Autumn in London is particularly festive. Leaves go from wet summer green to a russet the way apples do. The ruddiness reflects across centuries of this city’s skyline — horrific at times, but never failing to be hypnotic. Then the stories begin. The imagination is the infinite space for story — the meditation where human emotions, fears and fantasies are unraveled for the listener and reader by the skill of the wordsmith in the body of literature, fairy tale and fiction: ‘it is not so, nor ’twas not so, but indeed, God forbid it be so.’ ( Much Ado About Nothing Act 1 Scene1)
Philip Pullman read from his new release Grimm Tales for Young and Old (Penguin Classics, UK 2012) at Kings Place in north London recently, and was in conversation with Professor John Mullan, who runs the Guardian Book Review Club and hosts a selection of authors. On the south bank of the river, the Man Booker Prize for Literature short-list readings were held at Royal Festival Hall.
While these events were programmed independently by the respective venues, the buzz about the shortlist for the Man Booker was about fresh and new writing that provided a stimulating choice, a challenging one about the choice of winner for the judges. The hub of speculation was alike for readers, literary circles and financial giants among publishers. This year it was about “the power of the prose and re-readability…for books that will be read in decades to come and each time you read them they reveal something different.”
There were many firsts in 2012’s Man Booker. Hilary Mantel is the first writer to win the Man Booker Prize for Literature twice, for a sequel to her prize winner Wolf Hall (2009), in the 44-year-history of this Prize. With Bring up the Bodies (Fourth Estate), her resuscitation of Thomas Cromwell — and with him the historical novel — is one of the great achievements of modern literature.
When I went to the evening of the shortlist readings at the Royal Festival Hall glittering against an autumn sky, the turnout and readings were epoch making: Tan Twang Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon), as precise in its craft of writing as the concept of Japanese gardening,; Swimming Home (And Other Stories/Faber) by Deborah Levy, creating “an uncanny atmosphere; in which the past and the near future co-exist in the present of every sunny day”; Will Self’s Umbrella (Bloomsbury), about a protagonist who is a “a sort of personification of the impact of technology on society over the past century”; Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse (Salt), about a character’s obsession with a woman; and Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis (Faber) a re-creation of a Bombay of the 1970s, which gives the city’s seamless squalor a grit that grafts the lives of so many captured in a serpentine, “hallucinatory” prose.
Apart from 900 of us sitting in the hall, Picture House sponsored live streaming for the first time to selected cinemas across the UK. James Naughtie, host of the “Today” programme every morning on BBC’s Radio 4, presented the writers and their readings, leaving room for Q & A, live and by twitter. Some questions turned the evening to cyber fable — while the discussion on the unintended theme of the works in the shortlist were about “madness” of one sort or the other, across cultures of history, politics, technology and power.
The difference between fairy tale (in the case of Pullman vividly re-imagining Grimms’) and contemporary fiction in the readings from the shortlist define the boundaries clearly. Fairy or (western) folk tales are open to variations, are predictable, have characters who are not psychological, have speed, and punishment and retribution plays a strong part.
Unpredictability plays a stronger role in fiction writing, as do depression and relationships. But as John Mullan remarked about the oral nature of Grimm, so did the shortlisted writers talk about the influence of orality — having stories read from childhood — and reading their prose out loud before committing it to being published. No wonder, then, that even Man Booker’s criteria is about re-readability.
At both events there was rapt attention during the readings, and laughter and cynicism during the discussions. It was heartening to experience, despite cynicism and statistics about poor literacy, that Literature has a huge following and draws cross-generational and cross-gender audiences.