About A Fool’s Alphabet
Faulks’s third novel. The title derives from the old Cockney phonetic joke: A for ’Orses, B for Mutton, C for Yerself, and so on. Each of its 26 chapters is set in a different place; the name of each place begins with a different letter of the alphabet. The structure of the novel is thus not one of linear time, but the apparently random one of alphabetical order.
The main character, Pietro, is English with an Italian mother. He works as a photographer, and there is a snapshot quality to some of the chapters and place descriptions. The dislocation of time and the alphabetic imperative mean that we see him traumatically parting from his lover before we see them meet. ‘I liked the idea of fate that this seemed to bring to their early friendship,’ Faulks said. ‘I also liked it that I was able to resurrect people. Someone who dies in chapter four is healthy and well in chapter 12. I believed this said something about the way we experience time.’
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The novel explores, through Pietro’s life, the question of whether places on earth have a character of their own or whether they are simply given such character by the human events that take place there. ‘I had always been struck by the fact the Somme was once just a river and Hiroshima a busy port before they acquired their awful resonance,’ said Faulks. At a more speculative level, the novel tries to inquire whether the identity of a place is somehow also connected to its name, taking up Proust’s distinction between ‘Place Names: the Place’ and ‘Place Names: the Name’.
Beneath the schematic surface, however, some of the same concerns are visible as in Faulks’s previous work. The First World War, evoked from the French side in The Girl at the Lion d’Or
, is here seen in the first days of the British at Mons, through the eyes of Pietro’s grandfather. The first chapter, set in Anzio, sees Pietro’s father at war in Italy. Pietro’s journey towards love and a sense of belonging is constrained by the shape of war-torn twentieth century Europe. The book ends with the moment of Pietro’s conception.
A Fool’s Alphabet
is generally thought to be the most ‘difficult’ of Faulks’s novels, because of its non-linear structure. Some sharp-eyed readers, however, noticed that the scheme is not quite random, since Pietro tends to be younger in the A-L chapters. ‘Yes, I made it slightly easier chronologically for the reader,’ Faulks admitted. The novelist and critic Malcolm Bradbury considered it Faulks’s best novel.
'Truly distinguished writing, produced with flair and panache but also with serious thought… the most impressive, but also the most enjoyable, novel of the year.’
‘Faulks rises to his own challenge… This is subtle book, full of glancing allusions and sly humour.’
· Faulks’s father, Peter Faulks, fought and was wounded at Anzio. Like Pietro’s father, he saw Vesuvius erupting from his hospital bed, as he recovered in Sorrento. This is one of the very few occasions on which Faulks has drawn on his own or his family’s experiences.
· The book is dedicated to Faulks’s wife, Veronica, whom he married in 1989, soon after he had started writing it.
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A Fool’s Alphabet
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