Tag Archives: AS Byatt

Nationalism and Literary Prizes

122 Man Booker 2O14The Man Booker Prize was opened up to all novels written in English for the first time this year. It also opened a can of worms. Journalists began to write as if it were meaningful to refer to national fiction. They warned us that British fiction is not what it used to be. It was suggested that our national honour, or something, is impugned by the American prizewinners. You would have been forgiven for thinking that British fiction is in danger of being taken over, swept aside, overwhelmed. The Yanks are coming!.

Did the Yanks come?

In the event, the new rules for the Man Booker Prize meant that two Americans got to the shortlist of six: Karen Joy Fowler with We are all Completely Beside Ourselves; and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris. The announcement of the shortlist allowed journalists to reassure us about the issue they had raised. Warnings of an American wipeout had been exaggerated. The winner was an Australian, Richard Flanagan with The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

131 Flanagan MBP

Sarah Churchwell was on the panel of judges for the Prize. She made this comment in the Guardian Review, following the announcement of the winner this week:

The Booker Prize has already had more than its share of controversy this year: first over changing the rules to allow any author writing in English to enter, a phrase that has been widely interpreted to mean “Americans”. As an American myself, I don’t find the prospect of Americans joining things especially horrifying. I have always thought nationality a strange eligibility requirement for literary prizes: readers don’t care what passports an author holds. That’s literature’s entire point: it lets us traverse boundaries.

More MB Prize controversies

  1. whether the judges skim read the 156 submitted novels – Sarah Churchwell says they don’t!
  2. the role of the judges to correct the institutional sexism of the publishing industry and of reviewers – is sexism revealed by longlisting only three out of 13 writers (although 2 of the six shortlisted)?

Other Literary Prizes

The revised rules set off journalists’ concerns about other prizes as well. In March George Saunders won the new Folio Prize. Jane Gardam was the only British writer who made the shortlist.

  • Red Doc by Anne Carson (Canada)
  • Schroder by Amity Gaige (America)
  • Last Friends by Jane Gardam (UK)
  • Benediction by Kent Haruf (America)
  • The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner (America)
  • A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Ireland)
  • A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (America)
  • Tenth of December by George Saunders (America)

131 A girl cover105 Baileys Women'sAnd what about the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction? A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, from Ireland, was also shortlisted for this prize, and it won. It’s a very good book. The others came from a reassuringly wide range of female writers:

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)
  • Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Australia)
  • The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (India-America)
  • The Undertaking by Audrey Magee (Ireland)
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (America)

Crisis, what crisis?

AS Byatt was quoted in the fuss about standards in national literature: she was a judge for the Folio Prize and a previous Man Booker Prize Winner herself (Possession), in short a grande dame of British literature. The sub injected urgency into the headline:

IS BRITISH FICTION IN CRISIS? AS Byatt bemoaned the lack of exciting UK authors being published today.

A little further down this piece we were given more detail. The American books, she told us, were ‘inventive and beautifully written. I don’t have the feeling of that kind of energy any more.’ The implication is that the energy is lacking in UK fiction.

Actually AS Byatt is making a point about publishers, and how in the UK publishers are more interested in making money than promoting literature. Who gets published? Who nominates novels for prizes? It’s the publishers. Publishers take note of prizes so they can be very important in a writer’s career. We should note that independent publishers are doing a great deal to promote high quality fiction in the UK.

We might add that one reason for any domination by US writers over British ones in the merry-go-round of prize winning is quite simply down to one fact: there are many more of them. Britain is a tiny country within the English-writing world.

So in conclusion the winners are …

Why should readers care about the nationality of the writer of prizes? We don’t! I’m with Sarah Churchwell, the nationality of the author is irrelevant. Prizes matter to publishers because they make money, and to writers, because the publicity means that more people will buy and read their novels. Readers like me, like prizes because they tell us who the industry, the small world of publishing believe are the best writers. I want to get knowledge about and access to good quality fiction. Prizes help, but they are not the whole story.

 

Do you have any views on the state of British fiction, or nationality in fiction writing? Or literary prizes?

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We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

It’s nearly time for the media go wild about the Man Booker Prize. The shortlist will be announced on 9th September and the winner on 14th October. Already controversy is brewing. There has been gender-talk. Only three books by women were on the longlist of ten:

  • 122 Man Booker 2O14How to be both by Ali Smith
  • The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
  • We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

Only two of the six judges were women.

And there has been discussion about national writing, since the prize was opened this year to all novels published in English. Have we been swamped by American fiction? Is British fiction lacking in energy as AS Byatt a Guardian piece called Is British fiction in crisis? A careful reading of her comments suggests that she was criticizing the publishers for failing to find anything exciting to publish, latching on to successful self-published titles instead. I doubt whether it even meaningful to talk about national fiction? I’m going to leave that discussion for a later post.

122 We are allNow on with my thoughts about one of long-listed book by a female, American writer. I’ll start with a ‘spoiler alert’. There is an important plot element that is not confirmed until a quarter of the way through the novel. I don’t believe it will spoil your enjoyment of the novel if you read on. But I have warned you. Come back later if you prefer!

The Narrator, Rosemary, is a sharp young American, who tells us early on that she has lost both her sister, Fern, and her brother, Lowell. Their disappearance is linked. You don’t learn until p 77 that Fern is a chimpanzee, introduced into the family as part of a psychology experiment in the 1960s. The brother leaves to join animal right demonstrators. The FBI are looking for him.

While Fern is with them (about 5 years) Rosemary and her family are subject to observation, to the presence of grad students, to theorising, to comparisons (as Fern and Rosemary are the same age). But when Fern is sent away Rosemary learns to keep quiet about all that, especially as her mother more or less has a nervous breakdown.

As soon as she learned to talk Rose never shut up. People always said to her to talk less. But through the family events she has learned to hide anything of significance. Here is the paragraph after Rose, now 15 years old, has heard where Fern went, for the first time in nearly ten years.

At dinner, I adopted my usual strategy of saying nothing. The spoken word converts individual knowledge into mutual knowledge, and there is no way back after you have gone over that cliff. Saying nothing was more amendable, and over time I’d come to see that it was usually your best course of action. I’d come to silence hard, but at fifteen I was a true believer. (p126)

Photo: Chimp at Los Angeles zoo, by Aaron Logan - from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/Animals/chimp

Photo: Chimp at Los Angeles zoo, by Aaron Logan – from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/Animals/chimp

The action picks up when Rose goes to university in Davis, California, where her brother was last seen. She learns that Fern has been kept in a cage since she left them, and has grieved as much as she has because she was not able to integrate well with other chimps.

The action of the novel follows Rose as she gradually she makes some kind of sense and accommodation to all this family stuff. It provides an interesting exploration of the nature of animal and human-animal communication, and of human-human communication. You can be subjected to a battery of tests but miss the point, about the importance of love for another.

The voice of the narrator is feisty, clever, self-deprecating, like Bee in Where’d you go, Bernadette? (Maria Semple). Some of the scenes are hilarious (such as the mayhem in the cafeteria in the first chapter) and some of the characters are filmic (Ezra, the apartment block manager with aspirations, like the janitor from Scrubs, and Harlow who spreads chaos everywhere). But much of the wiseacre script is designed to reveal the heart of this book at a slow pace, and to show the reader that Rose is a girl who is struggling with facing the truth.

Here’s an example of Karen Joy Fowler’s style in the novel. Rose’s suitcase went missing on her flight from back from her parents’ home in Indiana. The airline delivers the wrong one. It’s all part of the complicated plot, because the suitcase contains … well never mind.

I was just about to call the airlines yet again, demand that they produce my real suitcase and take the pretender away, when Harlow showed up with a different idea. Harlow’s different idea was to pick the lock on the suitcase we did have, open it, and see what was inside. We would not take the stuff. That went without saying. But it was inconceivable to her that we’d return the case without even looking. Who knew what a strange case from Indiana (assuming it had come from Indiana) might contain. Gold Doubloons. A heroin-stuffed doll. Polaroids of some Midwestern city council in flagrante. Apple butter.

Wasn’t I curious? Where was my sense of adventure? (p 142)

In this passage we can see how Harlow and Rose are such different characters, and how Rose’s caution contrasts with Harlow’s rashness. You can hear the conversation between them as they consider the possibilities of the suitcase. And you see that despite her dangerous attitude, Harlow is on the side of the good people. And you can enjoy the list of possible contents. And what is revealed is even more imaginative, and you will have to read the book to find out what it is, and the part it plays. (You see how I have picked up the habit of hiding things from Rose?)

122 JA Book ClubI was surprised to learn that Karen Joy Fowler also wrote The Jane Austen Book Club. That was a clever book, a fun and creative spin-off for ‘Janites’, which I enjoyed. We are all completely beside ourselves is on a different level. I found myself admiring the research undertaken, (not just into primate material, but also about the context in which those experiments took place) as well as the development of the plot and the characters.

You can find an interview with Karen Joy Fowler on the Man Booker Prize 2014 website.

Have you read this? What were your reactions? Do you think it should be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize? Please comment below.

We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (2013) published by Serpent’s Tail; Longlisted for Man Booker Prize 2014; Winner of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

 

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The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

This is an unusual book – in its subject matter and in its structure. In her introduction to the Vintage edition, AS Byatt reports that she had read it several times, and not always with appreciation. But for a discriminating reader she suggests ‘that it is one of those books that grow in the mind, in time’.

103 House in P coverThe story is told in three parts, framed in a single day. Part One is set in ‘the present’ (ie 1930s) in the house in Paris, where two children have been brought together because Henrietta (11) is on her way from London to stay with her Grandmother in France and is being cared for by Miss Fisher. Coincidentally, Leopold (9) has arrived on the same day from Italy and is anticipating meeting his mother, Karen, whom he has never known. She fails to turn up.

The second part recounts the story, in the past, about ten years before, of Karen and her affair with Leopold’s father. This part of the story takes us to Cork, London and the towns of the English Channel. We find how Miss Fisher and her irascible mother are involved.

Finally in Part Three we return to the house in Paris, later in the same day, and Mme Fisher’s revelations about Leopold’s past and follow what happens to the two children as they prepare leave the house. Mysteries are revealed and the actions of the adults explored so that by the end of the novel both children are able to move on to the subsequent phases of their lives, although little has actually happened.

53 EBI found Elizabeth Bowen’s portrayal of the two children especially successful. These two are affected by their expectations of the adults, but at a level that the adults do not always see. The relationship between the children is revealed with all the awkwardnesses, probing, sympathies, quarrels of two children thrown together. They are both innocent of much about the adult world, especially sexual behaviour, but both sense it, especially Henrietta and are trying to understand the consequences of adults’ behaviour. Here is the description of Leopold adjusting to his mother’s refusal to meet him.

His eyes darkened, their pupils expanding. Yes, his mother refused to come; she would not lend herself to him. He had cast her, but she refused her part. She was not, then, the creature of thought. Her will, her act, her thought spoke in the telegram. Her refusal became her, became her coming in suddenly, breaking down, by this one act of being herself only, his imagination in which he had bound her up. So she lived outside himself; she was alive truly. She set up that opposition that is love. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I shall see her some other day.’ (p201-2)

The three-part structure seems designed to get the reader to re-examine her understanding of the previous sections. Karen, in the middle part, is the key character and we follow her through the expectation of marriage, a short visit to an uncle and aunt, and then her relationship with Max. We find that she was a close friend of Miss Fisher. Coming to this second section after the tensions of Leopold’s vivid beliefs about his mother and subsequent disappointment means a reassessment of the characters in the first part. Elizabeth Bowen seems to be saying, look again, now you have this knowledge. It’s an interesting device for a novel, and Elizabeth Bowen uses it with great assurance.

The complexity of her prose, noted in my reviews of The Heat of the Day, The Last September and The Hotel, also makes you read carefully, and takes you into the psychology of her characters.

There is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone.

… Henrietta turned down her eyes, smoothed her dress on her knees and remarked with the utmost primness: ‘You must be very glad: no wonder you are excited. I am excited, going to Mentone.’ Then swinging her feet to the ground, she left the sofa and walked to the radiator, above which she spread her hands. Glancing aloofly to see if her nails were clean, she seemed to become unconscious of Leopold. Then she strolled across to examine a vase of crepe paper roses on the consol table behind Charles’s chair. Peering behind the roses, she found that they were tied on with wire to sprigs of box. She glanced across at the clock, smothered a yawn politely and said aloud to herself: ‘Only twenty-five past ten.’ Her sex provided these gestures, showing how bored she got with someone else’s insistence on his own personality. Her dread of Leopold gave way to annoyance. Already she never met anyone without immediately wanting to rivet their thought on herself, and with this end in view looked forward to being grown up. (p18-9)

I found the relationship between Karen and Miss Fisher the least convincing aspect of the book. Well, not their friendship, but its survival of Karen’s affair, the role of the interfering Mme Fisher and the death of Max.

103 EBTwo things about the subject matter made an impression on me. The first is the easy way in which people of Karen, Henrietta and Leopold’s class moved about Europe during the inter-war years. Transposed to the present day, perhaps involving the Eurotunnel, this story would not seem surprising. Maybe I am just influenced by the current anti-Europe political rhetoric, but it is worth remembering that ties with the continent have been strong for some time strong, and this is reflected in much literature of the time: in much of Henry James and Edith Wharton, for example.

And the second thing is Elizabeth Bowen’s frank exploration of sexual mores at the time. Some of it is highly wrought. Here’s the moment when we understand that Karen and Max (both engaged to other people) will mean more to each other.

‘We’ll bring the tray in when we go.’

But they both sat back, her hand lying near his. Max put his hand on Karen’s, pressing it into the grass. Their unexploring, consenting touch lasted; they did not look at each other or at their hands. When their hands had drawn slowly apart, they both watched the flattened grass beginning to spring up again, blade by blade. (p119-20)

The House in Paris is a feast for a discerning reader, of the novelist’s art, of the insights into the behaviour of young people and of children.

Here are some links to Blog reviews:

There is an excellent and thoughtful review by Booksnob.

And another by EmilyBooks, who calls it a tour de force.

And yet another by Girl with her Head in a Book.

GHave you read The House in Paris? Have you anything to add?

 

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