Man Booker Prize Posts

“The Overstory” by Richard Powers

They read about myrrh-tree transplanting expeditions depicted in the reliefs at Karnak, three thousand five hundred years ago. They read about trees that migrate. Trees that remember the past and predict the future. Trees that harmonize their fruiting and nutting into sprawling choruses. Trees that bomb the ground so only their own can grow. Trees that summon air forces of insects that come to save them. Trees with hollowed trunks wide enough to hold the population of small hamlets. Leaves with fur on the undersides. Thinned petioles that solve the wind. The rim of life around a pillar of dead history, each new coat as thick as the maker season is generous. 

Richard Powers The Overstory is a novel weaves through it stories of various families/individuals spanning more than a century. It is a fine example of eco-fiction that is preoccupied with discussing the perennial Man vs Nature argument. It is a vast novel not only for the subject it tackles but the vastness of the landscape Powers creates. It flits from an immigrant family to that of environmental activist to an Indian software entrepreneur who amasses a fortune by creating games to the most mesmerising character, dendrologist, Patricia Westerford. While all these lives are being described it is impossible not to draw comparisons with the peaceful and vibrant descriptions of Nature that Thoreau wrote about in the nineteenth century or even perhaps with the truly talented writer Nell Zink. But now we are at the brink of a possible ecological disaster, possibly manmade due to the wilful damage done upon the environment by man. The LitHub describes it perfectly as “Henry David Thoreau meet Georgia-Pacific“.

The genesis of this novel Powers describes in an interview to The Chicago Review of Books:

I was teaching at Stanford and living in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Just to one side of me was one of the greatest concentrations of wealth and technological might in history: the corporate HQs of Google, Apple, Intel, HP, Facebook, eBay, Cisco, Tesla, Oracle, Netflix, and so many more. To the other side were the Santa Cruz mountains, covered in redwoods. When the scramble for the future down in the valley was too much for me, I would head up to walk in the woods. These were the forests that had been clear-cut to build San Francisco, and it seemed to me that they had grown back wonderfully. But one day, I came across a single tree that had, for whatever reason, escaped the loggers. It was the width of a house, the length of a football field, and as old as Jesus or Caesar. Compared to the trees that had so impressed me, it was like Jupiter is to the Earth.

I began to imagine what they must have looked like, those forests that would not return for centuries, if ever. It seemed to me that we had been at war for a long time, trees and people, and I wondered if it might be possible for things ever to go any other way. Within a few months, I quit my job at Stanford and devoted myself full time to writing The Overstory.

Yet the gloomy moments of the book are more than compensated for by the hope written on the last page of this stunningly magnificent book.

His friends begin to chant in a very old language. It strikes Nick as strange, how few languages he understands. One and a half human ones. Not a single word of all the other living, speaking things. But what these men chant Nick half grasps, and when the songs are finished, he adds, Amen, if only because it may be the single oldest word he knows. The older the word, the more likely it is to be both useful and true. In fact, he read once, … that the word tree and the word truth came from the same root. 

The best compliment he could ever have received was from fellow novelist Barbara Kingsolver who reviewed his book for the New York Times. Upon reading her review he was ‘beside himself with gratitude to Kingsolver. “I just feel so lucky,” he says. “She makes a case for a broader way of reading me.” Taking issue with Powers’ reputation for cold, science-y novels, Kingsolver writes The Overstory “accomplishes what few living writers from either camp, art or science, could attempt. Using the tools of story, he pulls readers heart-first into a perspective so much longer-lived and more subtly developed than the human purview that we gain glimpses of a vast, primordial sensibility, while watching our own kind get whittled down to size.” ‘

The Overstory is a powerful testimony to the decades of environmental activism and the damage man can cause. Yet it is not a novel meant for all readers. It is not an easy book to read and requires intense engagement. Even Powers has had to admit that it was a life-changing experience for him writing The Overstory, akin to a “religious conversion“. Award-winning novelist Powers is known to combine his passion for philosophy with science. In his 12th novel he has done much the same opting to talk about the environment, a subject that is not only dear to his heart but extremely relevant now. No wonder it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018.

To buy on Amazon India: 

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26 October 2018 

“Milkman” by Anna Burns

Man Booker Prize winner 2018 Anna Burn’s novel Milkman is about a nameless eighteen-year-old narrator, most often referred to as the “reading-while-walking” girl who prefers to read nineteenth rather than twentieth century literature because she does not like the twentieth century. Milkman is set in a nameless Irish city —-p robably Belfast just as the era is never confirmed. It is about the city caught in the battles between the IRA, the Renouncers and the British Army possibly during the 1970s judging by the clues peppered throughout the story. It is about the girl observing and commenting upon her neighbourhood. Unfortunately she begins to be stalked by the forty-one-year-old “Milkman” — not the real one. ( The IRA delivered petrol bombs in milk crates. ) Then to her dismay tongues begin to wag and even her mother is not willing to believe her — that there is no truth in the rumours being circulated. Immediately after winning the prize Anna Burns was quoted as saying “Although it is recognisable as this skewed form of Belfast, it’s not really Belfast in the 70s. I would like to think it could be seen as any sort of totalitarian, closed society existing in similarly oppressive conditions … I see it as a fiction about an entire society living under extreme pressure, with longterm violence seen as the norm.”

Milkman was many years in the making and is the stuff literary legends are made of. The fifty-six-year-old Anna Burns acknowledging the fairy tale Booker win said “‘It’s nice to feel I’m solvent. That’s a huge gift’” It is an extraordinary novel for very early on in the story it is as if the reader is an invisible companion to the narrator observing the proceedings with insights into how they think. There are large portions of the narrative that are running text, a single paragraph that runs across pages, which at first may seem daunting to read but is not so. Very often Milkman is being referred to as being Beckettian but Anna Burns clarifies in her interviews that she only read Samuel Beckett once her novel had been written. Whereas in fact it would be worthwhile to notice how the form of her prose, the fluidity of it, the mildly digressing style while observing and reporting incidents dispassionately, and at other times conveying neighbourhood gossip and events as is, in a detached dead pan manner, without any analysis is ultimately a very womanly quality.

Milkman is much like the commentary many women inevitably internalise. The novel merely makes visible that which is mostly kept out of public spaces for women as it would be mostly perceived as idle chatter. It is also remarkable how effectively Anna Burns portrays a reading-while-walking girl who is in all likelihood absorbed in her book but is also able to observe the landscape and people around her as she walks past. There is violence which she acknowledges in many interviews post-Booker win were because of the Ireland she grew up in. There is a particularly horrific and violent scene involving the butchering of dogs and left in a pile. In The New Statesman interview she says:

… I remember seeing that as a child. It was down the bottom of our street. I was seven or eight, so I don’t really know how high the pile was, but it did look like a mound of dead dogs, with their throats cut – I couldn’t see any heads, so I thought all their heads were missing. It was one of those images that stay with you.

The remarkable effect Milkman has upon its readers is for its relevance to the #MeToo movement is purely coincidental as Anna Burns has reiterated this novel was completed in 2014, well before the movement began. At the same its powerful impact is for its visibilisation of the silences most women are trained to inculcate. Most often women across cultures are socially conditioned to keep their opinions to themselves and conform to what is expected of them. Also their word is very likely dismissed especially when it involves as in the case of a creepy, older man, a stalker, who also happens to belong to the IRA. So the young narrator gets pushed more and more into a corner with everyone including her mother disbelieving her about the false rumours being circulated about her and the milkman. Also by resorting to use the interior monologue style of writing for most part of the novel Anna Burns makes the reader privy to the innermost thoughts of the girl thereby stripping away any pretence the narrator may “normally” have adopted in real life.

There are so many portions in the story that will resonate with women readers while being revelatory to male readers. As novelist Idra Novey points out in her Paris Review essay “The Silence of Sexual Assault in Literature” ( 4 Oct 2018) it is the silences that are critical in literature — what is glossed over and that which is hidden from view.

Though the story [Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People”] was published over sixty years ago, the sick abuse of power is disturbingly similar to any number of testimonies that have emerged this past year. O’Connor artfully elides what exactly the Bible salesman does, or doesn’t do, to Hulga in the barn. That elision evokes the roaring silence that she will now endure, returning to this horrifying experience within the solitude of her mind.

It is exactly this silencing of the women that has remained quietly hidden away from the “public” view —- a view that has been mostly defined by patriarchal codes of conduct. Although these sorts of conversations, thoughts and ideas being expressed freely now in literature are and have always been familiar to women.

Milkman is a powerful book that begs to be read widely.

To buy the Milkman on Amazon India: 

Paperback

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26 Oct 2018 

 

The JCB Prize for Literature

 

Creative installation at the launch of The JCB Prize for Literature

Lord Bamford, Chairman, JCB

Recently the Rs 25 lakh JCB Prize for Literature was announced. It is not the first literary prize in India nor is it the first of such a large value. Before this the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature offered a cash prize of $50,000 which was drastically cut by 50% to $25,000 in 2017.  The generous JCB Prize will focus on a distinguished work of fiction and consider translations too. Self-published works will not be eligible. Authors must be Indian citizens. The longlist of ten will be announced in September, and a shortlist of five in October, with the winner to be declared at an awards ceremony on November 3. Each shortlisted author will receive Rs 1 lakh ($1500). The winning author will receive a further Rs 25 lakhs (approx. $38000). An additional Rs 5 lakhs ($7700) will be awarded to the translator if the winning work is a translation.

The Literary Director is award-winning author Rana Dasgupta. The advisory council consists of businessman Tarun Das (Chairperson), Rana Dasgupta, art historian Pheroza Godrej, award winning writer Amitava Ghosh and academic and translator Prof. Harish Trivedi. The jury for 2018 consists of filmmaker Deepa Mehta (Chairperson), novelist and playwright Vivek Shanbhag, translator Arshia Sattar, entrepreneur and scholar Rohan Murty, and theoretical astrophysicist and author Priyanka Natarajan.

Rana Dasgupta, Literary Director, The JCB Prize for Literature

To formally announce the prize an elegant launch was organised at The Imperial, New Delhi on 4 April 2018 where the who’s who of the literary world gathered. It was by invitation only. Those who spoke at the event were Lord Bramford, Chairman, JCB, and Rana Dasgupta, Literary Director.  Lord Bramford spoke of the fond memories he had of his travels through India in the 1960s. Rana Dasgupta underlined the fact that most of the prestigious literary awards are not always open to Indian writers and especially not for translations, a gap that the JCB Prize wishes to address. He also announced a tie-up with the Jaipur Literature Festival (details to be announced later). In fact, all three directors of JLF were present – Namita Gokhale, William Dalrymple and Sanjoy Roy.

Namita Gokhale, writer and publisher; Rajni Malhotra, books division head, Bahrisons with Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, International publishing consultant

Literary awards are very welcome for they always have an impact. They help sell books, authors are “discovered” by readers and the prize money offers financial assistance to a writer. Prizes also influence publishers’ commissioning strategies. The biggest prize in terms of its impact factor are the two prizes organised by the Man Booker – for fiction and translation.

Lady Bamford, founder of Daylesford and Bamford with William Dalrymple, art historian and writer

Keki N. Daruwalla, poet, with David Davidar, co-founder, Aleph Books

Amitabha Bagchi, novelist with Vipin Sondhi, CEO, JCB India

Recognising the importance of financial security for a writer Lord Bramford told the Indian Express “Money often is a good motivator…Creative people like writers or artists often don’t get much reward. And we wanted to reward them.” This is borne out by award-winning writer Sarah Perry who wrote in The Guardian recently about winning the East Anglian book of the year award in 2014, it gave her not only legitimacy for her work but enabled her to afford a better computer to write upon; she “felt suddenly at ease. … I felt like an apprentice carpenter given the tools of the trade by a benevolent guild.” Poet and novelist Jeet Thayil too echoed similar feelings on stage when he won the $50,000 DSC Prize in 2013 for Narcopolis. Just as novelist Jerry Pinto did when he won the 2016 Windham-Campbell Prize of $150,000.

Ira Pande, editor and translator; Diya Kar, publisher, HarperCollins India with professor Harish Trivedi, member, Advisory Council, The JCB Prize for Literature

Lord Bamford, Chairman of JCB; Neelima Adhar, poet and novelist, Arvind Mewar, 76th custodian of Mewar dynasty

The JCB Prize for Literature is a tremendous initiative! It will undoubtedly impact the Indian publishing ecosystem. If publishers do not have eligible entries to send immediately particularly in the translation category, they will commission new titles. The domino effect this action will be of discovering “new” literature in translation and encouraging literary fiction by Indian writers, which for now is dwindling. By making literature available in English and giving it prominence there has to be a positive spin-off especially in terms of increased rights sales across book territories and greater visibility for the authors and translators.

( Pictures used with permission of the JCB Prize for Literature)

3 May 2018 

Interview: Kamila Shamsie on her Bold and Heart-Breaking New Novel, “Home Fire”

My interview with Man Booker Prize 2017 longlisted writer Kamila Shamsie has been published in Bookwitty on 29 August 2017. Here is

Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel Home Fire was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 within days of its release. Home Fire explores the complicated relationship Isma has with her younger twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz. It is also a modern retelling of Antigone in which Isma, whose mother has died, works hard to raise her brother and sister. When they reach adulthood, Isma leaves for the US to study at university while her brother, Parvaiz, who has unfortunately become radicalised in Britain, leaves to join ISIS, following in the footsteps of their jihadist father. Aneeka, meanwhile, is torn between her love for her older sister and her twin. The idea of two sisters where one is conventional, bordering on timid but keeps the home fire burning while the other leaves home and enters the world of men with far reaching consequences has been encapsulated in myths and legends. There is Antigone and her sister Ismene from the Greek myth, and Mary and Martha in the New Testament. The Sophoclean chorus giving a background and a perspective on the “tricky” position British Muslims occupy is provided by the character of a Muslim MP and Home Secretary, Karamat Lone, and his son, Eamonn.

( Updated: Kamila Shamsie won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 on 6 June 2018. Earlier on 3 May 2018 she wrote for the Guardian on “predicting the rise of Sajid Javid“, the newly appointed British Home Secretary.)

Following, are excerpts of an interview with Kamila Shamsie.

Did you start by wanting to re-work Antigone or was it something about contemporary politics that made you think of Antigone as a channel for your novel? Did you have Sophocles’ Antigone in mind or the Antigone myth in general?

The novel came about because Jatinder Verma, who runs the Tara Arts Theatre in London, suggested that I adapt a play for his theatre. He was the one to suggest that Sophocles’ Antigone might work well within a contemporary context. Once I re-read the play, I quickly knew the way the contemporary world could work with that ancient story, and eventually I also knew that I wanted to write it as a novel, not a play. Jatinder was very nice about it.

The impact of politics on individuals recurs in all your novels. Is it possible to pinpoint what triggered the story of Home Fire?

I started to think about it in 2014. At the time, the Islamic State had recently declared their so-called Caliphate, and you were starting to hear stories of young British men going to Syria to join them. So there was that story. But there was also the story of the British government’s response, which was to want to strip those British men of their citizenship. I was interested in both sides of the story – and of what it meant for the family members whose sons and brothers made these terrible choices.

The distress of the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 and its long-lasting impact on subsequent generations has also recurred in your fiction. Has its power faded or increased for you as a means of understanding contemporary politics?

I suppose it depends which bit of contemporary politics I’m looking at. It wasn’t in any way in my mind when I was writing Home Fire—though I did think about the Empire, and what it meant when the colonizers had to accept the colonized as equal citizens within Britain—have they ever really been able to do it?

Immigrants and race identity are critical to you. You have written about these matters in your non-fiction work. What do you hope the impact will be by writing about them in a novel?

I don’t know that race identity is particularly critical to me, actually. I would say structural imbalances of power interest me; sometimes that takes the form of sexism, sometimes racism, sometimes other forms of discrimination.

I don’t write novels with the hope that they’ll have an impact in ‘real life’, I write them to explore things that are of interest to me. I hope they’ll be of interest to other people. Mostly I hope they’ll work as novels.

Yet another recurrent aspect of your novels is twins. Why do you use twins as a literary device?

Well, it’s been seventeen years since one book with twins, Salt and Saffron, and another, Home Fire, so I’m not sure it’s particularly recurrent. Or perhaps I just see the twins functioning so differently in both books that I don’t find much connection between the two. Salt and Saffron was much lighter in tone; the twins in there were part of mythical, fantastical stories or were involved in stories of mistaken identity etc. With Home Fire I used the twinness of Aneeka and Parvaiz both to create a sense of their extreme closeness and their separateness from their elder sister, Isma.

Where did your research for this book take you? What did you regret not being able to incorporate?

Compared to the last couple of books this one felt quite ‘research lite’—a lot of the contemporary politics was already in my head, and much of the book was set in Massachusetts and London, both places I’ve lived in and know. Though I did do some wandering through the Preston Road neighbourhood of London and spoke to people there to help me create the Pasha family. The section that involved the most research was life in Raqqa under the Islamic State, for which I relied on documentaries, news reports, interviews, illustrations etc. that I found online. The research all followed the needs of the novel, in quite a streamlined way, so I don’t think there was anything I wanted to incorporate and didn’t.

John McCormack’s song, Keep the home fires burning, was hugely popular during World War I, why did you choose as the title Home Fire and not Home Fires for your book?

Fire, not Fires, simply because there was both a TV series and another novel already out there with the name Home Fires. But actually, once I’d decided on ‘Fire’ I realized I preferred it because it moved away from the WWI song, and I didn’t want people assuming it was a First World War novel.

The title plays on the two meanings of Home Fire: it can mean welcome and warmth, as in ‘keep the home fires burning’ or it can mean a house on fire. I wanted both those meanings in there since this is a novel that has within it both intimacy/love and conflagration.

The title plays on the two meanings of Home Fire: it can mean welcome and warmth, as in ‘keep the home fires burning’ or it can mean a house on fire. I wanted both those meanings in there since this is a novel that has within it both intimacy/love and conflagration.

In Home Fire you have once again used multiple first person narrators. Why?

I suppose it goes back to that John Berger line: never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.

I’ve long been interested in the different way the same moment or person or idea can look to different people. Here we all are, enclosed in our own minds and personalities but also constantly interacting with each other, trying to understand each other. In Home Fire the ways in which people do and don’t know each other is crucial to the novel. Multiple narrators seemed the best way to explore that.

As a writer, do you think of yourself as belonging to a British, Pakistani or even British Muslim Fiction literary tradition? Or is it a bit of all? If you do think of yourself as belonging to any category does it help you create your fiction or not?

As a writer I think of myself as a writer. It’s the work of critics and academics and people who organize their bookshelves by categories to decide what label to affix to me.

30 August 2017

“Letters to a young Muslim” by Omar Saif Gobash

Omar Saif Gobash is the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia. In addition to his post in Moscow, Ambassador Ghobash sponsors the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation and is a founding trustee of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in collaboration with the Man Booker Prize in London. Ambassador Gobash wrote Letters to a Young Muslim for his two sons.

I write these letters to both of my sons [Saif and Abdullah], and to all young Muslim men and women, with the intention of opening their eyes to some of the questions they are likely to face and the range of possible answers that exist for them. …I want my sons and their generation of Muslims to understand that we live in a world full of difference and diversity. 

Ambassador Gobash has been in this current diplomatic post since January 2009. UAE has a population approaching ten million, with over 180 nationalities represented. The ambassador’s mother was a Russian and descended from Orthodoxy clergyman. Although his wife is from Al Ain in the Emirates and her upbringing was “more uniformly Arab and Muslim” than her husband’s they took the joint decision “that we were not going to let our children be educated to hate”.

The ambassador writes:

Because I speak English, Arabic, Russian and French, and have friends and colleagues in the United States, Europe, Russia, and the Arab world, I have had access to the thinking that takes place within different cultures and political systems. The longer I perform my job, the more I am convinced of the power of ideas, and language, to move the world to a better place. 

One of his most significant testimonies in the book is that ” We need to find a theological and social space and place for the following ideas: doubt, question, inquiry and curiosity”.

Letters to a Young Muslim are an extraordinary set of letters written by a father to his son explaining Islam, modern geo-politics, the growing hatred towards Muslims and explaining the importance of ideas and personal experience and not just reliance on texts interpreted by a few to make the world a better place. The format of writing letters is age-old but has come back in vogue with the powerful award-winning Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Writing in the epistle form gives a sense of intimacy and allows a certain amount of “frankness” which other forms of structured prose may constrict.

It is worth reading.

Omar Saif Gobash Letters to a Young Muslim Picador, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 245 Rs 499

12 March 2017 

 

 

 

Press Release: Jeet Thayil announces a new book with Aleph

aleph-logo

Aleph Book Company is delighted to announce that it will be publishing Jeet Thayil’s new novel, The Book of  Chocolate Saints, in 2017. This book is a follow-up to his celebrated novel Narcopolis which won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2012 and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, the Man Asian Prize and the Commonwealth Prize.

~

jeet-thayil_web_46In incandescent prose, award-winning novelist Jeet Thayil tells the story of Newton Francis Xavier, blocked poet, serial seducer of young women, reformed alcoholic (but only just), philosopher, recluse, all-round wild man, and India’s greatest living painter. At the age of sixty-six, Xavier, who has been living in New York, is getting ready to return to the land of his birth to stage one final show of his work (accompanied by a mad bacchanal). As we accompany Xavier and his partner and muse Goody on their unsteady, and frequently sidetracked, journey from New York to New Delhi, the venue of the final show, we meet a host of memorable characters—journalists, conmen, alcoholics, addicts, artists, poets, whores, society ladies, thugs—and are also given unforgettable (and sometimes unbearable) insights into love, madness, poetry, sex, painting, saints, death, God and the savagery that fuels all great art.

~

Jeet Thayil was born in Mamalasserie, Kerala, and educated in Bombay, Hong Kong and New York. His first novel Narcopolis won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2012 and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, the Man Asian Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. His five poetry collections include Collected Poems, English and These Errors Are Correct, which won the 2013 Sahitya Akademi Award for poetry. He is the editor of 60 Indian Poets and The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets. Jeet Thayil wrote the libretto for Babur in London, which toured Switzerland and the United Kingdom in 2012.

For further information please contact:

Vasundhara Raj Baigra, Director, Marketing and Publicity, Aleph Book Company

Email: vasundhara@alephbookcompany.com

Wyl Menmuir, “The Many”

Timothy has come to resurrect Perran. He has come to destroy Perran’s house, to erase his memory. He’s come because that’s what upcountry folk do, to replace the drudgery of the city with that of the coast. He has come to
save them from themselves, or to hold up a mirror to them and they will see themselves reflected back in all their faults and backwardness. He has come to change them, to impose himself on them, to lead them or to fade into their shadows.

The Many is Wyl Menmuir’s debut novel which has been longlisted for the ManBooker Prize 2016. It is a slim novel based in a fishing village in north Cornwall. It revolves around two men — Ethan and Timothy. Ethan is a local and Timothy Buchannan is from the city. They form an unlikely pair and yet seem to spend a lot of their time together — idling, talking and fishing. They are seemingly bound by the fisherman Perran who had disappeared mysteriously some years earlier — Timothy questioning Perran’s disappearance and Ethan reticent about sharing any information about a man he was close to. In fact it is Perran’s abandoned cottage and its spoilt contents which is bought by Timothy when he visits the village much to the local villagers surprise, distaste and discomfort. There is a sense of despair hovering in the air, with the stench of death literally personified by the wasted fish caught in the polluted waters. There is desperation amongst the villagers in trying to eke out an existence by farming the sea for fresh produce which is rarely forthcoming. Whatever little money is to be made is dependant very heavily on the price set by Clem on behalf of the fishermen. The catch is inevitably sold to a mysterious group of people who stand a little away from the beach fixing a price with Clem. It is never very clear what they intend on doing with the poor catch, probably recycle it for the pharmaceutical industry but it is a paltry income welcomed by the locals since that is all they have access to.ev_wyl_menmuir

While reading The Many there are many thoughts unleashed particularly about the slowly decaying lifestyle of a fishing village, the increasing dominance of city ways and yet the inexplicable power ( and cruelty) of Nature and its complicated relationship with Man. It manifests itself in this novel in many ways particularly in the mysterious fevers that plague Timothy and his hallucinations blurring the line between reality and fiction. Yet when reading the novel it all seems so plausible that it is impossible to query it.

This is a novel that has to be read at one go but one of those rare stories that once you have reached the end you start reading it all over again. There are moments one has to pause and wonder if it is reminiscent of similar writing in the past and then realise it would be unfair to compare The Many to any other writing. Wyl Menmuir’s style is wholly original, it grips one with its exquisitely chiselled style to create a stunningly beautiful and memorable novel much like the Cornish coast is. As with most longlists that put the spotlight on new voices and new styles of writing, the Man Booker judges have been correct in highlighting the debut novel of Wyl Menmuir. Whether he makes it to the shortlist or not is immaterial for now. This is a writer worth looking out for in the future. He is a confident storyteller who is aware of what it takes to be a master craftsman.

The Many is a debut novel with an earthiness to it and yet something so slippery and mysterious, with an almost magical quality to it.

Read it.

Wyl Menmuir The Many Salt Publishing, Norfolk, 2016. Pb. pp. 148 

9 August 2016 

*Book sent by the publisher, Chris Hamilton- Emery

* Images off the Internet

Robert Seethaler, “A Whole Life”

A Whole LifeYou can buy a man’s hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment. That’s the way it is. ( p.37)

Robert Seethaler’s novel A Whole Life is about Andreas Egger, who never grumbled about work and did it diligently through all seasons. He was “considered a cripple, but he was strong”. He was orphaned at two but sent to live with his uncle, farmer Hubert Kranzstocker. At eighteen his uncle threw him out of the house and Andreas began working for Bitterman & Sons construction teams which were setting up cable cars in the mountains. Later he was conscripted during the war, became prisoner of war at a Serbian camp, Voroshilovgrad, for eight years, and returned home to discover the construction firm had gone bankrupt and he earned his living as a tourist guide. There is hardship. There is immense loneliness. There is brutal violence like flogging of the young Andreas Egger by his uncle and breaking his leg earning him the nickname in the village “Gammy Leg”. Despite being a nondescript novel at one level there are moments of pure earthy tenderness such as his proposal to Marie. Adapting the tradition of Sacred Heart Fires — huge fire pictures that were lit on summer solstice, illuminating the mountain by night. He enlisted the help of his co-workers and emblazoned on the Austrian mountainside “For you, Marie”. Unfortunately after her untimely death in an avalanche Andreas Egger remains a widower for the rest of his life.

A Whole Life is a seemingly nondescript novel but comes alive upon second reading with the tiny details embedded in it that illuminate it much like the summer solstice fires emblazoning the rugged mountainside with moments of extraordinary beauty. The deep loneliness of Andreas Egger is enhanced by the story being very masculine not because it is about a male protagonist but for a man who chooses to be a loner and hardly anyone is inquisitive about it.  ( For a woman it would be an entirely different story!) It is no wonder that the slim novella exquisitely translated by Charlotte Collins from German has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016.

A Whole Life is like old gold. It will become a modern classic.

Robert Seethaler A Whole Life Picador, London, 2015. 

( Originally published in German 2014 as Ein ganzes Leben  by Hanser Berlin, an imprint of Carl Hanser Verlag, Berlin.)

15 May 2016

 

‘Jane Austen has mattered more to me than Irish folktales’ : Colm Toibin ( 26 Dec 2015)

Colm Toibin

‘I like the idea of creating a fictional landscape’ PHOTO COURTESY: COLM TÓIBÍN WEBSITE

(I interviewed Colm Toibin for The Hindu. The original url is: http://www.thehindu.com/features/lit-for-life/colm-toibin-in-conversation-with-jaya-bhattacharji-rose/article8026101.ece. It was published online on 26 December 2015 and in print on 27 December 2015.)

Colm Toibin, author and playwright extraordinaire, talks about how his writing is not a conscious decision but comes from some mysterious place.

He is the author of eight novels, including Brooklyn and Nora Webster and two collections of stories, Mothers and Sons and The Empty Family. His play The Testament of Mary was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play in 2013. His novels have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize three times. His non-fiction includes ‘The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe’ and ‘New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers & Their Families.’ He is a Contributing Editor to the London Review of Books, and the Chair of PEN World Voices in New York, and His books have been translated into more than thirty languages. He is the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of Humanities at Columbia University. Toibin will participate at The Hindu Lit for Life 2016 in Chennai. Excerpts from an interview:

 When did you start writing fiction?

I was writing poetry. Then, at 20, I stopped and for a few years wrote nothing except letters home. Then I wrote a few bad short stories. Then when I was about 26, an idea came to me for a novel. Really, from the moment that happened, I was writing fiction.

Did training as a journalist help you as a writer?

Yes, it gave me a relationship to an audience, a sense that work is written to be read, is an act of communication.

Your fiction has strong women characters who lead ordinary lives. But it is the tough choices they make that mark your fiction as remarkable. Is it a conscious decision to create stories around women?

I think it’s 50-50 men-women. Some novels like The Heather Blazing and The Master are written from the point of view of men. I think writers should be able to imagine anything. I was brought up in a house full of women. Writing never comes from a conscious decision, but always from some mysterious place.

Does writing about women with such sensitivity require much research?

I listened a lot to my mother and her sisters and to my own sisters when I was growing up.

An aspect that stands out in your fiction are the constant discussions you seem to be having with Catholicism and the Church, almost as if you are in constant dialogue with God. It comes across exquisitely in the moral dilemma your characters experience. Is this observation true?

I think that might be a bit high-flown. I work with detail and I often let the large questions look after themselves. But it is important not to be banal, so I allow in some images from religion but I try to control them.

The tiny details that enrich your fiction are very similar to oral storytelling. Has the Irish literary tradition of recording and creating a rich repository of its oral folktales in any way influenced your writing?

Not really. I am a reader, so I have a sense of the rich literary tradition that the novel comes from. When I was a teenager, I was not interested in reading any Irish fiction, so I was devouring Hemingway, Kafka, Sartre, Camus, Henry James. I think Jane Austen, with all her irony and structural control, has mattered to me more than Irish folktales. But I like Irish folktales too.

Who was the storyteller at home and from literature who influenced you the most?

All the women talked a lot, but it was not storytelling in any formal sense.

Your fiction at times feels like a meditation on grief exploring the multiple ways in which people mourn. Why?

My father died when I was 12 and I think this has a serious effect on me. I didn’t think about it for years, almost repressed it. So then it began to emerge in the fiction, almost despite me.

Your characters reappear in your stories like Nora in Brooklyn becomes Nora Webster. Is this part of your attempt at creating a literary Wexford landscape or is it at times convenient to work with characters you are already comfortable and familiar with?

I like the idea of creating a fictional landscape that is slowly growing or becoming more complete. Thus in Nora Webster, there are characters from The Heather Blazing, The Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn and some short stories, most notably The Name of the Game.

6 January 2016

Edward St Aubyn “Lost for Words”

Edward St Aubyn “Lost for Words”

Lost for Words‘Sometimes you have to read the judges rather than the books,’ he could imagine himself saying in the long Vanity Fair profile that would one day inevitably be written about him. ( p.222)

‘What we have offered the public is the opinions of five judges who were all asking themselves the same basic question: Which one of these books could be enjoyed by the largest number of ordinary people up and down the country?” ” ( p.251)

Award-winning novel Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn is meant to be a satire on the Man Booker Prize. The story is ostensibly about the five judges selecting books for the Elysian Prize and the process by which the winner is arrived at. As the author points out that the “gentlemanly mist that still lingered over the field of publishing” made it impossible for people within the industry to seek clarifications about a project/book, let alone money. There is the usual bickering and informed decisions and then the subjective off-the-cuff remarks that add up to pick a surprise winner.

Except for a handful of smart observations about the publishing industry which only an insider can divulge, Lost for Words is one of the dullest novels I have read for a long time. It plods along. Never does it seem to trot or even canter tolerably well. The conversations about literature seem to meander with no sparkling wit or analysis; the attempts at creating extracts from different novels in the running for the prize are mediocre with the voices sound very similar; but the icing on the cake is the caricature of the “Indian novelist”, Lakshmi Badanpur or Auntie — it is unsavoury, making you cringe with embarassment.

The last novel based on the publishing industry I particularly liked was David Davidar’s Ithaca. ( http://www.thehindu.com/books/an-insiders-tale/article2503277.ece )

Edward St Aubyn Lost for Words Picador, London, 2014. Hb, pp. 260. Rs. 699