Book review: Michel Faber, by Rodge Glass
There are novelists whose work seems to invite, even in some cases require, critical study and elucidation. They are also often ones who seem to have been uncertain where a book is going and who depend a good deal on editorial assistance. They make false starts and their novels are long in the writing. William Golding was an example, one who depended greatly on his editor Charles Monteith.
Michel Faber seems to come in this category. His most famous – and probably best – novel, The Crimson Petal and the White, had a very long gestation, a draft of the first hundred pages having been written in 1979 when he was only 19, the book being eventually published in 2002. In this study, Rodge Glass makes it clear that the final version owed much to Judy Moir and Helen Simpson, his editors at Canongate.
They helped to give it form and cleared up clumsy writing. Despite their intelligent work, a few dreadful sentences survived: for instance “He inserts a cigarette between his lips and sucks a naked flame against it.” No matter; the book became an international bestseller.
Glass is well equipped to examine Feber’s somewhat unusual and interesting career. A novelist as well as critic and professor of creative writing at Strathclyde University, he acted as secretary and factotum to Alasdair Gray – an educational experience – and then wrote his biography. He is not, I think, as close to Faber as he was to Gray, but this is still a critical work enriched by conversation and correspondence with its subject.
“Faber”, he writes, “struggles to answer questions about his early literary influences.” This is not unusual, and anyway early literary influences are often best cast aside. More significantly perhaps, he sas been without deep roots in any culture. His parents were Dutch, his father tarnished by collaboration during the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands. They were, he has said, “very f***ed up" by their wartime experience, and emigrated to Australia leaving children by their previous marriages behind. He arrived in Melbourne speaking no, or very little, English, and his first story, when he was still a boy, was written in a mixture of English and Dutch. He experimented with science fiction, a ready escape for the rootless. He married young, and briefly. He was a committed writer from the start, but with apparently no interest in being published. Much later he told Canongate’s Jamie Byng that he “held most published fiction in contempt and didn’t want to be associated with it”. This now sounds like the arrogance of the insecure. He trained as a nurse and says that “nursing taught me a lot about the rest of humanity”; no doubt true.
His unhappy first marriage ended and he married Eva Youren who, as Glass writes, “persuaded him to let go of [his] arrogance and reach out to readers”. They settled in what Glass calls “a remote Highland village” in Scotland, and at last his literary career was underway. I say “at last”, though Faber was still only 30, and many good novelists have begun later, even much later than that. Once he started, he was prolific, writing poetry, short stories, novellas and novels.
Glass leads the reader diligently through all of Faber’s published work, and what an odd corpus it is. Odd, but very much a mixture attuned to the uncertainties of the strange century we have arrived in. There is science fiction, aliens finding themselves in Scotland, some conventional short stories, a book of poems, Undying, occasioned by the sadly early death of his wife Eva – a collection which, when I reviewed it, recalled the moving poems written by Thomas Hardy remembering and mourning his own fist wife Emma.
I suppose for most readers The Crimson Petal, a Victorian pastiche with its echo of Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Trollope, remans his masterpiece. Yet it is more than a pastiche, though evidently it couldn’t escape echoes of the great Victorians. It has its own validity. One astute critic, deeply versed in Victoriana, Kathryn Hughes, was bold enough – generous enough – to call it “the novel that Dickens might have written had he been allowed to speak freely” – a generous comment, though surely unfair to Dickens. Will Faber write anything comparable? Who knows? He is only in the first half of his 50s: time enough.
Michel Faber, by Rodge Glass, Liverpool University Press, £33. Michel Faber and Rodge Glass are appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 20 and 21 August