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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Man Booker Longlist - some thoughts

I was asked recently to come up with my own longlist for the Man Booker prize and then jauntily told I'd be 'scored' on my predictions. Of course I wasn't trying to predict anything - how could I, when I've only read a fraction of the reported 154 submissions? I read about 60 novels a year and frankly that's quite enough. My list was just that - my own favourite 13.

As it happens, though, my score was low. Only Alan Hollinghurst and - a dark horse this - D J Taylor's Derby Day were on both lists. My first feeling upon looking at the real Man Booker longlist was bafflement. Who on earth were all these people? I hadn't heard of half of them. In a sense, Man Booker judges can never get it right. Too many established names and they're playing safe, not enough and they look wilfully out of touch.

Then I started looking at who was left off, and my bafflement increased. Justin Cartwright has bad luck with the Booker and Other People's Money sadly didn't buck the trend. But it took several reads of the list to realise that the unthinkable had happened. Yes, they really had overlooked Edward St Aubyn's At Last, the novel around which a steady buzz has been growing ever since publication a few months ago to rapturous reviews. Andrew Miller's Pure is another notable omission. There's no Ali Smith, John Burnside, Philip Hensher, Helen Oyeyemi, Amitav Ghosh...

My first Tweeted responses to the list (I was still in shock) were met with a few how-can-you-criticise-before-you've-read-them-all comments. Well, for one thing, the Man Booker longlist is published in order to boost sales and create word of mouth. While it might be nice if there were a three-week comment moritorium while we diligently work our way through all 13 titles, meanwhile, back in the real world... And obviously it's legitimate to comment on books that we have read, found brilliant, and which we feel have been mysteriously snubbed.

One publisher's loss is another publisher's gain, of course, and I tip my hat to Seren, Oneworld and Serpent's Tail who no doubt richly deserve their placing. It's hard to talk about omissions without offending people who are on the list, which is not my intention. I look forward to reading the longlisted titles. 

On further inspection the list comes into focus and there are some intriguing inclusions. I hadn't read Sebastian Barry's novel (will now) but he is hugely gifted, and I had also overlooked the Julian Barnes, which I've been told is superb. I'd already earmarked Pigeon English to read: it's gone to the top of the pile. Carol Birch is sadly underrated and Jamrach's Menagerie sounds wonderful. Jane Rogers is also a safe pair of hands (interesting to see she's now with a small publisher, Sandstone Press). Snowdrops created a buzz on publication. It's also good to see the strong Canadian presence.

It's been noted that there are four debuts on the list, and books from several independent publishers, who god knows, need a boost. I'm sure the judges are aware that the Man Booker is not a best first novel prize, or a prize for plucky independents, or a Fairy Godmother, 'with one tap of the wand I can make you famous' prize. It is for literary quality, and only literary quality. With that in mind, if all the longlisted books are as good as At Last we are in for a glorious booky summer.

Here's my own list of thirteen:

The Death of Eli Gold by David Baddiel
The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge
Other People's Money by Justin Cartwright
The Blue Book by A L Kennedy
Gillespie & I by Jane Harris
The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
Childish Loves by Ben Markovits
Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar
Pure by Andrew Miller
There but for the by Ali Smith
At Last by Edward St Aubyn
The Knife Drawer by Padrika Tarrant
Derby Day by D J Taylor

It's open to the accusation that they are mostly established names, but then they're established for a reason. Of course it reflects my own reading, making this a neatly circular exercise: these are the sort of books I pick out, and therefore, I like them... The benefit of judging any prize is the way it takes you out of your literary comfort zone - the only way we find new stuff, after all.

Nevertheless, I think this is a pretty good list. And if I were to come up with a shortlist, St Aubyn, Bainbridge (provided the deceased are eligible) and Miller would be on it: three concise and contrasting pieces of artistry that represent the very best of British fiction.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Harrogate times two - and not a happy Betty

On July 2 I went up to Harrogate to interview the bestselling authors Douglas Kennedy and Sadie Jones as part of the Summer Festival. It was the first of two visits to this beautiful and elegant former spa town.

Both their novels deal with the breakdown in trust between partners under the pressure of dire historical predicaments. The Moment is set in grim East Berlin before the wall fell, Small Wars tells of a military marriage in '50s Cyprus against a backdrop of guerilla warfare and brutal reprisals. Alhough the books are very different in tone, it was an apt pairing and both were on terrific form. Afterwards Douglas and I repaired to the prosaically named Restaurant Bar and Grill for cocktails and supper. The barman's Negronis got the thumbs up from Douglas, a very discerning fellow.

The next day I had to return to London to interview Michael Cunningham in the Purcell Room at 4pm. The gods were against me; vandalism on the line meant all trains to London from Leeds were cancelled. A saintly man at Harrogate station reorganised my train times. 'I'm on stage at the South Bank in front of hundreds of people!' I said, self-importantly. 'Are you a comedian?' he asked, which made me laugh.

I made it to the green room with ten minutes to spare. Fortunately Michael Cunningham is supremely laid back and it was a relaxed hour's conversation, during which he revealed that he is a secret silversmith and sells his wares under a pseudonym at Barneys in New York. Which has to be one of the weirdest things an author has ever told me.

His new novel By Nightfall is a terrific piece of work, a graceful story of love and betrayal with the heft of a book twice its size. What's brilliant is the way he sketches a whole life with the economy of a short-story writer. The story, which lightly echoes Death in Venice, is set against the backdrop of the New York art scene, about which he talked fascinatingly.

Later that week I went to Liverpool to interview Libyan novelist Hisham Matar about his new book Anatomy of a Disappearance, which I think is even stronger than his debut, In the Country of Men. Part of the Bluecoat's Arab festival, it was a mesmerising event as Matar talked unselfpityingly about his own tragic family background and his hopes and fears for Libya and the Arab Spring. The next night it was back to London for Alan Hollinghurst at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Alan is quite intimidating, but also witty and thoughtful. The highlight was his excellent reading, bringing out to the full the sly humour of The Stranger's Child. I made a light-hearted suggestion that the book's sections would still make sense if read in reverse order. This seemed to perplex him, though I meant it as a compliment. I thought it was a brilliant trick he must have deliberately planned. It seems not.

Last Monday (11th) I chaired a quiet, intimate event with the lovely Helen Oyeyemi, who was reading from and talking about her latest, Mr Fox. First she read out the dark fairy tale of the same name, about a young woman who outwits a dastardly murderer: 'Be bold, be bold, but not too bold...' Mr Fox the woman-killer crops up in all cultures, she pointed out, sometimes in unsuspected guises - I hadn't spotted that Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is a variant of the story. I could have happily discussed fairy tales with Oyeyemi all night.

And so, back to Harrogate again to interview Laurie Graham and Wendy Holden about At Sea and Marrying Up respectively. The discussion ranged widely from why we're all fed up of Pippa Middleton, the joy of writing about wicked characters, feminism with large and small fs, Carmen Callil (who discovered Graham) and comic influences. It was great fun.

We decided to celebrate afterwards by going to the famous Betty's Tea Shop. I went to the one in York years ago, and remembered its atmosphere of elegant indulgence. I even remember what I ate: a unusual confection of cream, pastry, black cherry and cinnamon. Things have changed a little, it seems.

We may have been a bit annoying. We were directed to a side room we didn't fancy, so remained hovering in the main tea room. Directed to another table, we suddenly saw that a prime table by the window was being vacated, so swiftly nabbed that instead. Maybe this caused offence. We sat there... and sat there... then when we asked if we could order, a young woman dressed as a waitress informed us that it wasn't waitress service. You have to go to the counter and pay in advance. 'It's a bit like Russia,' Wendy muttered.

Finally, our goodies arrived. I have no complaints about the plate of zingy, chewy macaroons that Wendy and I shared, nor about the exquisite rose-scented China tea that accompanied them. But the service was so joyless. On leaving I caught the eye of two waitresses, both of whom looked stonily back at me. Weird.

My visit to Harrogate was rounded off in fine style, however, with a visit to the Mercer Art Gallery to see an exhibition by Yorkshire's answer to Caspar David Friedrich, Atkinson Grimshaw. His enigmatic moonlit scenes of Victorian docks, rain-wet city streets, autumnal gardens, lonely brick mansions and leafy suburban lanes (often with hurrying female figure in the distance), are familiar from many a Penguin Classic jacket. The exhibition traces the development of this most mysterious and apparently self-taught artist, from early pre-Raphaelite-influenced landscapes and nature studies to experiments with light and mood, often based on photographs; then on to tender female portraits and clear attempts to ride the Aesthetic wave with Whistler-esque Thames scenes and fashionable interiors. Many of the paintings are in private hands, loaned to the exhibition, so this really is a must-see. It's Grimshaw up north!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Nothing of him that doth fade...

On July 8 1822 the 29-year-old Shelley set off from Livorno with his friend Edward Williams, and their boat boy Charles Vivian, to return home to Lerici. The boat, Shelley's pride and joy, turned out to be badly designed and they did not survive the storm that overtook them on the way. Here are ten fantastic books that explain why he is still a living force 189 years later.

1. Shelley: The Pursuit by Richard Holmes (Harper Perennial)

Not just a great biography of Shelley but a landmark in the history of biography, rescuing its subject both from the sickly sentimentality of the Victorian era that succeeded him, and the rubbishing of F R Leavis. This showed a rash and ruthless, even a sexy Shelley, who combined the glamour of Byron with the sensitivity of Keats. A young man writing about a young man, it is a poignant account; not so much a Life, as Holmes claimed, as a haunting.

2. Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography by James Bieri (Johns Hopkins)

Wonderful as Holmes's biography is, Bieri's crisp and authoritative take, published in 2004, brings the best of modern scholarship to bear on this brief but hectic life. Bieri fills out the detail, sees certain elements from a refreshing new angle and includes new information to intrigue the enthusiast. Not as sweepingly Romantic as the Holmes but worthy to sit beside it on the shelf.

3. Red Shelley by Paul Foot (Bookmarks)

The Victorians tended to ignore Shelley's passionate radicalism, vegetarianism and feminism in favour of his swooning love poetry. The unforgettable Paul Foot here makes a spirited case for the revolutionary poet as socialist figurehead. Excellent, tub-thumping stuff, right down to the great title and iconic cover with red star and dishevelled poet seemingly heading a mob march.

4. Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed Roger Ingpen, 2 vols

These are rare; I had to haunt Hay-on-Wye for years before finding copies (pre-internet). Fresh and unmediated, here's the unadulterated voice, from the cheeky 11-year-old who signs off, 'Now I end. I am not / Your obedient servant, / P. B. Shelley' to the almost unbearably poignant last letters of a man still in the thick of things and full of literary plans. The letters describing his travels in Italy are superb, as are the ones charting the always difficult relationship with Byron. When writing about his own work he is modest, fateful, almost sad. There are no great theories of poetry a la Keats, no 'I think I will be among the English poets at my death' - and all the better for that, in my view. Give me Shelley describing a night in Venice with Byron over Keats chirupping about sparrows in Hampstead any day.

5. Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself by Ann Wroe (Cape)

A thoroughly original and brilliant book examining the rich textures of the poet's work and linking them to the life in fresh and surprising ways. Few scholars make such ingenious connections, or demonstrate so well how clever he was, how well-read in Greek and Roman classics, in French political theory, in history and Italian poetry (he remains one of the finest translators of Dante). A giddily exciting intellectual odyssey.

6. The Godwins and the Shelleys: The Biography of a Family by William St Clair (Faber)

Another biography, but with a clever twist - St Clair shows how the story of Shelley and Mary didn't begin with them, but with her parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. St Clair shows how the younger generation consciously took up the baton of the dead author of 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' (however, their relationship with the very living Godwin was a source of constant strife). The scholarly St Clair is not above having a little mischief at the expense of the youthful pair, but he also writes movingly about the failures and tragedies that dogged this supremely gifted family.

7. Shelley's Boat by Julian Roach (Harbour Press)

The story of Shelley's last days, a mixture of eerie foreshadowing and sheer bad luck, superlatively told. Shelley was obsessed with the sea, boats and water, and at many times in his writing he seems to be foreseeing his own death. In one of his last letters to his adored Jane, Edward's wife, he wrote hauntingly: 'How are you today and how is Williams? Tell him that I dreamed of nothing but sailing, and fishing up coral.' But was his death inevitable? Tracing the events that led up to the tragedy, Roach's elegant detective work grips.

8. The Strange Death of a Romantic by Jim Williams (Scribner)

Shelley's life has inspired numerous novels, few as ingenious as this one, which slyly purports to answer the question: 'Who murdered Percy Shelley?' A century after the drowning, a young doctor comes to the coast where Shelley lived, where a group of languid expats drink, flirt, and play literary games, writing witty pastiches that suggest solutions to the mystery. But then, of course, there's a real murder... A clever thriller, well worth tracking down.

9. Claire Clairmont and the Shelleys by Robert Gittings and Jo Manton (Oxford)

Shelley's (possible) lover and Mary's step-sister is a fascinating and tragic character in her own right, living on til 1879, long after her fellow adventurers were dead. The attempts of the Shelley scholar, Edward Silsbee, to extract her cache of Shelley letters, was transmuted by Henry James into his novella 'The Aspern Papers'. Here Shelley's Constantia takes centre stage, but remains ever enigmatic: 'In thy dark eyes a power like light doth lie, / even though the sounds which were they voice, which burn / Between thy lips are laid to sleep... / Even while I write, my burning cheeks are wet, / Alas, that the torn heart can bleed, but not forget!'

10. Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle by Janet Todd (Profile)

Just so it's not all cheerleading, here's the scholar Janet Todd ripping into Shelley as a heartless manipulator of vulnerable women. Todd takes as evidence the sad life of Mary Wollstonecraft's first child, Fanny Imlay, born in Paris during the French Revolution and written about with such joy and pride in Wollstonecraft's Letters from Sweden, a key Romantic text. Mary Shelley's half-sister was just not glamorous enough for the philandering poet she adored. Todd overstates her case in a screechy, indignant book, but it is never less than gripping, even when you want to throw it at the wall.

RIP Shelley.
'Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange'.