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Double Duty: Twice-Told Tales


What compels a novelist to try to retell another writer’s story? I can imagine a number of reasons to take as one’s inspiration a well-known story, including: as an homage, as a goof or a spoof, to expose the ideological or political underpinnings of the original work, or simply because the earlier story is so good that mimicking it is irresistible.

One of my favorite examples of a twice-told tale — James Joyce’s Ulysses — is as much a light-hearted goof as it is an homage to a great classical work. Ulysses is of course the Latinized version of Odysseus, and Joyce’s novel contains many overt as well as subtle nods to Homer’s Odyssey. One of the many clever gambits in Ulysses is that it takes place in one ordinary day — June 16, 1904 — whereas the Odyssey ranges around the Peloponnese for ten years, many of them full of extraordinary adventures.

A new telling of an old story can also reveal the biases, perhaps unconscious, in the original tale. The scholar Lovalerie King mentioned two such examples elsewhere: Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone, which spoofs Gone With the Wind while exposing the more famous novel’s apparent fondness for the antebellum South, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which “uses passages from the Fun With Dick and Jane primer to frame the story of a little black girl who desires blue eyes, the blue eyes that she believes would make her valued and lovable.”

The Dead

Fathers Club

Then there are Shakespeare’s children. Matt Haig, whose forthcoming novel, The Dead Fathers Club, owes a debt to Hamlet, has made the smart and sensible point that “there’s a strong argument that everyone writing in the English language is influenced by Shakespeare, because to a considerable degree he shaped that language. As that’s the case, a top 10 list of novels influenced by Shakespeare might look identical to a top 10 list of novels full stop.”

Among the better works Haig identified that “clearly advertise” the Shakespearean connection: Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike (Hamlet), Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (Hamlet), Ulysses by James Joyce (Hamlet, again), The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck (Richard III), and the brilliant A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (King Lear).

Some of my favorite contemporary novels are twice-told tales. Zadie Smith’s On Beauty took E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End as its model. “[Forster] gave me a classy old frame, which I covered with new material as best I could,” Smith wrote in a postscript. She also named the patriarch of the novel’s central family “Howard.”

Robert Stone’s Children of Light is modeled on Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. And not only does Stone have his characters dealing with similar issues and conflicts as Chopin’s, but Children of Light is about making a film of The Awakening. That gambit risks coming off too clever, but Stone pulls it off. My half-serious ambition to make a film about Stone’s book about making a film about Chopin’s book is, unfortunately, probably too clever.

Primary Colors

“Anonymous,” later revealed to be the journalist Joe Klein, reworked Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, closely modeled on the life and death of Huey P. Long, into his own Primary Colors which owed almost as much to career of Bill Clinton as to Warren’s story.

Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs is an artful reworking of Dickens’ Great Expectations, told with the narrative focus on Maggs, a convict clearly modeled on Dickens’ Magwitch who, though crucial to the story’s plot, is not present himself on too many pages.

Another artful retelling is Marianne Wiggins’ John Dollar, a brilliant twist on William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, in which young girls prove themselves to be at least as brutal as boys when unconstrained by society’s constraints.

Are any of these retellings superior to their inspirations? Smiley’s A Thousand Acres is one the great contemporary American novels, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone rating it higher than Lear. I would say the same about Jack Maggs and Great Expectations.

Joe Klein’s Primary Colors is actually better written than All the King’s Men, but Warren’s style and the ideas he captures in the narrative guarantee a place for him in literary history that Klein cannot possibly hope for.

I do believe Stone’s is a better story, better told, than Chopin’s; however, The Awakening’s theme and its place in the early feminist canon means it will probably be read when Stone is largely forgotten.


of Light

Then there is the case of John Dollar and Lord of the Flies. As much as I admire Wiggins’ novel, I think Golding’s achievement outshines it. But the novelist Anne Tyler does not agree. She has written, “Lord of the Flies was more predictable, more relentless; it was, in my opinion, not half as thoughtful a piece of work.”

Finally, there is the misidentified homage. On occasion, readers suspect a strong debt to an earlier work that the later novelist claims was not a conscious model. One recent example is Ian McEwan’s Saturday, in which Michiko Kakutani, Kate Roiphe and others espied parallels to Virginia Wolfe’s Mrs. Dalloway that McEwan insists are unconscious and accidental.

Do you have a favorite twice-told tale? Email me with it; my address it at the right.

Share  Posted by mzeringue at 10:58 AM | Permalink

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