to hanker after the truth about the “what happened next?” in a story line – whether that truth is delivered by a different author (“Rhett Butler’s People”), or by the same author in a sequence (Trollope, C.P. Snow). But now this urge feels more like a reflection of the spirit of the age than a matter of one-offs popping up here and there.
This is true not just in books but generally, throughout the arts. Think of music, for instance, and the songs that seek to make a virtue out of “sampling” the work of earlier hits. Think of the visual arts, and the kind of referencing and quotation we find in the modernists (Picasso), then practised upon the modernists with even more vigour by their successors (Hockney on Picasso).
This happens so often in films that it seems likely that something fundamental is happening. Something that amounts to a big question about the authenticity of a stable text. Can such a thing be said to exist anymore? Academics have had their doubts for years, announcing the death of the author, the impossibility of narrative omniscience and whatnot. Now general readers, whose own routine practice (thanks to the online world) is at once more interactive and more volatile, are getting in on the act. Not to mention writers themselves, who in the postmodern world routinely make self-reference and self-consciousness a part of their staple diet.
Farewell, “individual genius”; hello to the latest relative of T.S. Eliot’s “individual talent,” whose work exists in a stream of continual becoming. Provided a sufficient degree of deliberation in the thing read or heard or looked at, we, as both authors and readers, feel that quotation and such like is not a sign of failure or of secondhandedness, but rather of reference, placement and (ideally) enhancement. In this world of synthesis and absorption, we feel confident that we are just as likely to find newness as when our ancestors lived in the world of undoubted – or less doubted – individualism.
This is where sequels and prequels fit in. Not only because their very nature amounts to an admission of dependency – sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. But also because they can make claim to being a port in a storm. As readership drives itself half crazy with sampling, hypertexting and interacting, sequels say to the reader: Here is continuity. Here is stability. Here is something you know – taken on a step, sure. Adapted as it’s adopted. But at a certain fundamental level, familiar.
At this stage in the argument, it sounds as though something with radical origins (in modernism) has become conservative. Maybe it has, in the sense that all sequels have something (in narrative or character or setting or all these things) their authors wish to conserve. But a deeper and more interesting truth emerges when we remember that the best sequels do not intend to “finish” whatever stories they tackle because they think they are somehow incomplete. They are instead based on the assumption that no story is ever finished – and present themselves as a chunk of life, not as complete and rounded histories.
In this respect, they resemble the almost endlessly unspooling narratives of television series like, say, Downton Abbey or Homeland. Each individual program allows for some resolution, while at the same time kindling the viewer’s larger curiosity about unfinished business. In doing so, they animate one of the paradoxes that most fascinate us as creatures of the early 21st century. Thanks to the machine world we have invented, it has never been so easy to match our hunger for stability with our appetite for change. And in much the same way it has never been so easy (or so difficult) to consider ourselves unique creators or consumers in the midst of infinite variety.
• The paperback edition of Andrew Motion’s Silver, a sequel to Treasure Island has just been published by Vintage, price £7.99