Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Big ManBooker Bash

Last night's Big ManBooker Bash at Wickersley Library marked the end of our journey following this year's prize. More than 40 people turned out to hear our views on the shortlisted titles; to tell us about their favourite and least-favourite reads; to hear the announcement of the winner and to take part in a literary quiz.

My colleagues and I will be blogging on the experience as a whole (and our eventual winner) but for now, here are a couple of photos to give you the flavour of the event. You can see more at Rotherham's Flickr account at

The Four ManBooker-teers with two members of last night's winning quiz team

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

Damon Galgut’s short novel has drawn criticism on two grounds: firstly, that it is a work of non-fiction and, secondly, that it is actually three unconnected short stories (they were initially published separately) and not a novel.

The first criticism can be dealt with by pointing out that the book is actually about memory and its inability to faithfully represent something (the narrator often interjects with comments like “I don’t remember what he was wearing”). The second can be dismissed by the fact that the three stories connect more successfully (in terms of theme and how each reflects the others concerns) than most novels.

The novel deals with three distinct journeys made by Damon over a 20 year period, with each one being named after the role the narrator plays in it (The Follower, The Lover and The Guardian).

I found the novel to be an absolute pleasure: the writing was limpid, tight and entirely shorn of fat. His ability to convey a scene so vividly (the shimmering heat, a gathering storm) with such minimal means was very impressive. The fact that Galgut writes in longhand first is a testament to this old-fashioned method as there is clarity to the writing that is rare to encounter. This also seems to confirm Jonathan Franzen’s recent claim that “no-one with a broad-band connection can write good fiction”.

I can imagine that many people would be put off by this work, perhaps seeing it as ‘precious’ or pretentious, but I thought it was a wonderful attempt at portraying a person who is not at home either in the world or with themselves. This is why the author’s switching between I and He is so effective: it serves to highlight how divorced the author is from his own self.

So, although this might be my winner, I don’t think it was enjoyed by the rest of the group, so we must leave Damon alone In a Strange Room.

C by Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy’s C is a bildungsroman (a novel that charts the growth of an individual) with a difference: the main character is a cipher, with no attempt made to plunge into his psychology. McCarthy has spoken loudly of his distaste for the humanist novel which goes into great depth about a character’s feelings and emotions. In C he replaces the ‘emoting subject’ with Serge Carrefax, a character who is always present but neither truly there. His life becomes something around which McCarthy weaves his themes of technology (wireless radio, communication, flight), accretes symbol after symbol (silk, insects, and flight) and indulges in word play (Serge's name evokes an electrical surge and the concept of flight and air when pronounced by his French mother).

That the novel works and works extremely well is a testament to McCarthy’s skills, as this could quite easily have become a pretentious exercise. In fact, contrary to all the talk of experimentalism and difficulty, McCarthy has actually written a very readable novel (with frequent attempts at humour). Yes, there are scenes which are quite technical and yes, you have to abandon any hope of sympathising with the empty vessel that is Serge, but the narrative is entirely linear (there is no playing with chronology) and you are always clear as to what is happening. Compare that with novels by Burroughs and Joyce - where one is often struggling to work out what on earth is happening and to whom - and the novel is an absolute page-turner!

Another interesting aspect of C emerges when you consider that McCarthy has declared himself a re-mixer or DJ. Almost every scene in this novel has echoes in previous works of literature: the drug-taking reminds you of Burroughs; the scene in the European spa of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain; some of the word-play is taken from Joyce. That the novel frequently talks of echoes resounding through time makes this all the more relevant to the McCarthy’s themes.

Is this my winner… well, we’ll just have to wait and see!

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

The Long Song has been one of my favourite Booker Prize reads (note: this does not necessarily make it my choice as the winner!) Andrea Levy has a wonderfully vivid and evocative style of writing and I loved Miss July’s sing-song Jamaican dialect and phrases - I'd love to listen to the audiobook version!

I know the novel has been criticised for being what some people see as a ‘light’ treatment of a serious subject, but I actually read it as a testament to how humour and resolve can get people through the worst of times. As Levy herself has pointed out, we have to remember that this isn’t really a novel about slavery – it’s one woman’s account of living her life during that particular time. This is how Miss July has chosen to narrate her own story. I think in some way Levy was aware that this could be a criticism; note how her son (and memoir editor) tries to get her to focus on some of the more harrowing events she talks about – he’s angry on her behalf and wants her to reveal the true horror of life as a slave. In fact, Miss July’s almost flippant way of describing some of the more brutal occurrences do actually make them more horrific to me, in the sense that she is saying ‘Well, this is how it was. What could we do about it?’

I agree with David's review: I also expected a harrowing and difficult read, but actually found it to be a positive tale of human strength and determination – ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ springs to mind.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

The Finkler Question is Howard Jacobson’s novel about Jewishness in its many forms. Its main character is Treslove, a hollow figure who is obsessed with tragic deaths (his own and his lovers’) and opera (particularly operas which feature scenes of lovers dying tragically). His relationship with two Jewish friends Sam Finkler (a childhood friend and successful TV philosopher) and Libor (an urbane 90-year-old mittel-European who was once Sam and Treslove’s teacher) form the backbone to the novel.

Treslove is fixated with his friends’ success and feels alienated from their passionate discussions on Israel and Jewish life. A bizarre mugging by a woman is interpreted by Treslove as an anti-Semitic event and leads him to attempt to convert to ‘Jewishness’ (not Judaism).

The novel then proceeds to present this as an impossible task: there is no monlithic 'Jewishness' that one can become. Each character is conflicted in their own sense of Jewishness: Finkler’s wife – the most observant Jew in the novel – is actually a convert; Juno, who Treslove sees as the embodiment of female Jewishness, becomes tired of endlessly making gefilte fish and discussing the Torah and just wants to be able to watch TV occasionally; Sam Finkler veers between hating and loving his identity.

Jacobson has much fun playing with/confirming/denying/satirising several Jewish stereotypes and there are lots of in-jokes for those with a working knowledge of Jewish culture/history. For example, The Finkler Question translates as The Jewish Question, which was an essay by Karl Marx that has often been interpreted as anti-Semitic. This becomes all the more relevant to Jacobson's theme of identity when you consider that Marx’s family converted out of Judaism to Christianity – there are many layers here! I also wonder what Alain de Botton thinks of the fact that Sam’s ludicrous pop philosophy books (‘The Existentialist in the Kitchen’ and ‘The Little Book of Household Stoicism’) are quite clearly modelled on his successful publications (‘How Proust can change your life’)?

Unfortunately, it may be that some will be put off by what seems to be ethnic-religious navel gazing of the most arcane sort. This would be a shame as they would be missing out on a powerful examination of male friendship (its jealousies, betrayals and admirations) and some great comic (and tragic) scenes in what is an extremely well-written novel.

My only qualms are that it does tend towards the rant in the final third (and not in the raging, compulsive, sear-the-fingers-from-the-page prose of Philip Roth – a novelist who deals with similar subject matter) , with the early potential just failing to deliver in quite the way I’d hoped.

All-in-all, this isn't my winner, but I do look forward to reading Jacobson's Kalooki Nights (which many proclaim to be his masterpiece).

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Room by Emma Donoghue

Of the Booker titles I’ve read so far, Room has proved to be the biggest surprise: I expected to dislike it (fearing that it would be an exploitative and sensationalist attempt to jump on the bandwagon of the recent Fritzl and Kampusch cases) but ended up being thoroughly engrossed in what is an extremely well-realised story. I also had doubts that the novel would be able to sustain a 300-page narrative from the perspective of a 5-year-old, but Emma Donoghue succeeds in making Jack a thoroughly credible and sympathetic guide through what is a harrowing tale. The fact that the novel succeeds in raising several moments of genuine humour without being flippant or callow is all the more remarkable. The scene in which Jack turns on TV to see a panel of learned talking heads discuss him in literary/philosophical terms (“Aren’t we all, in some way, Jack?”; “Isn’t he like Perseus…”) is particularly amusing.

Just like those pretentious talking heads (with who I must share a pretentious kinship), I loved the many literary/mythological references that Donoghue crammed into the book: there are allusions to Adam and Eve, Jack and the Beanstalk, numerous fairy/folk tales (Bluebeard, Hansel and Gretal), Jesus and Mary (alongside contemporary 'myths' like Diana's death and the fall of the Berlin Wall). I also love the fact that Old Nick returns at the same time every day: this is something that could only happen in a fairy tale and makes the first half of the novel read like a long-lost out-take from the Grimmest of the Brothers' Grimm.

Also, more than being a novel about abuse, Room actually proves to be a moving portrayal of the mother/son bond (in the same way that Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road is an in-extremis rendering of the father-son bond). The way the outside world and its vastness begins to chip away at the tight bond begin Jack and his Ma is heartbreaking; with Jack’s insistence on keeping the objects from Room and his constant desire to return there a horrifying yet understandable development.

Donoghue also uses the latter half of the novel to paint a caustic picture of our celebrity-obsessed culture, one where Jack's and his Ma's story becomes another news item for our consumptiom (and ultimately, disposal).

The only section that rang slightly false notes were the escape sequence, but this is excusable for two reasons: firstly, although Old Nick - the captor - seemed a little too unbelievable here, he is a fairy tale villain/ogre/devil and they are always duped in quite unbelievable ways; secondly it is rendered in such a thrilling fashion that this only becomes apparent in hindsight.

Now I’m about to leave Room to find myself In a Strange Room with Damon Galgut…

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Having never read anything by Andrea Levy I approached The Long Song with a mixture of anticipation (the good reviews, plaudits and prizes) and trepidation (could it be a case of over-hype?). My sense of anticipation soon turned into enjoyment and banished any residual doubts as I enjoyed the talents of this gifted novelist.

The Long Song did provide lots of surprises: given that the novel was one of slavery in 19th Century Jamaica, I expected to be presented with a harrowing and difficult read. But, in a manner similar to Emma Donoghue in Room (which is also a tale of captivity and release), Levy approaches her material with a comic lightness that veers at times towards farce (characters hiding under beds etc). Levy’s decision to present the narrative in such a way is a function of being true to her narrator July (a slave with a white father): this cheeky, resourceful character resolutely believes in happy endings and it is through her educated son’s promptings that we get closer to the harsh reality (he makes her rewrite several portions and chastises her for expurgating unhappy details). The fact that July is constantly rewriting her narrative (she presents us with several versions of her own birth) leads you to ponder how much of the main body we can take on trust. It is this conceit that allows you to forgive what could have been considerable weaknesses: the portrayal of July’s mistress Caroline would be incredibly one dimensional and unbelievable if we were dealing with a disinterested narrator. July, however, has been her servant since a young girl and is in love with her husband: why would she wish to draw a sympathetic portrait of a ‘silly white woman’?

The relative lightness of tone also means that when the harrowing moments (tarring and feathering, public execution, suicides, beatings, brutal treatment of prisoners) arrive, they are all the more powerful.

Levy’s novel also marks a departure from many novels/films that deal with this topic in that it doesn’t seek to portray the slaves as saints. Instead, they are presented as real human beings with all their foibles (one particularly funny scene sees a slave and a free man try to outdo each other through the ferocious expelling of wind), petty quarrels, divisions (they too are locked into vicious modes of thinking as they create a secondary hierarchy in which a place at the top is determined by the possession of white ancestry).

The Long Song is a fine novel: a captivating and vivid portrayal of life lived in extraordinary circumstances, a comment on storytelling and a testament to human perseverance.