What an iconic first line: one of those that often comes up in quizzes. Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 is an absolute classic of spec fiction which I first read in the 1970s. I invested in the lovely Folio Society edition some years ago, but was finally spurred on to reread it due to reading another book in which the first line directly quotes from Bradbury’s one.
Tinderbox by Megan Dunn
Tinderbox is a memoire, and a book about writing. Back in Wellington, NZ in 2013, after her bookselling career in England ends with Borders closing and her relationship breaks up, Dunn signs up to NaNoWriMo, intending to write a fictional tribute to Fahrenheit 451, but it’s not happening and the Bradbury estate don’t like her idea. She turns to François Truffaut’s 1966 film of the novel. Starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie, it was Truffaut’s first colour movie and only one in English – which he didn’t speak at the time. In the film, Christie was cast in both the main female roles – essentially playing them as two sides of the same character, which is confusing. When it is suggested that she turns the novel into a book about writing a book that does the trick, allowing her to write a memoire, combined with lit crit on Fahrenheit 451, comparing the film to the book, and writing about the act of writing, often subverting Bradbury’s opener into ‘It was not a pleasure to write,’ etc..
Alongside the lit crit, Dunn tells stories of bookselling life at the various Borders stores she works at, these are full of little gems, such as her grudging respect for Jodi Picoult’s advice to writers, ‘You can’t edit an empty page,’ despite never reading her. There’s the little old lady who tells her, ‘No one does men like Georgette Heyer.’ and the state of the customer toilets. Dunn also tells us about her relationship with Mickey, an aspiring actor – they mostly live separate lives – but do move in together and get married when Dunn’s visa is running out.
‘What if our marriage doesn’t work out?’ I asked Mickey.
‘Then it will make a good chapter for the autobiography,’ he said.
I loved this book. It’s witty, it’s erudite, it’s a bit sad, it’s brilliantly written. Having found the key to unlock her writing, Dunn pours everything into Tinderbox, and for me she succeeds on every count, exposing how hard it is to write, and how life gets in the way for better or worse, and the extremes of working in a big-chain bookstore. I’d thought I still knew Fahrenheit 451 well enough, but after reading Tinderbox, there was only one thing to do – to immediately re-read Bradbury’s original – which I did, see below. I also wanted to watch the film, but couldn’t find it anywhere – so I have had to make do with a couple of clips, which did give enough flavour to complement Dunn’s commentary, although the clip with the firemen standing on their red engine is pure Trumpton!. The title is, of course, a nod to Hans Christian Anderson, whose story The Tinderbox, resonates strongly with her and Bradbury, (see my review of Sally Gardner’s retelling of it, Tinder, here). (10/10)
Source: Own copy. Galley Beggar Press, 2017, paperback, 151 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
And so to Bradbury’s original, which itself was expanded into the 1953 novel from a 1950 short story, The Fireman. The title refers to the supposed temperature at which paper burns, (it’s way too low, see here, but sounds good!). My lovely Folio edition has super artwork by Sam Weber, an Introduction by Michael Moorcock, and also includes Bradbury’s 2003 introduction.
Guy Montag is a Fireman. His job is to burn books. He’s on his way home from work, when he bumps into a girl, one of his new neighbours, Clarisse McClellan, who’s talkative and asks him lots of questions about his job.
They walked still farther and the girl said, ‘Is it true that long ago firemen put fires out instead of going to start them?’
He arrives home, and realises that”
He wore his happiness like a mask and the girl had run off across the lawn with the mask and there was no way of going to knock on her door and ask for it back.
Furthermore, he has to call out the medics for his wife, Mildred, who has obviously accidentally overdosed on her sleeping pills.
Mildred now spends her days watching TV on their three screen walls – she can’t wait until they can afford the fourth, to be totally immersed in her favourite programmes.
He finds himself looking out for Clarisse (right), the first intelligent conversation he’s had in a long time, but she’s disappeared. He later finds out that she was killed in a car accident, and that her family had been under suspicion of being book hoarders before, but they’d never found anything. Montag’s boss continues:
The girl? She was a time bomb. The family had been feeding her subconscious, I’m sure, from what I saw of her school record. She didn’t want to know how a thing was done but why. […] The poor girl’s better off dead.
It’s enough to drive a man to read a book! I’m not going to expound on the plot further – but Montag has an epiphany.
Interestingly, in his introduction, Moorcock asks ‘Why bother to burn books when people voluntarily ignore them?’ Let us hope we never reach that critical mass who’d rather be glued to Mildred’s reality TV than read a book – sometimes it feels like it’s getting dangerously close and that Bradbury’s vision is more than just a metaphoric fable.
Source: Own copy. Folio Society hardback, 2011, 152 pages. BUY a paperback version at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link. (10/10)