That Boy

I’m hoping to have the new Harry Potter tomorrow: since about 3,000,000 people are hoping the same thing, some of us are going to be disappointed. I haven’t given much thought to the boy wizard since the last Harry-fest, but in the run-up to the new one, I find myself struck once more by the sheer, impressive weirdness of the enterprise, which is to the best of my knowledge, unique. The basic model which gives everyone that sense of warm, fuzzy familiarity is the English School Story; of course, which gives you the gang of friends drawn into exciting adventures, the gang of enemies, the interminable length and the convoluted plot, etc. etc. But Billy Bunter et al were eternally stuck in the Remove (fourth form, I believe), and Jennings and Darbishire endlessly recycled being twelveish. Somehow you got to the end of term (sticky buns, congratulations from the Chief Constable on foiling the theft of Mrs Bagshawe’s emeralds, lashings of ginger beer) and then everything went BLOOP and back you went for another go at the same year. Another technical approach to the same problem is the one offered by Angela Brazil: to change the cast, keep Miss Peabody (gym), who is strict but fair, Miss Grimshaw the possibly lesbian maths mistress and the dear old coll. whose internal geography has cost you such pains, and place in it, by turns, the Naughtiest Girl in the School, the Craziest Girl in the School, the Sexiest Girl in the School (no, on second thoughts, perhaps not).
By contrast, there are school stories for grown-ups (Antonia White’s Frost in May comes to mind) which are retrospective: in which a child moves from a position of eager-to-please aquiescence in the demands of authority through to a gradual and heartbroken realisation that grown-ups can be knaves and fools, even when they have the best of intentions.
Miss Rowling, however, has landed herself with a technical conundrum of no mean proportions, under the interested gaze of several million people: while I would put up with a fair amount of angst for that much money, I don’t entirely envy her. The first couple of Harry Potters are honourable contributions to the repertory of school-stories of an old fashioned kind, with the added frisson of knowing that the world beyond Hogwarts contains a great deal of unpleasantness. By three and four, it seemed that jolly old Hogwarts had segued into Gormenghast; it was deeply permeable, as well as confusing, and all the authorities were either compromised or powerless to avert harm. So what are we to expect in five and six? A sort of John le Carré honourable schoolboy? Harry is acquiring a sexuality, and the world in which he lives is very dark and tarnished round the edges. It can only get worse. Yet J.K. has saddled herself with a structure (and a prose style) suitable for merry tales of Malory Towers; she has, moreover, to cope with the morally serious difficulty that although the first readers of HP and the Philosopher’s Stone are doubtless now experimenting with booze, drugs, and sex, she has to take into account a new cohort of ten to eleven-year-olds who will be reading as well.
The problem with any kind of very long fiction which takes years to write is maintaining narrative continuity, since by the end of the thing you aren’t the same person you were at the start, and moreover, you don’t write the same way, since if you are any good at all you have begun to get a bit more on top of technical problems in the course of the writing. This intrinsic difficulty is raised to a factor of ten if your hero isn’t the same person either. What Miss Rowling seems to be doing, in fact, is writing a 1,200,000-word Frost in May, with added broomsticks. I’m quite looking forward to seeing what happens next, but it seems to me that the project has already declared itself an interesting failure.

One Response to “That Boy”

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