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March 2003


Some dreams are better left unrealized

by Emma Tennant
Johnathan Cape, 2002

Literary perfidy is at the heart of Emma Tennant’s most recent work, Felony, a historical novel that claims to reveal the truth behind Henry James’ 1888 story The Aspern Papers. In this tale, a distinguished scholar befriends two elderly American ladies living in Venice in the hope of gaining access to letters written by the famous 19th-century American poet Jeffrey Aspern to the elder of the two women.

Felony is not just about one betrayal, but an intricate web of deceit, layer upon layer of which Tennant gradually reveals. It is the story of 80-year-old Claire Clairmont, former lover of Lord Byron and mother of his illegitimate child. The novel, much of which is set in Clairmont’s home in Florence—also the former residence of Byron’s friend, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley—describes how Clairmont’s lodger, the academic Edward Silsbey, attempts to gain possession of valuable papers written by Shelley, which are the property of Miss Clairmont. Henry James, who Tennant portrays as an arrogant misogynist, hears of this story and decides to fictionalize it a decade later. However, his attempt to recreate the episode leads to an emotional entanglement of his own.

Told through the eyes of Claire’s 13-year-old great-niece Georgina, Felony is a bold effort to interweave several stories around the theme of James’ Aspern Papers, but the novel falls completely short of the mark. The voice of young Georgina is unconvincing, the portraits of the individual characters sketchy and the plot confusing. Readers perhaps hoping to learn about the life of Shelley would best be advised to pick up a biography of the Romantic poet instead—this is a fictional work about the selfish greed of his followers, not the writer himself. While Tennant wishes to peel back the layers of this ethical dilemma, she succeeds only in complicating it, leaving the reader lost in a maze of storylines and questioning the point of the novel. Her flowery prose, complete with anachronisms and puzzling metaphors, makes for uneven reading. It in no way compares with the excitement and suspense of James’ masterpiece. Indeed, Tennant would have done well to learn a little from his masterly prose.

by Hanif Kureishi
Faber and Faber, 2002

Have you ever wished you could trade in your body for a new one, in the way that you might get a new set of teeth or have a heart transplant? To step out of your less than perfect skin into that of a good-looking 25-year-old in the prime of his or her life? This is just what the protagonist of Hanif Kureishi’s latest work does. Adam, a successful playwright and novelist, is in his mid-sixties and suffers from back pain, hemorrhoids, an ulcer and cataracts. He realizes time is precious and regrets that life seems to have passed him by. So when Adam meets Ralph at a party and discovers that he is a Newbody, someone whose brain has been transplanted into the body of another, he decides to take the plunge and enjoy a six-month “holiday” in the body of his choice (these “facilities” are lined up in the hospital for him to browse and choose from). “Take your time,” he is advised. “One learns that identities are good for some things but not for others.”

Despite the fact that this novella revolves around a futuristic surgical operation that enables various Oldbodies to inhabit newer, fresher ones, The Body avoids getting caught up in the nitty-gritty of technology. Kureishi neatly sidesteps science fiction to tell a reflective tale of what happens when wisdom, vanity, death, fearlessness and time come together in an exploration of the meaning of personal identity. Once the transplant has taken place, the reader accompanies Adam (now Leo) on his existential search, finding out what it means to have an old mind in a young frame. But slowly the thrill of hedonism wears off. He recognizes that his old life had just as much potential, that wild experimentation and sexual freedom isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, that it’s “the failures, the hopeless digressions, the mistakes, the waste, which add up to a lived life.” By the time Adam/Leo comes to this realization, however, there are others after him, who will stop at nothing to procure his perfect “facility” for themselves.

Although Kureishi introduces powerful, stimulating ideas in his novella, he fails to develop them fully. The story has a gripping start, but then tapers off in lengthy rumination punctuated by choppy, clipped dialogue. The reader is left feeling disappointed, as if Kureishi has just smoothly skimmed the scintillating surface of ideas he has himself engendered. Probing questions are left unanswered: What does identity entail? Is a person’s “self” bound up with a particular body or does it remain intact no matter what skin it’s in? Is identity bodyless? Is the “self” defined only by other people? At one point Adam finds himself (in his new body) having a conversation with his wife and discovering aspects of her that he had never known before, simply because it had never occurred to him to ask certain questions. This revelation, however, is left there at the kitchen table and never explored. Though The Body is a fast, solid read and raises intriguing questions, in the end the reader remains unsatisfied. However attractive such “what if” fantasies are, it takes a talented author indeed to explore the repercussions convincingly.

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