Amid great secrecy, and after years of anonymous labour, here comes Thomas Harris's latest Hannibal Lecter novel. But do readers still care?by Jason Cowley / November 19, 2006 / Leave a comment
A feast of fiction Thomas Harris returns in early December with the fourth novel in his remarkably successful series about the murderous psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. Through the film adaptations of Harris’s work, Lecter—snob, gourmand, aesthete and murderer—has become perhaps the defining Hollywood anti-hero of our time, a contemporary Dracula. Before Lecter, serial killers were portrayed in literature and film as sad and feeble degenerates, outcasts with little cultural sophistication. Since Lecter, it has become almost obligatory for them to have a PhD and a highly refined aesthetic sensibility.
The new novel, Hannibal Rising, returns to Lecter’s childhood and adolescence in eastern Europe as it seeks to answer a question that has long troubled readers of the series: why does Lecter kill? The profound mystery of the first two novels, Red Dragon (1981) and The Silence of the Lambs (1988), was that no psychological explanation was offered for Lecter’s extreme cruelty. He seemed to have come from nowhere and was the epitome of “motiveless malignancy,” as Coleridge wrote of Shakespeare’s Iago.
Harris began colouring in Lecter’s past in Hannibal (1999), the third novel in the series. We discovered that Lecter was from an aristocratic eastern European family and that during the war his sister had been murdered by German troops in retreat from the Soviets. She was tortured and mutilated, and then parts of her body were eaten. Lecter witnessed all this and, it is suggested, can never forget or forgive what happened. Her murder made him who he is.
Great claims were made for Harris in the period following the publication of the hugely accomplished The Silence of the Lambs and the subsequent popularity of Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning film. Websites were set up dedicated to decoding the novels, which are dense in arcane reference and allusion. One of Harris’s most ardent admirers, David Sexton, the critic and literary editor, even wrote a short biographical study, The Strange World of Thomas Harris, in which he compared Harris to Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker. All of this seemed to irritate Martin Amis, who wrote a long review of Hannibal in Talk magazine deriding Harris as a literary barbarian. Harris responded to all of this chatter, as he does to so much else, with magisterial indifference.
Success has bought him a peculiar freedom. He remains one of the most indulged writers in the world. The publication of each new Lecter book follows the same pattern. Harris delivers the manuscript to his agent after years of anonymous labour, there is a trade announcement from his US and British publishers and then the book, for which the film deal is already completed, is hurried into print, unblemished, one suspects, by the markings of an editor’s pen. At which point Harris once more retreats, refusing all interview requests and never appearing to discuss his work.
Filming begins on Hannibal Rising next year. Harris has written the script and Gaspard Ulliel will star as Lecter, the third actor in the role. The first and best performance was by the Scottish actor Brian Cox in Michael Mann’s superbly stylised Manhunter (based on Red Dragon). Cox invested Lecter with a sullen and brutal menace; it was Anthony Hopkins, not Harris, who first turned him into a camp pantomime villain. The trouble is, Harris has clearly been influenced by Hopkins-as-Lecter, just as Colin Dexter was influenced by John Thaw’s portrayal of Inspector Morse and began to alter the character accordingly.
By the time of Hannibal, it was Lecter, rather than those seeking to entrap him, who was the dramatic centre of the book, the crowd-pleasing anti-hero with the gags and the girl. Harris encourages readers to become complicit in the doctor’s crimes and cheerleaders for his cause. This is, perhaps, why he attempts to complicate and deepen Lecter’s character by introducing trauma into his early life. He wants us to like him.
Hannibal took nine years to write, and reads as such; it is an extraordinarily bloated novel, overwrought and overlong, and largely preposterous. As in all good fairy stories, the beauty (tough, independent FBI agent Clarice Starling, who once tracked Lecter so obsessively but is now disarmed and seduced by him) ends up living with the beast (a triumphant Lecter).
Should Harris be publishing another Lecter novel? Probably not—but he clearly can’t help himself. Lecter, he once said, “is probably the wickedest man I’ve heard of—at the same time he tells the truth and he says some things that I suppose we would all like to say.”
So there you have it: Hannibal Lecter tells the truth. But do readers still want to hear it?
The NYRB: smug and incestuous
The recent death of Barbara Epstein who, with Robert Silvers, co-founded the New York Review of Books in 1963, inspired a series of eulogies to both the woman and the journal she co-edited for so long. The NYRB is often thought to be the finest cultural review in the world. I am a subscriber, yet I often find it to be rather too superior—indeed smug—in the exposition of its high-table liberalism. Another irritation is the way regular contributors are given generous space in which to write excessively favourable reviews of each other’s books. Would Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday have received the astoundingly hostile review it did last year from John Banville—a piece which many think contributed to Saturday being excluded from the Man Booker shortlist—if McEwan had been an NYRB regular?