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A World Where Everyone Loves Literature

May 1, 2011

Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair

As Richard III began, the actor playing the king “opened his mouth to speak and the whole audience erupted in unison: ‘When is the winter of our discontent?’

Now,’ replied Richard with a cruel smile, ‘is the winter of our discontent …

A cheer went up to the chandeliers high in the ceiling. The play had begun.”

Imagine a world where Richard III has a longer run than The Mousetrap and the audience participates with wild enthusiasm. Imagine an alternative reality where literature is taken seriously and the well-dressed canvassers who knock on your door are not Mormans but Baconians who try to convince you that Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

Jasper Fforde imagines such a world, and it is also one in which the boundary between fiction and reality is becoming porous. When the villain breaches that boundary, kidnaps Mr. Quaverley, a minor character from Martin Chuzzlewit, brings him back to reality and kills him, Quaverley’s funeral is attended by 150,000 Dickens fans from around the globe.

It was great fun reading this book. It has become a cult classic with more than enough commentary on the Web, so I will make just two points. Firstly, although the book is about a world where people are obsessed with literary fiction, it is not itself a literary book. Rather, it is a science fiction novel with a standard thriller plot and unmemorable characters, albeit with memorable names, such as Thursday Next for the heroine. But despite this I was totally engaged by the book’s good humour and the clever way Fforde has constructed his alternative reality.

Secondly, I was intrigued by his portrayal of war. England and Imperial Russia are still fighting the Crimean war after 131 years, at enormous cost and with no prospect of either side winning. It reminded me of what’s happening in Afghanistan (the book was published in 2001 before that war started), and illustrates the point made by Ian Bickerton in The Illusion of Victory, that the costs of war always outweigh the benefits for both sides. Hopefully the war in Afghanistan will not last as long as the Crimean War in Fforde’s world, but it’s not looking good.

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