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An observer of modern Britain, and 007 too

Sebastian Faulks' 'Engleby' is nothing like his historical novels. He's also been picked to be the new Ian Fleming.

September 28, 2007|Jill Lawless | Associated Press

LONDON -- Sebastian Faulks is comfortable in the past, and readers love him for it. It's the present that has eluded him.

The British writer is best known for intelligent, stirring historical novels that have sold in the millions: the World War II Resistance saga "Charlotte Gray" and "Birdsong," a story of love and war set in the trenches of World War I.

Faulks' latest novel, "Engleby," is a departure -- so much so that he offered to have it published under a pseudonym. It is contemporary, moving from the 1970s to the present day, and features a main character who, like Faulks, attended Cambridge University before working as a Fleet Street journalist. Mike Engleby is intelligent, articulate and unnerving, an acerbic observer of modern Britain who may be, readers come to suspect, a bit of a monster.

"I've found contemporary Britain difficult to write about because it seems to me to have lacked gravity or grandeur," Faulks said during an interview at his cramped attic office overlooking a leafy west London square. "This is some cultural problem which I don't really understand. It simply isn't the same in the United States."

He says American novelists such as Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and John Updike "look at the world around them and it has a kind of natural gravity." Their characters "seem to be people who feel the weight of the world and history in their veins." But modern British fiction "doesn't have the same sort of gravity," said Faulks, a tall, bearded writer with a mop of curly red-blond hair. "It's something to do with British self-mockery."

It's something of a surprise, then, that "Engleby" centers on a thoroughly modern character who, like his creator, was born in 1953. As the book opens, Mike Engleby is a fiercely intelligent yet oddly detached working-class boy who has won a scholarship to an elite university.

Faulks said the book was dictated -- almost literally -- by the central character's voice, which came to him in a flash: "well educated yet conversational, well informed but at the same time slightly threatening, very logical but at the same time slightly mad.

"It was almost like taking dictation, which was very exhilarating because it was quite effortless to write."

Incisive and acerbic, Mike is dismissive of most of his professors and fellow students -- except for Jennifer Arkland, a bright undergraduate in whom he develops an intense interest.

When she disappears, Mike is among those questioned by police. But the crime remains unsolved, and Mike graduates and moves on, eventually becoming a successful journalist in London. He keeps circling back to the events of the past, which gradually reveal themselves to him, and the reader.

Faulks said that in contrast to his intensely researched earlier novels -- he spent five years studying Victorian psychiatry for his previous book, "Human Traces" -- "I just allowed this voice to take me wherever it was going."

"It was only when I was about halfway through the book that I realized where we were going and what the book was really about. . . . It was as though Mike knew where it was going before I did."

Many readers will find themselves drawn to Engleby, a witty misanthrope who rails against modern life, declining standards of education and almost all music after Steely Dan.

"I was very surprised at how warmly people responded to him," Faulks said. "I'm not sure you're meant to like him."

Faulks thinks he has been drawn to the past, to the decisive and dramatic events of the 20th century, because of the unheroic nature of his generation. He and Engleby were both born in the same year as former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Future members of Blair's government, as students, make minor appearances in the book.

In her diary, the student Jennifer notes that previous generations "did great things in politics, diplomacy, medicine, industry, 'the arts' " -- and doubts whether hers will do the same.

"I think my generation has had an unbelievably easy time profiting from the world that was made for us by our parents and grandparents," Faulks said. "We are essentially a rather frivolous generation.

"The Blair government was my generation's shot at power. It had some good things but it had some flaws. It was well-intentioned but it seemed somehow fatally ignorant."

Buoyed by his success at writing the present, Faulks says his next book will be set in contemporary London, in a style that keeps "as close to realism as I can."

In the meantime, Faulks is the new voice of agent 007. He was commissioned by the estate of James Bond creator Ian Fleming to write a new Bond adventure for the centenary of Fleming's birth next year. The result, "Devil May Care," will be published in May.

Faulks says his initial reluctance was overcome when he reread Fleming's books and found they were good -- concise, thrilling and playfully funny.

Adapting Fleming's working methods, Faulks wrote the book in six weeks, churning out 2,000 words a day in a style he says is "about 80% Ian Fleming." "Devil May Care" features a Cold War setting, exotic locales and Bond girls whom he says are "more than a match" for the suave secret agent.

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