The latest addition to my website is Adam Foulds‘ The Quickening Maze. This a story about the poet John Clare and, to a much lesser degree, the poet Alfred Tennyson. Clare spent much of his adult life in asylums. This one tells of his time in an asylum in Essex, managed by Matthew Allen. Also an inmate in the asylum was Septimus Tennyson, brother of the poet (though Septimus had also written poetry). Alfred takes a house nearby to keep an eye on his brother. Clare is slowly sinking into madness, looking out for Mary, a young woman he had loved many years ago before his marriage who, unbeknown to him, is now dead. But he also loves to wander around the countryside and it is his love of nature that Foulds brings to the fore. The asylum is run on more or less liberal lines (for the period) but there is still brutality and cruelty, particularly when Dr Allen neglects his asylum for his new wood carving machine. Foulds was one of the Granta’s Best Young British Novelists and this is his second novel.
The latest addition to my website is Arnon Grunberg‘s Fantoompijn (Phantom Pain). This is a very funny book about a writer, Robert G Mehlman, who is arrogant, irresponsible, unfaithful to his wife, dishonest, lazy, greedy and utterly self-centred but a moderately successful writer. We follow both his past life as well as getting some detailed accounts of his later life, including his (mis-)use of credit cards, taking a newly met woman to Atlantic City in a limousine when he is utterly broke and then gambling $5000 away, leaving his poor wife stranded in Vienna as he maxes out her credit card, and then having a brilliantly idea for a book, for which he exploits an elderly woman in Brooklyn. Grunberg mocks and mocks again every foible of Mehlman, leaving us to wonder if Mehlman is based on a real writer. Whether real or fictitious, Mehlman is a wonderful creation and the book is a very enjoyable read.
The latest addition to my website is Donna Tartt‘s The Goldfinch, her third novel in twenty-one years. This one is another large novel – 800 pages – with undertones of violence and a fantastic read. It has been criticised by some for being a Harry Potter for adults but that is, in my view, a very superficial judgement. The story concerns Theo Decker, who is thirteen at the start of the novel, who is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art when a terrorist bomb explodes, killing many, including Theo’s mother and injuring others. Theo is stunned but when he recovers, he is able to make his escape, with Fabritius’ Goldfinch in his bag. We follow his life after that, which is affected by the events of that day, including the theft of the painting, his talk with a dying man and, of course, the death of his mother. Tartt gives us a complex and fascinating novel with plot twists, violence and the threat of violence and the struggle of having a satisfactory relationship. This novel only confirms her as one of the leading US novelists.
The latest addition to my website is Hubert Aquin‘s Prochain épisode (Next Episode), Aquin’s first novel and the only one of his works to be translated into English. Aquin wrote this novel when he was detained in a mental institution after having being arrested for possession of guns, to be used in terrorist attacks as part of his involvement in the Quebec liberation movement. The story tells of an unnamed narrator, clearly based on Aquin himself, who is in Switzerland and worried about his life and whether the Canadian police are tracking him. He meets his girlfriend K, who is also very much involved in the revolutionary movement and he is instructed to follow and kill a counter-revolutionary who may be a Belgian banker called von Ryndt or a Swiss banker called von Heute or von Heutz. While our narrator does follow and confront von Heutz, he is not very competent and things do not go according to plan. However, the fascination of this book is not the James Bond exploits of the narrator but his thoughts, concerns and worries about his life, his love and where he is and what he is doing. It has been hailed as a great Canadian novel and, though I do not feel that it deserves that acclaim, it is still an interesting read.
The latest addition to my website is Antonio Muñoz Molina‘s El jinete polaco [The Polish Rider]. When it was released in Spain in 1991, it garnered a lot of critical praise and sold well, despite its length and complexity. It tells the story of Manuel, a thirty-five year interpreter who has drifted round the world in his job, at least in part to escape from what he considers the dull provincial town of Mágina. He welcomes the freedom this brings but he is not happy. One day, he meets an American woman, Nadia, who turns out to have Spanish parents, and whose father also came from Mágina. They settle down together and Manuel tells Nadia his story and, with the help of a trunk of old photos Nadia has inherited from her father, they reconstruct, not always accurately, the stories of Mágina. This novel is essentially a Proustian novel of memory and reconstructing (and, in some cases, rearranging) memories and is superbly told by Muñoz Molina. Can we be a complete person without our past and our memories of our past? Clearly not, in Muñoz Molina’s view. The title, by the way, comes from a print Nadia’s father has of Rembrandt’s The Polish Rider. Sadly, though available in seven other languages, it has not been translated into English.
The latest addition to my website is Alexis Wright‘s Plains of Promise. It is about the (poor) treatment of aborigines, both now and in the 1950s. The first part is set in a mission in the north of the country, where the mother of seven year old Ivy Koopundi has just killed herself by dowsing herself in kerosene and setting herself alight. Ivy is one of the aborigines in the girls’ orphanage in the mission. When others follow the example of Ivy’s mother, Ivy is partially blamed saying that she is accursed or that her family has the sickness. She is abused by the other girls but also sexually abused by the white married director of the orphanage. We see her many years later when she is in an institution, unable or unwilling to speak, and then jump further ahead, where we meet her daughter, Mary, who has been adopted by a white family and is unaware of her antecedents till after her adoptive parents’ death. She then becomes involved in aboriginal politics. While certainly a polemical novel about the treatment of aborigines in Australia, it is also a well-told story, well worth reading.
With Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries winning the ManBooker Prize, I must apologise to Jim Crace and Ruth Ozeki, as I predicted that Crace would win and Ozeki should win, a curse that doomed both of them. Nevertheless, congratulations to Eleanor Catton. Her novel is a very fine one and I am convinced that she will go on to be a great writer.
The latest addition to my website is Sadriddin Aini‘s Марги судхур (Death of a Money Lender), the first Tajik novel on my website. It is an amusing novel but with a certain seriousness, telling the story of Kori-Ichkamba, a large man, who spends his time cajoling, cheating and avoiding paying for anything at all. He goes to funerals to get free meals, dashes out of shops without paying and, all too often, buys and eats food, only to find that he has “forgotten” to bring any money with him. He also lends money at extortionate rates and is, of course, happy to cheat his borrowers. However, while he initially does well when World War I starts, things start going badly and then, when the Russian Revolution comes, he will get his comeuppance.
Now that the Nobel Prize – congratulations to Alice Munro but, as I almost never read short stories, I am afraid that I have not read her nor do I have plans to do so – and German Book Prize – congratulations to Terézia Mora, whom I hope to read soon – are out of the way, we can now focus on the Man Booker Prize, which will be announced next Tuesday (15 October). I have now read all six shortlisted books and have made my pick. I should point out that, invariably, when I pick a winner of a literary prize, that person does not win, so my apologies to the one that I do pick.
Here are the contenders (alphabetical order by last name):
NoViolet Bulawayo: We Need New Names. A fascinating novel about life in Zimbabwe as told by a ten year old girl, and her subsequent life in Michigan and how she compares the two.
Eleanor Catton: The Luminaries. A long book set in a Victorian-era New Zealand gold mining town, with a complicated plot about the death of a loner who is found to have a stash of gold hidden in his hut, the rapid sale of his assets, the unexpected appearance of a woman claiming to be his widow as well as other events such as the apparent attempted suicide of a local prostitute and the disappearance of the most successful gold digger.
Jim Crace: Harvest. Another historical novel, this one set in an unnamed village somewhere in England, at the time of the enclosure of the common land, with witchcraft, murder and brutality the order of the day.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. This is the tale of two brothers, one who becomes involved in politics and is murdered by the police, while the other goes to the US to continue his studies but comes back to marry his brother’s widow.
Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. As the title implies, it is about time and memory but it is also about environmental responsibility, finding our place in the world, not to mention quantum physics and 9/11.
Colm Tóibín: The Testament of Mary. This is a short novel about the Virgin Mary, but humanised, more of a mother than a divine figure and, twenty years after the death of her son, still bitter about those that led him on and made him a divine figure.
Three of the novels are second novels – the Catton, Lahiri and Ozeki – though Lahiri and Ozeki have both published short story collections in between their two novels. Second novels are notorious for being difficult for writers. I think, with Catton and Lahiri, their first books were superior, though neither even made the shortlist for them so maybe they are getting their reward, at least in part, for their previous works. Tóibín has been nominated twice before but never won and it has been suggested that this nomination is a reward for a career, not specifically for this book, not least because, according to the rules, the prize should be awarded to a full-length novel, and this novel is only 112 pages. If it did win, it would be the shortest ever winner. Bulawayo’s novel is good but it is a first novel.
What should win
My favourite of the six is Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. It is mature, complex, full of interesting ideas and superbly well told. All the others have flaws which this one does not.
What will probably win
I think that the winner will be Jim Crace: Harvest. It would be my second choice. Crace is the only real Brit of the six and has announced that this is his last novel. A ManBooker Prize would be a fineswansong for him and, of course, a fine swansong for the last non-US ManBooker Prize. But bear in mind my caveat at the top.
The latest addition to my website is Colm Tóibín‘s The Testament of Mary. I have generally not enjoyed Tóibín’s work and this was no exception. Indeed, I only read it because it was on the Man Booker shortlist. It is the testament of the Virgin Mary, writing long after her son’s death, speaking not as a divine figure but as a human and, above all, as a mother. She is sceptical of her son’s divinity and feels that he has been manipulated for political ends, a view she continues to hold long after his death. She is critical of the disciples and tells the gospel writers, to whom she is telling her tale, what she thinks about them. While it is well written and could appeal to both Christians and non-Christians, it did not work for me.