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‘What’s it like?’ I asked.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Being fictional.’

‘Ah!’ replied Snell slowly. ‘Yes – fictional.’

I realized too late that I had gone too far – it was how I imagined a dog would feel if you brought up the question of distemper in polite conversation.

I have a curious relationship with the writing of Jasper Fforde. So far I have read three of his Thursday Next books and all three of them on planes. Why these books about books, a universe of books navigable by humans, a wonderful mixture of Doctor Who, John Kendrick Bangs‘s A House-Boat on the River Styxx and Douglas Adams – why choose this series in particular to help battle the longeurs and boredom of plane travel?

I have no idea, but it works a treat.

On the run from the monolithic Goliath Corpoation in the real world, Thursday Next has accepted an offer of taking refuge in a terrible novel, all part of the ‘Character Exchange Programme’ requiring only that she fulfil the role of the character she is replacing. The book, Caversham Heights, is an awful crime thriller riddled with clichés and famously unreadable. A perfect hiding place for Thursday, secreted away in the Well of Lost Plots, where fiction itself is alive.

It affords her the chance to recover from the tragedy of losing her husband Landen, wiped from existence by a diabolical fictional loose in the real world, as well as protect her pregnancy (courtesy of aforementioned non-existent partner). She is also studying under her mentor Miss Haversham to become an agent of Jurisfiction, dedicated to maintaining the integrity of book plots. There is also the small matter of two Russian gossips spoiling the plot of Anna Karenina through intrusive footnotes and the strange disappearance of punctuation from Ulysses.

A number of fictional characters are dying in mysterious circumstances. Next is convinced that a murderous conspiracy, somehow relating to the launch of UltraWord™, is responsible. There is also the matter of a mnemomorph, an infection of the mind, eroding her memories of Landen.

The Thursday Next series has a great sense of fun about it, as well as a great sweep of literary references. The footnoterphone takes the ball dropped by Flann O’Brien and Terry Pratchett and runs with it. Fforde is not above parodying the cantina scene from Star Wars, or introducing the cast of Wuthering Heights all taking part in an anger management course. The preening prima donna Heathcliff is a highlight of the novel.

I must confess that for the early half of The Well of Lost Plots Fforde seemed to be overindulging his love of this literary in-jokes and bookworld metaphysics. However, once the actual plot kicks in the meta-critique takes a backseat to the business of advancing the narrative of Next’s adventures. The book is also extremely funny. Below is my favourite exchange of the book, occuring during a deadly trip into an out of print Enid Blyton novel:

‘If you’re exchanging golliwogs for monkeys, you’re in the wrong book,’ he said.

Compulsive reading, with a welcome sense of fun and literary references.

‘If she didn’t live in a big house how could it be a question of her having rooms to spare? If she were not amply lodged you’d lack ground to approach her. Besides, a big house here, and especially in this quartier perdu, proves nothing at all: it’s perfectly consistent with a state of penury. Dilapidated old palazzi, if you’ll go out of the way for them, are to be had for five shillings a year. And as for the people who live in them – no, until you’ve explored Venice socially as much as I have, you can form no idea of their domestic desolation. They live on nothing, for they’ve nothing to live on.’

Right that’s it. I am decided. I will never travel to Venice. Only bad things happen there. As for evidence, I present you with Death in Venice; Don’t Look Now; the city’s a literary death trap! Plus I hear Venetians don’t like tourists and I look just like a tourist. Even when I am at home.

So this book’s setting earns a black mark from me, but also its author. I have had a troubled history with Henry James. I tried to read The Portrait of a Lady when I was a teenager (I believe the Nicole Kidman film had just come out). I did not make it past the second chapter. The prose just killed me, it was far too dense. I have since managed to read The Turn of the Screw (an excellent book that has been adapted into an equally excellent film – The Innocents), but that was nice and short, not long enough for James’ prose style to hurt my fragile brain.

This book is equally short and I am quite grateful for it.

The Aspern Papers is concerned with the efforts of our nameless narrator, a poetry devotee, to worm his way into the affections of two ladies who may in possession of missing material belonging to the dead poet Jeffrey Aspern. Pretending to be an innocent lodger, the narrator moves into the home of Miss Juliana Bordereau, a former lover of Aspern. Attempting to feel out how she would respond to his request for information about his literary hero, he discovers that her reserve is unaffected by his obsequious entreaties. Instead he turns to her niece, Tina, who proves more amenable to his advances.

A curious game of cat and mouse emerges, bound up in wordplay and the limits of politeness. As Miss Juliana’s health begins to fail, the narrator becomes more desperate to become the beneficiary of his literary hero’s legacy. How far is he willing to do.

I have to say I actually found myself enjoying the prose of my nemesis with this book. James invests an incredible amount of psychological detail into his characters. The narrator’s treatment of Tina is quite cruel, but she is revealed to have hidden stores of strength, taking him by surprise before the story’s conclusion. Miss Juliana might be a Dickensian Miss Haversham (certainly in the narrator’s covetous eyes she is), were it not for the fact that she has lived a full life and now simply wants to be left to her memories. What right does this book thief have to plunder them?

A civilized battle of wits, with a satirical bent. Surprisingly enjoyable for me.

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