Man Booker prize 2012

For the first (and probably last) time ever, I have managed to read all the books on Man Booker shortlist and, amazingly, read them before the winner is announced. I have not done so before because, frankly, they did not seem worthwhile. I have not, for example, read any of the books on last year’s list and, with the possible exception of the Barnes, it is highly unlikely that I will. I did manage two from the previous year and I may read one or two more (but not the winner). A quick look at previous years generally shows two-three that I have read or might yet read though the 2007 list looks pretty good.

Stella Rimington – painting by numbers?

So what was special about this year? Last year, the chief judge, Dame Stella Rimington, famously said that readability was going to be the main criterion for the long- and shortlist choice. This caused something of a furore, not least because no-one was entirely sure what readability meant. Jeanette Winterson criticised this idea much better than I could with her damning take on Rimington’s own work as painting-by-numbers. I have no idea how the judges make their choices but I have no doubt that they, probably prodded by the Man Booker staff, do feel that they have to make some concession to popular taste. But this, year, to their credit, they got a professional in to chair the judges – Sir Peter Stothard editor of the best literary review, the Times Literary Supplement. When I saw the longlist for this year I was pleasantly surprised. Naturally, I had not heard of all the authors on the list but those I had heard of (with one exception) looked interesting and a quick look at the others showed that, for once, they all looked promising.

However, what was most interesting was what was excluded. Here is a list of books that we might have expected to see on the list but did not (alphabetical order by author last name):

  • Martin Amis‘s Lionel Asbo. Thank God they excluded this rubbish. No, I haven’t read it but then nor have I read Fifty Shades of Grey or any of the Twilight novels and I still consider them rubbish.
  • John Banville‘s Ancient Lights. As I have mentioned on my site, I have run out of steam with Banville. Maybe others have as well.
  • Pat Barker‘s Toby’s Room. Another book by a well-known writer that was something of a disappointment.
  • Peter Carey‘s The Chemistry of Tears. I was very disappointed with this but then he might have got on the list because of his reputation.
  • Kishwar Desai’s Origins of Love. Well you have got to have an Indian on the list, haven’t you? Yes, we already have one but there are a lot more of them than us so it is likely that they will have produced at least two worthwhile novels during the year. This may be the second one but it did not make it.
  • Kirsty Gunn‘s The Big Music. A first novel but a big novel, an ambitious novel. I thought it was a failure but a magnificent failure and one worthy of consideration.
  • I J Kay – not on the list
  • I. J. Kay’s Mountains of the Moon. A first novel but it got some good reviews and looked interesting.
  • John Lanchester‘s Capital. I enjoyed this novel and it would certainly have met Dame Stella’s readability criterion. It would have made it last year but obviously the judges felt it was not literary enough for this year.
  • Ian McEwan‘s Sweet Tooth. Another novel by a big name which was a huge disappointment. Glad they did not include this one.
  • Timothy Mo’s Pure. Another writer I used to enjoy but have lost touch with. He seems to have slipped down the ladder somewhat.
  • Lawrence Norfolk‘s John Saturnall’s Feast. I have lost touch with Norfolk but this one did not seem to wow the punters.
  • Keith Ridgway‘s Hawthorn & Child. I liked his earlier novels but this one really did not work for me and, I believe, for many others.
  • Zadie Smith‘s NW. I thought that this was pretty good, even if not of the standard of White Teeth but clearly the judges did not.
  • Rose Tremain’s Merivel. I have never read Tremain so I really have nothing to say about this.
  • Alan Warner‘s The Deadman’s Pedal. Another one I haven’t read and I am not sure that I will. It had decidedly mixed reviews.

There are probably several others that I have missed but that should cover the main ones.

This year’s judges

So here is my take on this year’s list. First, a few statistics.

  • Three men and three women. Coincidence or political correctness?
  • Three independent publishers. That’s good.
  • Two former(?) junkies
  • Two first-time novelists and one second-time novelist, though all have published other stuff before.
  • One previous winner
  • Three former longlisted authors (Mantel, Self and Tan)
  • Three non-UK born authors
  • All three UK-born authors are English. Not good.
  • What does that prove? Nothing.

    It is in alphabetical order by author’s last name. Interestingly (or perhaps not), the first in alphabetical order begins with the letter L. Links to the book link to my review of the book on my website.

  • Deborah Levy: Swimming Home
    I loved this book. It was deceptively simple but brilliantly conceived and executed with what was not said as important as what was said and with undercurrents of tension and menace, which burst out at the end but not necessarily in the way we might have expected. Dreams and vision, insanity and, as Levy herself has put it, sorrow – sorrow at the loss of what might have been. You will never want to rent a villa in France after reading this.

  • Hilary Mantel: Bring up the Bodies
    It really is another excellent book from Hilary Mantel, proving, if proof were needed, that she is one of our best writers, if not the best. This was the only shortlisted book I read before the long list was announced. But she won two years ago with the previous book in the series so can she win again? I suspect not, even though this book is certainly one of the best of the year. And what will they do when the third in the series comes out?

  • Alison Moore: The Lighthouse
    This was probably the big surprise as no-one, least of all the author, expected this book to make the short list. It is a well told and well written story but, as I said in my review, I am not sure that it is Booker winning material. It seems rather 1950s in flavour, which is not necessarily a sin but, compared to the other five, which all seem pretty much of their time, this does seem less so. But then that may be its charm. Downton Abbey is not of its time and it does well and one of the judges is the star of of that series.

  • Will Self: Umbrella
    I must admit that I did not really take to this novel. It was too overtly and, in my view, unnecessarily modernist for my taste. The idea behind it – encephalitis lethargica, how it affected so many people, how it was not properly recognised and therefore not properly treated – was certainly an interesting one but the stream of consciousness, the mixing of the different voices and the disjointed fragments made it a difficult read and one that I felt was not really worth my while. But will the judges share my view? I know that some reviewers certainly do.

  • Tan Twan Eng: The Garden of Evening Mists
    Tan has written two superb books about Malaysia, of which this is the better one (the previous one was longlisted for the Man Booker in 2007). Remembering and forgetting, the war, art, colonialism, race relations – all are grist to Tan’s mill. How do we cope with someone we admire greatly but who we associate with evil deeds? This issue comes up in both his novels and he handles it superbly. This one could be a winner.

  • Jeet Thayil: Narcopolis
    Thayil does Bombay the way Bombay is not normally done in novels. Drugs are the key to novel as the title makes very clear and Burroughs is the guiding light as we follow the story of a low key narrator, a eunuch, a man who has driven from China to Bombay to escape communism, the bad boy of Indian art and the owner of a drug den, as they move from opium to heroin and struggle with the drugs and struggle with life. Not a big plot but lots of colour and lots of character.

The winner? Tan Twen Eng

Six interesting books for the judges to choose from but who will they pick? I really do not think that Hilary Mantel will get it again and so soon and for a follow-up to her previous one. I do not think that Narcopolis or The Lighthouse, excellent books though they are, are quite up to the required quality. I very much feel feel and hope that the Man Booker judges do too that Umbrella is too overblown, too self-consciously modernist and too unreadable to win. Which leaves us with Swimming Home and The Garden of Evening Mists. I marginally prefer The Garden of Evening Mists but would certainly not be disappointed if Swimming Home were to win. We will have to wait till 16 October to see if the judges agree.

Late addition:

The Guardian has all six authors talking about their books.

Jewish literature and the Soviet Union

The 20th century’s second worst mass murderer?

If you ask most people who was the greatest criminal of the twentieth century, nine times out of ten Adolf Hitler would top the list and with very good reason. Scott Manning argues that the Nazis were responsible for around 21 million deaths. I have no reason to dispute his figures. As for Stalin, it seems a bit more complicated. Manning has nearly 59 million but that is for the whole period of the Soviet Union, though it is fair to assume that Stalin was responsible for most of them but obviously not all. The Democratic Peace Blog goes for 43 million while Necrometrics quotes various figures, from 20 million up. The sad fact is that no-one really knows though it does seem highly likely that Stalin was responsible for far more deaths than Hitler. (Note that, according to Manning, China is responsible for even more deaths than Stalin, putting Hitler in third place.) How many Jews were killed by Stalin? As with the overall figures, we really do not know. It is estimated that there were around 3 million Jews in the Soviet Union before World War II. No doubt this number would have increased with Jews fleeing Hitler from Poland. We also know that the Nazis killed a large number of Jews in the areas they occupied, possibly as many as two million. In Stalin’s general purges as well as his purges against anyone who was not considered a true Russian, many Jews would have been murdered without specifically being identified as Jewish. We do know that Stalin’s attacks on what he called cosmopolitanism (a code-word for Jews), led to many thousands of Jewish deaths. However, the point of this article is not to go into detail into who killed how many. We can all agree that huge numbers of Jews and non-Jews were murdered and that, as far as monsters of the 20th century go, Stalin was at or near the top of the list.

Vasily Grossman

It may seem almost trite to focus on a few writers when so many millions were slaughtered, both ordinary people but also people who were skilled scientists, doctors, artists and other intellectuals but, nevertheless, I intend to do so. It is prompted by my last blog post, where I commented (briefly) how the quality of Russian writing had dropped dramatically in the 20th century primarily because of Stalin and the Soviet system. There is no doubt that the loss of many Jewish writers is a factor here. It was also prompted by the post on my website about Vasily Grossman and reading about him and other Jews in the Soviet Union. Grossman was not killed in the camps (he died of stomach cancer) but his literary career was curtailed by the fact that he was Jewish, as his magnum opus was not published in the Soviet Union and, thus, not in his lifetime. Indeed, we are very fortunate that Vladimir Voinovich smuggled it out of the Soviet Union. The following, therefore, is a brief overview of some of the Jewish writers whose writing careers were curtailed by imprisonment, death and/or restrictions placed on them by the Soviet system. The Yivo Encyclopedia has been an excellent source for some of this information.

Isaac Babel
  • The best known may well be Boris Pasternak. Pasternak Jewish? Wasn’t he Russian Orthodox? Yes, he was and he even suggested that Jews should convert to Christianity but it seems that he descended from a Jewish family that assimilated.
  • The only reason that Isaac Babel (see photo left) is not on my website is because he never wrote a novel. His short stories are brilliant and Red Cavalry, in particular, is well worth reading. In 1939, he was arrested, taken to the Lubyanka and, under torture, confessed to a host of spurious charges. He was tried, condemned and executed. Had he lived, who knows what he would have written? We do know that many manuscripts of his were confiscated and they have never been found.
  • Osip Mandelstam
  • There were many great poets whose creativity was stifled by the Soviet system. One of these was Osip Mandelstam (see photo right). He wrote many fine poems. You can read some in translation here but also wrote several prose works, such as Journey to Armenia, which I can thoroughly recommend. He was arrested in May 1938, sentenced to five years in a labour camp and was never seen again. He officially died of an unspecified illness. He was married to Nadezhda, nee Khazina, who, after his death, worked hard at preserving her husband’s legacy and wrote two superb memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned. (Nadezhda is the Russian word for hope.)
  • Yevgenia Ginzburg spent eighteen years in the Gulag. She was only able to write her memoir Journey into the Whirlwind after the death of Stalin and it was only published in Russia after the fall of Communism. She is the mother of the writer Vassily Aksyonov.
  • Lydia Chukovskaya
  • I am not sure whether Ilya Ehrenburg belongs here. He was certainly Jewish, along with Grossman, he was one of the main editors of The Black Book. But, though briefly arrested, he remained a loyal Stalinist and Communist propagandist and his writings now seem rather too Soviet for Western tastes. So just a brief mention.
  • I know very little about Eduard Bagritsky. He seems to have been a very fine poet, who wrote a Russian version of Till Eulenspiegel (scroll down for the actual poem in translation) and who died of an asthmatic related condition.
  • Lydia Chukovskaya (see photo left) was of Jewish descent. Her father was a famous children’s poet, himself the illegitimate son of a Jewish merchant. Lydia Chukovskaya married the Jewish physicist Matve Bronstein who was arrested and executed in 1938. She only escaped arrest as she was absent from Leningrad at the time. In later life she befriended various “enemies of the people” such as Anna Akhmatova, Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov. She is best known for her story Sofia Petrovna, later published as Опустелый дом (The Deserted House) though she wrote poems, memoirs and books on her relationship with Akhmatova. But there could have been more…
  • Lev Lunts
  • Leonid Kannegiser should get a brief mention. Though he was a poet, he was not published till after his death. He is best known for having assassinated the Head of Petrograd Secret Police, Moisei Uritsky, himself a Jew. Kannegiser’s work has not, as far as I can tell, been translated into English though his poems are available in Russian.
  • Valentin Parnakh may best be remembered for introducing jazz to the Soviet Union but he was a poet and translator and wrote about music and dance. He was exiled to Chistopol during the war and worked as a doorman. While there is no direct evidence that he suffered overt anti-Semitism, he clearly did not fit in with the Soviet way of doing things.
  • Lev Lunts (photo right above)is known for being part of the Serapion Brothers,a group of Soviet writers, some of whom would fall out of favour with the Soviet authorities. Lunts came from a wealthy Jewish family and started writing early on and soon had considerable success with his fiction, drama and essays. However, he gradually found his work banned and he moved to Germany, where his family had already emigrated but died the following year. His works have been collected in translation in Things in Revolt.
  • Elizaveta Polonskaya
  • Veniamin Kaverin (real name Zilber) is known for four novels though only two are available in English. He should be better known and will, sooner or later, appear on my website. While he managed to survive the Soviet system, he seemed to have retained his basic human decency as he did not attack Pasternak over Doctor Zhivago.
  • Elizaveta Polonskaya (see photo left) was also associated with the Serapion Brothers (the only woman member) but was far more focused on earning a living than on politics or writing. However, she produced several books of verse and was also a translator. She later wrote sketches, becoming a full-time journalist. She also wrote a novel (never published) and works for children. She had trouble with the Soviet authorities in the late 1950s when anti-Semitism was in full force. Little of her work is available in English but there is a study of her.
  • Cover of Sophia Dubnow-Erlich’s memoirs
  • Arkady Shteynberg was another poet who spent some years in prison but who managed to survive. Though he was a competent poet, he is best known for his translations of poetry.
  • I am including Sofia Pregel as a representative of the post-Revolution emigration. She went to Paris before going to the United States where she edited an émigré journal. She also wrote poetry herself and translated poetry. None of her work seems to be available in English
  • Sophia Dubnow-Erlich is not included as a representative émigrée just because I like the name Sophia (though I do). She was very politically active, particularly in Jewish politics in Vilna (now Vilnius). She managed to escape both the Soviets and Nazis and ended up, like Sofia Pregel, in the United States. She wrote essays, history, a biography of her father and three volumes of symbolist poetry. Her memoir Bread and Matzoth (cover of Russian text above right) and the biography of her father The Life and Work of S.M. Dubnov are available in English.

This should more or less cover the major Jewish writers who were victims of the Soviet system. There are, however, many more lesser known and, sadly, probably a large number who disappeared before leaving any writing behind. Thanks to Yivo Encylopedia staff, An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature: Two Centuries of Dual Identity in Prose and Poetry and similar works, we can at least remember some of the achievements of these authors. However, it should not be forgotten that Stalin wiped out entire generations of scientists, artists and writers and it is for this reason alone that the tradition of the 19th century Russian novel did not continue into the 20th century.

19th century – good; 20th century – not so good

Emily Brontë

If I had to choose the countries that produced the best novels in the 19th century, the top three countries would undoubtedly be England, Russia and France in that order. Austen, Borrow, the Brontë sisters, Butler, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, Thackeray and Trollope, to name only the best, produced some of the finest novels ever written, as did Dostoevsky, Gogol, Goncharov, Lermontov, Tolstoy and Turgenev and Balzac, Flaubert and Stendhal. The USA did produce Hawthorne, Melville and Twain, who are just behind. My list of best 19th century novels shows what I think was the best of the 19th century. No Germans or Spaniards and only one Italian.

Jude the Obscure

But it all changed in the 20th century. Hardy’s last great novel was Jude the Obscure , published in 1895. (He did write one more novel – The Well-Beloved – published in 1897). He devoted the rest of his life – he died in 1928 – to poetry. In other words, England’s last great novelist ceased to write novels at the end of the 19th century. Indeed, his last novel was published in the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and there may well be a connection between the two events. The 20th century (reminder: it started in 1901 not 1900) started, at least as far as England was concerned, with Kim and The Inheritors, not a great beginning. 1902 gave us the book form of Heart of Darkness (it had previously been published in a magazine) and Hound of the Baskervilles. Apart from a few Conrads (a dubious Englishman), we also get early Bennett, Forster, Wells, Chesterton, Ford and Hadrian The Seventh. Some interesting novels but, apart from Heart of Darkness (which was actually first published in the 19th century), there is nothing approaching greatness. The next decade brings Lawrence but also Richardson, Woolf, early Wyndham Lewis and Ford’s The Good Soldier but elsewhere we are getting Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge), those three great US women writers – Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and Ellen Glasgow, Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice), the very great Петербург (Petersburg), Le Grand Meaulnes, La symphonie pastorale (The Pastoral Symphony) and the first books of À la recherche du temps perdu and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (and Shaw’s Pygmalion). Eliot, Yeats and Pound were also writing interesting poetry.

USA! USA!

Clearly, by now, England had slipped behind in the league table. Looking at the number of authors reviewed on my site, you can see that the USA comes first, England second, Italy third and France fourth. This does not, I feel, necessarily represent which country produced the best novels in the 20th century. I have no doubt that the USA is in first place but I am equally certain that England is not in second place. Looking at the stats for my list of best novels, we get a similar order, only with France just nudging ahead of Italy. All this leaves me in a bit of a quandary. My gut feeling has USA first, France second and then… I don’t know but I don’t think that it is England. Of course, this difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that there are countries in the list of best novels of the 20th century which would not even vaguely appear in a list of the the best 19th century novels, in particular the countries of Latin America, Africa and South and South-East Asia.

Getting back to my original problem … (The joy of doing a blog is that it allows me to wander about a bit). If anyone is reading this, I hope that they will bear with me. What happened to the English novel? Let’s deal with the easier question first. WHat happened to the Russian novel? Easy answer: Stalin and the Soviet system. I plan to deal with this in a separate post at a later date so I will not say much more about it now, except that one of the many, many faults of the Soviet system is that it killed a lot of good literature. I am sure that many learned theses have been written on why the English novel faltered. The novel itself faltered, of course, because of the rise of the cinema, then TV and now the Internet, mobile phones and other new technologies. The Death of the Novel has been discussed for years – see some links on my site homepage (scroll down) – so I won’t add to the discussion, except to quote Julian BarnesTwo famous deaths have been intermittently proclaimed for some time now: the death of God and the death of the novel. Both are exaggerated. And since God was one of the fictional impulse’s earliest and finest creations, I’ll bet on the novel – in however mutated a version – to outlast even God. Yet, people are still reading novels, even if it is Fifty Shades of Vampires.

England’s best writer of the century?

But the English novel… The Death of the Empire may well have had something to do with it. As stated above,Hardy’s The Well-Beloved was published the same year as Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the apotheosis of the British Empire. It started to go downhill soon after and particularly went downhill after World War I. Yet France was battered more than England in World War I and was also losing its empire and yet produced quality fiction. France lost its aristocracy well before the 20th century but I cannot believe that the decline of the English aristocracy had much to do with the decline of the novel, not least because most of the great 19th century English novelists were definitely not aristocrats. The novel has been and remains an essentially middle-class phenomenon. The decline not just of the Empire but of Britain as a whole may well have to do something with it but wouldn’t this be mirrored in other art forms? England has never been able to compete as regards art and classical music with countries like France, Italy and Germany. And there is no doubt, at least from 1960 onwards, that Britain was one of the leaders as regards popular music. As regards drama, England’s heyday was in Elizabethan times not in Victorian times. England did also decline in the poetry field, from Keats, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley and Tennyson to… what? Betjeman and Larkin? So not much real comparison there. But decline the English novel did. If you look at the Nobel Prizes awarded (not necessarily a good proxy for excellence but it will have to do), England has had three not very good novelists (Kipling, Galsworthy and Golding), two foreigners (Canetti and Eliot), a philosopher (Russell), a statesman (Churchill), who was also a very good writer but not a novelist, a dramatist (Pinter) and one very good but not great novelist (Lessing), who was born in Persia and grew up in Rhodesia. None of them, apart from Lessing, makes my list of best English novels, let alone best world novels. (It could be argued that this reflects the quality of the Nobel Prize Committee’s choice as well as the dearth of great English novelists. Both, I think, are true.)

Of course, there have been some fine English novelists, as, I think, my list of best English novels reflects but none of them approaches greatness. The 21st century has yet to bring anyone to the fore, though obviously that may change. And, if anyone objects, yes, I am aware that Ireland has done better and Scotland and Wales have also produced fine (though not great) novelists. So I shall continue read novels from all over the world but also novels from England and hope that, one day, there will be someone of the calibre. I look forward to reading her, whoever she may be.