The Oh No, I am not going to write a post on the Booker post


Right. As I said, I shall not write another post on the Man Booker Prize. Never again. Except for this one. And maybe another one. It’s like a disease. Or a drug. The Guardian has had two interesting articles on the Booker. The first, by Justine Jordan, congratulates the judges on favouring eccentricity and invention. She is, of course, right, in that most of the obvious ones have been omitted – Amis (thank you, judges), McEwan, Zadie Smith, Banville, Lanchester, Tremain, Carey, Norfolk, Alan Warner, Mo, Jacobson, Barker (Pat – Nicola is there) or J K herself. Of those omitted, I have only read the Lanchester and the Carey and liked the former but not the latter. As said in my previous post on the subject, I have not heard of many of the suggestions but, now that we have a longlist, I shall try and read one or two of them. Good on the judges for their creativity, though the downside is that, as they can’t give it to Hilary Mantel again, Will Self gets it. Mildly better than Asbo Amis but only mildly.


The other interesting Guardian article on the Booker was about bias in the Booker. Alan Bissett, who is Scottish, complains that only one Scot has ever won the Booker, that Trainspotting was pulled from the shortlist and only five other Scots have been shortlisted. He then proceeds to ruin his argument by pointing out that Scotland’s population represents 0.2% of the population of the Commonwealth but that they have had 3.6% of the shortlistees (4.4% if you count William Boyd, which I do, and Bernard MacLaverty (which I don’t)). James Kelman was the sole winner and, while I have not read his Booker Prize winning novel, I have read The Busconductor Hines, his first novel, and I thought it was dire (which is why I have not read his others). While I disagree with him about Kelman, there are several Scottish novels which should have won it, in my view. Lanark is a brilliant novel, though it was up against another brilliant novel that year – Midnight’s Children. A L Kennedy’s Paradise (winner that year was Banville‘s The Sea, which I have not read as I had got tired of Banville by then) or her Day, beaten by The Gathering which I have yet to read but will, are both superb novels. The Land Lay Still and several of Muriel Spark‘s novel would also have been worthy contenders.

Judging the Booker

Bissett goes on to mention, again undercutting his own argument, that it might not be so much a nationality thing but a class thing. The essentially middle-class judges of the Man Booker are going to choose middle-class novels. He definitely has a point there. This years’s judges consist of the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, an actor who plays the future Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey, two English academics who write with erudition and clarity in learned journals (according to the Daily Telegraph) and the author of Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire, none of whom come across as bastions of the revolution. However, Bissett misses a key point. The novel is, essentially, a bourgeois medium. Yes, of course, there are novels written by working class writers and on working class themes but look at most lists of best literary novels and you will find that they are essentially middle class. As Rohinton Mistry succinctly put it Most fiction is about the middle class; perhaps because most writers are from the middle class.


Bissett goes on to conclude that the Man Booker prize is a reward system for the English establishment masquerading as magnamity. It should come as no surprise that the Man Booker prize for Commonwealth literature mimics the empire itself. That may be a bit strong but it is equally not completely removed from the truth. Is English literature simply better than that of the Celtic nations? Bissett asks. James Joyce‘s response is perhaps the best – And in spite of everything, Ireland remains the brain of the Kingdom. The English, judiciously practical and ponderous, furnish the over-stuffed stomach of humanity with a perfect gadget – the water closet. The Irish, condemned to express themselves in a language not their own, have stamped on it the mark of their own genius and compete for glory with the civilized nations. This is then called English literature. But the fact remains that Irish (and Scottish and Welsh) literature get only limited coverage in the English press. Ireland has its own award as, indeed, do Scotland and Wales but they do not get the coverage of the Man Booker. While it would be nice to see more Celtic nominees for the Man Booker, I suspect that Bissett may be disappointed for a long while yet.

More about literary prizes

Paul Bailey had an interesting comment in The Guardian on literary prizes. I have commented on lit prizes before, e.g. here, and make no bones about the fact that I have not been terribly whelmed by the choices of the various panels. Bailey mentions the James Tait Black Prize and the The Somerset Maugham Awards, both of which I was aware of but had not followed for some time. I have not read any of the three shortlisted for this year’s James Tait prize, though I might read the Ali Smith sometime. None of the Somerset Maugham prizes for last year was for fiction, though my significant other did read The Romantic Moderns and very much enjoyed it. However, as Bailey points out, these prizes get little publicity, so I wonder if they had any influence, which would, in my view, be their main purpose. Looking at the winners for the past ten years of the James Tait, surely Byatt, Barry, McCarthy, McEwen, Peace, Franzen, Zadie Smith and, possibly, O’Hagan don’t need the publicity, I have never heard of Soli or Sid Smith so that did not really work. Only the Belben is an interesting choice, as she is a writer who needs more publicity, including from me. He also mentions two prizes he judged – The Betty Trask and The McKitterick Prize, both administered by the Society of Authors. Again, I have to admit that I have not heard of any of the authors. This is a pity because some of them are probably very good but they do not get the publicity that the Man Booker gets.

Bailey goes on to criticise the Man Booker and he will get no arguments from me there except, as with the others, it is always good that lesser known books get the publicity.
I have only read two of last year’s longlist and do not anticipate reading many more of them but I was glad to have heard about Yvette EdwardsA Cupboard Full of Coats, a book which I may otherwise not have noticed and which I hope others also read. It is not a great book but it is certainly a well-written and interesting first novel. Bailey was a Man Booker judge in 1982 and complains of horse-trading and bargaining, to which I can only comment, why are you surprised? Surely, there has to be a certain amount of discussion and compromise among a group of judges with varying opinions, probably all reasonably valid?


All this is relevant because next week, the Man Booker long list will be announced. As always, Michael Orthofer at Literary Saloon is on top of it and, as always, I am not. I have read three of the possible candidates – The Chemistry of Tears (which I was not impressed with), Capital, which I was quite impressed with and Bring up the Bodies which I was very impressed with but surely it is someone else’s turn? I have also read Chinaman but it is not eligible as it was published last year in the UK. I looked at the Literary Saloon links and found quite a few books I had not heard of. Of the ones I had heard of, I will read the Pat Barker, Keith Ridgway and Ian McEwan when they come out and will probably read the Norfolk and Gunn but I did not see many others I would want to read and quite a few I know that I won’t want to read (no names mentioned, Martin Amis) though I would hope that there will be one or two of the ones I have not heard of that will prove interesting. But, overall, I cannot really get excited about this or other book prizes as the winner is unlikely to be one that I would have chosen. Still, if it introduces me – and the rest of the world – to some books that might otherwise have not got the publicity they deserved, it will have some worth. As long as they don’t give it to Lionel Asbo.

Montenegro

Gospa od Škrpjela (Our Lady of the Rocks)

Having just returned from a holiday in Montenegro, I thought that I would take the opportunity to talk briefly about Montenegrin literature. But first a quick word about Montenegro and our holiday there. The photo at left shows the Gospa od Škrpjela (Our Lady of the Rocks), visible from our bedroom window in Perast. The story goes that a fisherman found an icon on a rock there. He had no idea how it got there but clearly some divine intervention was involved. As a result, the locals decided to build a shrine to the Virgin Mary. It was only a small rock but, over a period of time, they brought rocks, stones, wrecked ships and whatever else they could find and built up the small island you can now see. On the rock is the shrine, a small church which contains a series of beautiful paintings by Tripo Kokolja.

Perast from museum balcony

We stayed part of the time in Perast, a beautiful little port town on the Bay of Kotor, which has now been developed for tourism but which used to be a major seafaring port, with a fleet of 100 ships and very active in warfare at sea, though they were raided by Barbary pirates when the fleet was out and the women and children left behind were taken into slavery. The museum from whose balcony the pictured at left was taken has a lot about Perast’s seafaring past.

Budva from on high

We also visited Budva (see left), Kotor, Herceg-Novi, Sveti Stefan, the old capital of Cetinje and Kolašin and the splendid national park Biogradska Gora, one of the oldest in Europe and very unspoilt. A lovely holiday and one I would recommend with one proviso, the drivers who are dangerous and think nothing of overtaking at 70 mph on hairpin bends. Most people I have mentioned Montenegro to have only a limited idea as to where it is (despite it twice drawing with England in the European Nations Cup qualifiers). Nevertheless, it has a long and distinguished history and was the only part of that region to resist the Ottomans, who eventually gave up trying to conquer Montenegro. (Tennyson even wrote a poem about it.) I discovered it by reading the essential Vanished Kingdoms of Europe by Norman Davies, where there is a chapter on the Kingdom of the Black Mountain, i.e. Montenegro between 1910 and 1918. (This book, by the way, is without a doubt my favourite book of the last year or so and everyone should read it. Even if you are professional historian, you will learn a lot.)

But I wanted to talk about the Montenegrin novel. I only have only one Montenegrin novel on my website, a book that is sadly out of print. Indeed, to buy it in English will cost you £121.23 from Amazon UK, $177.78 from Amazon US and $149.99 from abebooks. It is in print in Spanish and, though out of print in French, readily available at not too great a price and available for €19 on Amazon Germany. Sorry for my usual rant about availability of books translated into English. Though he has written several other books, this is the only one translated into English though, of course, several others are available in French and one other in German. Ho hum.

If you are not aware of the very wonderful Istros Books, you should be. They are publishing new works by Eastern European authors, including two Montenegrin authors – Andrej Nikolaidis and Ognjen Spahić. I shall certainly get round to Nikolaidis’ The Coming and Spahić’s Hansen’s Children sometime soon. You can read an except from a Nikolaidis novel in English here and a Spahić story in English here. There are other new Montenegrin novelists. The Economist mentions three – Nikolaidis, Spahić and Balša Brković. Neither he nor his father, also a writer, have been published in English but one of his father’s novels (see photo above) has been translated into German and I will get to it eventually. Jevrem Brković was a strong supporter of Montenegrin independence from Serbia. The Economist does mention one other writer – Igor Luksic, whose day job is Prime Minister of Montenegro. His literary work has not been published in English but you can read his blog in English though it is about politics, not literature. I would be interested in reading Dragana Kršenković Brković. She is primarily a playwright (see examples in English here and here) but has written a novel (link in Montenegrin) called Izgubljeni pečat which means The Lost Seal.

Milovan Djilas

There are some other older Montenegrin writers who were, of course, known as Yugoslavian writers but who are from Montenegro. Milovan Đilas (mainly known as Milovan Djilas in the West) is probably Montenegro’s best-known writer and many of his books were translated into English. However, nearly all of these were non-fiction, often criticising his former Communist comrades. He did write several novels but only one, translated as Under the Colours, has been translated into English. It is a historical novel about Montenegro’s struggle for freedom. Mirko Kovač is another writer who has not been translated into English but has been translated into Dutch, French, German, Italian, Swedish and most of the Slavonic languages. Miodrag Bulatović has been translated into English and I have copies of all three. Though all out of print they are not too difficult to obtain.

Borislav Pekić was a totally original novelist. Four of his novels have been translated into English, though only two are still in print. Sadly, his most interesting work has not. His seven-volume Zlatno runo (it means Golden Fleece) has not been translated into English. The first three volumes have been translated into French but the last one appeared in 2004 and, despite the promise of the fourth, it has yet to appear. I am still hoping that it (and the remaining three) will appear. Mihailo Lalić‘s Lelejska gora has been translated as The Wailing Mountain, though it is long since out of print. If you read Montenegrin, you can read it online. It may be a small country but it still has made its contribution to world literature.