Without literature, how would you retell the best of stories?

FIFTY years ago, in The Nation magazine, I explained my love of writing science fiction. Some weeks later, a letter arrived, signed in a spidery hand, "B Berenson, I Tatti, Settignano, Italia". I thought: This can’t be Berenson, the great Renaissance art historian, can it?

The letter read: "Dear Mr Bradbury: This is the first fan letter I’ve written in 89 years. Your article on why you write your particular fiction is so fresh and different from the usual heavy machinery of literary essays that I had to write you. If you ever touch Italy, please call. Bernard Berenson."

From this letter grew a friendship in which I gave BB a copy of my new novel, Fahrenheit 451 in which, in the distant future, books are outlawed and any that are found are burned - 451F is the temperature at which paper burns. In the book, the wilderness Book People memorise all the great books, so they are hidden between their ears.

Berenson was so fascinated that at lunch one day he said: "Why not a sequel to Fahrenheit 451 in which all the great books are reprinted from memory. Wouldn’t it be that all would be mis-remembered, none would come forth in their original garb? Wouldn’t they be longer, shorter, taller, fatter, disfigured, or more beautiful? Instead of angels in the alcove, might they be gargoyles off the roof?"

If only I had the genius, I thought, to know some of the really great books of history and rewrite them, pretending to be my future Book People.

I never did this. But the thought has returned, 50 years later.

What if you could pick your favourite? Kipling, Dickens, Wilde, Shaw, Poe. These, memorised and reborn 30 years from today, how would they, unwillingly, change? Would Usher fall but to rise again? Would Gatsby, shot, do 20 laps around his pool? Would Wuthering Heights’s Cathy, at Heathcliff’s shout, run in out of the snow?

War and Peace? With a century of totalitarian dictatorships behind us, wouldn’t Tolstoy’s concepts, mis-remembered, be politically rearranged so that various conflicts in Russian society would come to different ends? Jane Austen’s sweet young ladies recalled by a woman’s libber? Wouldn’t they be realigned as chess-pieces of 19th-century social life as women further up the ladder, full-blown and arrogant?

The Grapes of Wrath might be recalled not as a quietly social statement, but as a full-blown socialist revolt lodged in a dilapidated Tin-Lizzy on Route 66. Or a semi-demi baroque closet occupant, given the task of echoing Death in Venice - mightn’t he, 30 years on, imagine the beautiful seaside Tadzio falling into Aschenbach’s arms to be towelled dry with laughter in which that Freudian joy might slay the old author?

Or consider a macho dyslectic who dimly discards every third word in Marcel Proust’s Parisian landscape to remember his past so ineptly, dwindling to Toulouse Lautrec size instead of all those languorous perambulations.

And Moby Dick. In full recall, mightn’t we be tempted to hurl Fedallah, the parsee, that boring obstruction, into the sea? Which would then allow Ahab to be yanked overboard by the White Whale. At this point it could easily happen that the film, rather than the book, is recalled and Ahab, latched to the White Whale, as his dead hand beckons his crewmen to follow. So the book would be lost and the film remembered.

What a literary parlour game to list your ten favourite novels, and, in great detail, outline their plots, then renew your acquaintance with these to find out how you have scarred, beautified, or mutilated them.

And the books lost in the Book People wilderness, which would be easiest to remember? Not the great ones; they are too complex in different ways. But James Bond, easily remembered, could be set free again, shaken but not stirred by time.

Most mysteries would emerge intact, and the great poems. Think of Yeats’s Golden Apples of the Sun or Dover Beach or Emily Dickinson’s quatrains. These, in the tradition of the ancient tellers of tales, would cross time to arrive abundantly fresh and new.

The great plays, Hamlet, Othello and Richard III, might arrive, somewhat dwarfed, but that incredible language would ring across the centuries.

Mark Twain’s Nigger Jim, afloat on that raft down the Mississippi with Huck, might still keep his name in spite of the politically correct critics shouting along the shore.

It’s a good game. I wish I’d written on it 50 years ago when Berenson first made the suggestion to me.

• Ray Bradbury is the author of Fahrenheit 451.

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