Monday, August 20, 2012
The Art of the Sequel
Illustration by Rodrigo Corral
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 sequeling or prequeling 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 honoring.
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, and so express their delight in establishing a lineage — even if this means treating the 1970s and ’80s as the dawn of time. Think of the visual arts, and the kind of referencing and quotation we find in the modernists (Picasso), then practiced upon the modernists with even more vigor by their successors (Hockney on Picasso). Think of the movies, and the reworking of old titles from within the same culture (too numerous to mention), or lifted from others (Asian into American, for example).
Sir Andrew Motion is a former poet laureate of Britain. His most recent novel is “Silver,” a sequel to “Treasure Island.”