The Booker McConnell Prize was a belated arrival on the world lit scene. It was founded in 1969, sixty-six years after the first Prix Goncourt and fifty-two after the first Pulitzer. Booker McConnell, a U.K. food conglomerate, had a sideline interest in books. In the hopes that a prize might boost consumer interest, they ponied up the cash for the largest prize at the time. When The Guardian made the announcement, W.L. Webb (both The Guardian literary editor and the selection committee’s chairman) sent a telegram from Czechoslovakia in the throes of the Prague Spring: “Booker Prize is notable sign that Britain too is learning to value the writer and his work more hugely. With you soon Brezhnev willing.”
Since then, the Booker shortlist and the eventual winners have been decried for being too populist, too elitist, too imperialist, too predictable. The prize is announced on television each year, and each year, the closed-door politicking, arm-twisting, and neck-wringing leading up to the ceremony have been more indelible than most of the novels under consideration. Next year, the prize is expanding to consider any book published in English, dragging us all into the fracas.
Edward St. Aubyn’s new novel, Lost for Words, is a briskly readable satire on the annual circus. St. Aubyn has incorporated thinly veiled representations of past scandals, like Anthony Burgess demanding to know if his novel had won before he would commit to attending the event. The novel features a gallery of bumbling publishers, egomaniacal critics, emotionally-stunted authors. They are all angling for the Elysian Prize — the British literary world’s laurus nobilis, the evergreen plant associated with public validation — even if they don’t have much hope for literary immortality. In picking out the gossip from the freely invented, I found myself drawn further into the Booker’s long, ignoble history.
The first winner was P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For, a Greene-influenced metafictional novel set during the Suez Crisis. The novel’s protagonist, Townrow, is hit on the head early in the novel. After being drawn into a web of international espionage, he has a difficult time grasping reality. “The old girl kept writing and complaining about the police,” the novel opens. “It was enough to start Townrow on a sequence of dreams.”
When Newby won, there was no televised ceremony. Newby received notification by mail. The book has fallen out of print, though Sam Jordison and other readers have suggested it’s an unjustly overlooked gem.
St. Aubyn is renowned for the Patrick Melrose books, a five-volume exploration of privilege and menace. In his new novel, we get a St. Aubyn avatar in Sam Black, a writer who has shelved his ambitious first novel to write a harrowing autobiographical novel, The Frozen Torrent, that is shortlisted for the prize. He hopes that success will vault him beyond mining his own personal trauma again and “win his freedom from the tyranny of pain-based art.”
The other hapless candidates on the Elysian Prize shortlist are wot u starin at, a work of slumsploitation set in squalid public estates; The Greasy Pole, a political novel promoted by the chairman for his personal advantage; All The World’s A Stage, a historical novel set on the Elizabethan stage; and The Palace Cookbook. The last book is written by an unassuming Indian aristocrat who is baffled when her modest collection of traditional Indian recipes is mistaken for a post-modern novel. That plot point is one of the weakest in Lost for Words. It’s a move that belongs more to 1996 — the year Alan Sokal “punked” the post-modern academic journal Social Text with a nonsense article — than 2013.
St. Aubyn relishes writing pastiches of faux-literary trash. There are parodies of sub-Fleming thrillers, “risque” urban-dialect writing, and Continental philosophy. Possibly the funniest writing in the novel are the excerpts of All the World’s A Stage:
Before William [Shakespeare] could respond to this amazing tale of murder most foul, strange, and unnatural, John [Webster] rose up in his chair, in a state of great excitation, and pointed through the window.
“All eyes! All eyes! My lord of Essex comes hard upon us with a great retinue of men. How finely caparisoned they are, and point device in their accoutrement.”
The Booker McConnell Prize of 1972 was awarded to John Berger’s G., a novel of ideas about an Italian-American living on an English farm and lusting after a governess. “All generalizations are opposed to sex,” the narrator says. “Every feature that makes her desirable asserts its contingency — here, here, here, here, here, here. That is the only poem to be written about sex — here, here, here, here — now.”
When given the floor at the Booker ceremony, Berger critiqued the crass publicity stunts surrounding the prize, and then predictably praised the selection committee’s taste and good judgment, before finally excoriating its corporate sponsor.
“Yet one does not have to be a novelist seeking very subtle connections to trace the five thousand pounds of this prize back to the economic activities from which they came,” Berger said. “Booker-McConnell have had extensive trading interests in the Caribbean for over 130 years. The modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation. One of the consequences of this Caribbean poverty is that hundreds of thousands of West Indians have been forced to come to Britain as migrant workers. Thus my book about migrant workers would be financed from the profits made directly out of them or their relatives and ancestors.”
Literary prizes ought to offer the kind of validation that alleviates a writer’s anxiety. There’s evidence laurus nobilis only gives those fears and insecurities a wider ambit. Even after winning the Booker Prize, and having a long career of brisk sales, Newby confessed that he worried that only old women read his books.
St. Aubyn’s insight into the writer’s psyche are well-deployed in Lost for Words. The novelist-character Sam Black wonders if writing is only an “ingenious decoy, drawing attention away from his own decaying body towards a potentially immaculate body of work. He named this deflection the ‘Hephaestus complex,’ as if it had always been part of the annals of psychoanalysis.”
Another character, Sonny, is in London to pitch his tastelessly nostalgic novel about his family of Indian aristocrats. The novel is described as something like Downton Abbey in India — as a publisher-character suggests, it has “a wearisome emphasis on the insults dealt by modernity to the glory of the princely states, and without any hint of relief from his cloying self-regard.” He also is nephew to The Palace Cookbook author and has the second indignity of watching her absurd success from close proximity. Sonny’s grasping and unknowing talentlessness is a genuine fear stalking the writer’s psyche.
In 1981, John Banville published a public letter to the Booker foundation after being announced as a runner-up to the shortlist. “The five hard-pressed judges should forget about shortlists and secret conclaves and so on,” he wrote, “and instead forthwith award the prize to me.” Then, he claimed that he would spend the money on buying copies of all the novels on the longlist and donating them to libraries, ensuring wryly that they might be read, “surely a unique occurrence,” in his wording.
Salman Rushdie won that year for Midnight’s Children, which would go on to win the oddly-named Booker of Bookers in 1993, on the 25th anniversary of the prize, and the Best of the Booker, on the 40th anniversary of the prize.
When Banville won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea, he said in his acceptance speech, “It is nice to see a work of art win the Booker Prize.”
In Lost for Words, the Elysian Prize committee is chaired by Malcolm Craig, a recently-disgraced MP, who takes a swipe at the “Imperial ash heap of the Commonwealth” while accepting the position. The rest of the committee includes Malcolm’s ex-girlfriend, a popular writer named Penny Feathers, and a blogger, Jo Cross, who is “fiercely loyal” to her blog subscribers. The panel is filled out by the requisite Oxbridge academic, Vanessa Shaw, and Tobias Benedict, a vacuous actor featured in a hip-hop version of Waiting for Godot.
Malcolm opens the first meeting by talking about the social responsibility involved in awarding the prize. “It’s of paramount importance that the money goes to someone who really needs it,” he says. To which, the blogger adds, “no pseuds and no aristos.”
The Oxbridge professor provokes him by name-dropping Nabokov and Proust, as talented aristocrats, but she sabotages herself by sinking into pedantic diatribes on “the true nature of literature.”
St. Aubyn gives the members conventional flaws: they are easily flattered and easily wounded, and animated by an unfocused belligerence. The blogger says, “The vested interests are certainly not going to thank us. And all I can say is that if they want a fight, we’re ready for them.”
The satire in these passages goes broad and lifeless, and the execution is predictable. St. Aubyn, it goes without saying, is said to have nursed a grudge about not winning for any of the Melrose novels, and his rancor is unfulfilled and directionless when he takes aim at the committee.
These passages also have the air of wish-fulfillment, as if the author were indulging is his most self-serving judgments of panelists. They are incapable of searching critique and indifferent to books generally. By setting up such easy targets, St. Aubyn is dragging his net in the shallows.
In 2002, the website of the Man Booker Prize (renamed that year) announced Yann Martel’s Life of Pi as the winner. The chair of the Booker committee, Lisa Jardine, claimed that the book “would make you believe in God.”
“My suffering left me sad and gloomy,” the novel begins, prompting me to ask: what kind of suffering leaves one happy and exuberant? The question goes unanswered.
Unfortunately, the prize announcement was posted a full week before the televised ceremony, while William Hill plc and other bookmakers were still taking bets on the winner.
St. Aubyn points out in Lost for Words something worth remembering: even in the middle of the frenzy, while the judges are weighing “relevance” and “readability” of the nominees, the serious authors are finding refuge in the writing of sentences.
After being shortlisted, Sam Black is working out whether he should be excited, or how excited he should be, or what his responsibility to the non-shortlisted are. He thinks:
Hubris was bad, but insincere anti-hubris was no better. In the middle of the day, a word like “humility” would present itself, like a sunlit colonnade in all its elegance and simplicity, but by the middle of the night it was transformed into a sinister ruin, with a murderer concealed behind every column.
He compulsively writes down the line for use in a future book. It is enough, we hope, to start him on a sequence of dreams.
On September 13, Manhattan’s august Morgan Library launched Bookermania, a show dedicated to 45 years of the Man Booker Prize. For those curious about the story behind the headline-hogging award, and the company that this year’s winner Eleanor Catton has just joined, this jewel-box exhibit showcases the prize that ignited the careers of writers from V.S. Naipaul to D.B.C. Pierre, and helped shape the canon of postcolonial literature. A shallow shelf running around the wall displays first editions of prizewinning and shortlisted novels, from P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For in 1969 to Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies in 2012. It’s an impressive collection, with more classics and fewer obscurities than the odds might suggest. According to curator Sheelagh Bevan, the display is designed to celebrate the physical book and the importance of cover design, while at the same time showing off what everyone comes to the Booker to find: intellectual battles, backstabbing, and bitchery.
The Morgan’s archive, drawn from its acquisition of literary agent Peter Straus’s vast collection, contains some 4,000 items. The selection on display — of correspondence, notebooks, annotated proofs, and newspaper clippings — testifies to the argumentative journey toward choosing each year’s winner, and demonstrates the outsize cultural impact the prize has had since its creation. Controversy has been built into the Booker since it began. The prize’s initial sponsor was Booker McConnell, described by The Guardian in 1968 as “an international company dealing in sugar, rum, mining machinery and James Bond.” The company had been booted out of the former British Guiana when the country declared independence, and established the prize in part to raise its profile and reputation in the U.K. This strategy backfired early, when the 1972 prize-winner John Berger used his acceptance speech to attack the company’s long and dirty trading history, stating that “the modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation,” and promising to donate half his winnings to the London arm of the Black Panthers.
However, the Booker organizers were savvy enough to realize that such public shaming could only draw attention to the prize. Its innovation of releasing a shortlist several weeks before the winner was announced was designed to stimulate both comment and commerce — in 1980, with two of its authors on the shortlist, Penguin was the first publisher to rush out paperback editions flagged in bright orange as nominees. The transparency of revealing the shortlist (and since 2001, the longlist) has made Booker-watching and Booker-bashing into British national sports, and some of its decisions seem designed to bait the press, such as including celebrities, like Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey and celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, on the judging panels. The latest outcry is over the new rules allowing U.S. entrants, which writers including Julian Barnes have warned will skew the results, thanks to British “cultural cringe” in the face of American blockbusters.
What makes Booker controversies more compelling than other instances of literary sour grapes is that the fiercest and most colorful criticism often comes from judges and board members, not just shunned novelists. In 2001, judge A.L. Kennedy complained that the award was based on “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is.” Unfortunately the notes from judges’ meetings are embargoed for 20 years, so the Morgan can’t reveal London’s current literary drug-dealers and bed-hoppers. On the flip side, there is also evidence here of judicial high-mindedness. In a letter from 2005, when his novel The Sea won the award, John Banville thanks judge John Sutherland for his “quintessentially English sense of fair play” — Sutherland had gone to bat for The Sea even though earlier that year, the two had publicly tangled over Banville’s demolition of Ian McEwan’s Saturday in The New York Review of Books.
Booker criticism fluctuates between charges of elitism and denunciations of populism. In 2011, the judges were attacked for looking for “readability,” and the next year, the shortlist looked far more experimental—although the prize went to the (relatively) readable Mantel. The prize guidelines call for a “full-length novel,” but what that means is up to the judges: this year, Colm Tóibín’s 104-page The Testament of Mary is the shortest work ever nominated. By operating no other categories, the Booker places particular pressure on the novel genre, and has long had an uneasy relationship with history and memoir. J.G. Ballard’s chance of winning in 1984 for his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun was torpedoed, ironically, for alleged factual inaccuracies, while Thomas Keneally, who had won for Schindler’s Ark two years, originally signed a non-fiction contract for the book.
Since the early ’70s, U.K. bookmakers have published odds on the winners, and as The Atlantic recently reported, Graham Sharpe, the head of Britain’s biggest bookie William Hill, is regularly consulted for his opinion on the winners’ chances. He had no clear favorite this year, and told the BBC that this was “one of the most competitive shortlists for years.” But now the fun is over for another year, fans of literary feuds and rivalries can get their fix at the Morgan — at least until the National Book Award shortlist comes out.
“Bookermania” is at the Morgan Library and Museum from September 13 to January 5, 2014.
I began my literary life as a fanboy of Dave Barry, so in some ways it makes sense, I suppose, that around my 25th birthday I picked up The Best of Myles. The book collects the Irish Times columns of the novelist Flann O’Brien, who depicts the absurd minutiae of mid-century life in Dublin. Included amongst its nuclear riffs are dialogues with the Plain People of Ireland, who plainly (and reliably) disapprove; a report on a gang of rogue ventriloquists who terrorize people at operas; and a breathless description of a purplish liquid, “the opposite of drink,” that gives the imbiber a “hangunder.” Ever since the beginning of the holidays, I’ve been sad that last one is fiction.
In part because O’Brien’s work is nothing if not irreverent, it’s funny that it led me to pick up John Banville’s novel The Sea. The novel, which won the Man Booker prize in 2005, orbits around the depression of an elderly widower named Max. Unsure of what to do in the wake of his wife’s death from cancer, Max decamps for a little chateau on the coast near his childhood home. At the chateau, he remembers the Graces, a family who stayed there when he was young. He recounts in unflinching detail his shock at their confidence and verve. To a child like Max, the Graces, who appear more hale than any family should appear, inevitably call up comparisons to the gods of Greek mythology. His memories conjure up awful parallels between his wife and the young Chloe Grace. As always when I read Banville, I couldn’t believe his deftness — how easily, for example, he rolls off a pun; how well he understands the nuance of Latinate terminology; how aptly, above all, that he paints fate as a wolf at the door. When I got to the ending, I thought it was easily the sharpest I’d read in years. My views haven’t changed.
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My relationship with John Banville is a strange and unnatural one. In some odd sense I can’t quite identify, I often think that it might even be an unseemly one. A few months back, I finished a Ph.D., having written my thesis on Banville’s fiction. It took me about four years to complete, which means that over that period—at a rough calculation along the lines of a 42 hour working week and a 50 week working year—I spent something in the region of 8,400 hours engaged in activities that were directly Banville-related. 8,400 hours: that’s basically the equivalent of an entire calendar year spent reading his novels, thinking about them, reading and thinking about other academics’ opinions of them, formulating my own opinions, and thinking of clever things to write based on them. There’s nothing remarkable, of course, about a person spending a non-trivial portion of his or her life writing a doctoral thesis about the work of a single writer (university English departments are full of such misfits) but it is presumably fairly unusual for a person to spend four years writing a doctoral thesis on the work of someone who is not only still living and writing, but doing so within a couple of minutes’ walk from where that thesis is being written.
Dublin is a fairly small city. While I was working on my thesis in Trinity College, it wasn’t unusual for me to leave the library to go for a sandwich somewhere and to pass Banville on the street. It happened more than once that I would be having lunch and he would enter the restaurant and sit down a couple of tables away, or walk past the window with his fedora, his large and quaintly flamboyant scarf, and his mysterious canvas carrier bag. (Containing what? Groceries? Surely not. Books, most likely, but then why would Banville be carrying around books? Where would he be taking them, and to whom?) When this happened, I would usually nod casually and discretely in his direction and say to my lunch companion something like “there goes the boss man,” or “there’s the gaffer now.” It amused me, for some reason, to think of myself as a low-level functionary, labouring away obscurely for years, scrutinizing texts and producing a complex 100,000 word response unlikely to be read by more than a tiny handful of specialists, as though this were a service for which I had been engaged by an eminent and enigmatic novelist.
I had also convinced myself that it amused me to be utterly unknown to Banville, and yet to be spending my working days doing nothing but thinking about his novels. But I’m not sure it really did amuse me. I think it felt a little indecorous; even, perhaps, a little shameful. I sometimes joked about feeling a bit like a stalker, but I wasn’t always entirely sure that I was joking.
It wouldn’t have felt so strange to be writing a thesis about the work of Bellow or Dickinson or Joyce or Woolf, because these are no longer men and women, as such, but historical figures, Great Writers, bodies of work to be read and thought about and, if you’re so inclined, interpreted. Even, as we say in the lit-crit racket, “working on” a living writer like, say, Toni Morrison or Don DeLillo would not carry with it this faint but indelible stain of unseemliness, because these people are remote, semi-legendary figures, securely encased in their reputations and, more importantly, their foreignness. Even if I lived in Manhattan and were writing a thesis on Thomas Pynchon, I would be unlikely to find myself standing behind him in the queue for the ATM (and even if I did, it is highly unlikely that I would realize it).
But while I was working on him, Banville was everywhere. My period of postgraduate research coincided with his ascension to a level of fame and visibility he hadn’t previously inhabited (not long before I started writing my thesis, he won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sea). He was giving readings from as-yet-unpublished novels across the square from the library where I was writing about his published ones. He was curating exhibitions of eighteenth century etchings in galleries on the other side of town. He was getting into public squabbles with crime novelists for writing a highly successful series of mysteries under a pseudonym and bragging about how easy he found it (Banville has always seemed to enjoy mixing it up). At one point, presumably undergoing a particularly severe bout of inter-project restiveness, he was even embroiled in a weirdly out-of-character controversy over vivisection at the School of Medicine at Trinity. The spat became a minor news story, culminating in J.M. Coetzee’s weighing in on his behalf in the letters pages of The Irish Times, and involved his taking part in a small but vocal protest by animal rights campaigners outside the college, which I had to pass one day on my way to the library. Surely Richard Ellmann never had to pass Joyce on a picket line; surely Boswell was never called a scab by Dr. Johnson? (Nobody called me a scab, I should clarify—and neither am I seriously comparing myself to Boswell or Ellmann, or Banville to Johnson or Joyce—but the image is an amusing one, so I’ll let it stand).
For four years, the question I was inevitably asked by anyone who happened to express an interest in what I was doing with my life was this one: “Have you met Banville yet?” It’s a question I got slicker at answering the more I was asked it, until it became a sort of automated response. It was always some minor variation on the following basic template: “No,” I would say, “I haven’t. In fact, I’ve sort of been avoiding him. I’ve been in the same room as him quite a few times, at readings and that kind of thing. I’ve passed him on the street Christ knows how many times—Dublin is a small town, after all—but I’ve never felt inclined to speak to him, to introduce myself. To be honest, I don’t think it would do me or my work any good. I don’t think a critic should have too close a relationship with the writer he’s writing about, or better still any relationship at all. Why would Banville’s opinion of my opinion about his work have any bearing on those opinions, when you think about it? It’s not about what he thinks of me, it’s about what I think of him. Interviewing him would just compromise the integrity of my work.”
This last phrase I always delivered in an ironic, jocular staccato, as though acknowledging the pretentiousness of such a notion, as though highlighting the absurdity of the idea of my work having anything like integrity (I have this highly irritating habit of being dismissive of my own endeavours, and then immediately feeling as though I’ve slighted myself unforgivably). Like a lot of things we say to people, I suppose I both believed this and disbelieved it at the same time. Ambivalence was always the dominant affect of my thesis-writing years.
Behind the jokes about stalking Banville lay a real discomfort with the fact that I was spending so much time thinking about him and writing about him—or thinking about his fiction, at least, which may or may not amount to the same thing. He is, I think, a fascinating novelist, and among the more important presences in contemporary literature, and so it makes perfect sense for there to be a considered academic response to his work (there’s loads of it, by the way, which, given his stature and his prolificacy and the finely-textured allusiveness of his writing, isn’t surprising). It also makes sense that I, as a scholar in the early stages of my career, should choose Banville as the subject of my apprentice work, because I am provoked and perplexed by it in intellectually productive ways and, even now, after all the time I’ve spent with it, still derive real pleasure from reading it. He is, I think, a great writer, and may even turn out to be a Great Writer. But he is also just a guy, and this is something that his physical proximity to me—the fact that I kept passing him on the street—made very difficult to ignore. I often asked myself what it might feel like to know that, somewhere in your city, a person with whom you are entirely unacquainted is spending his days writing a psychoanalytic examination of your life’s work. I was eking out an existence for myself—you couldn’t quite call it a living—through government-funded scholarships that were contingent upon the value to society, however hypothetical, of my interpretation of Banville’s fiction. I did occasionally have an unpleasant image of myself as a parasite living off a large animal who was innocent of my unobtrusively, harmlessly blood-sucking presence. You can have a certain image of yourself and then reject it, but you’ve still had that image: it has come from somewhere. I would have been a lot less uncomfortable had I been working on someone who was dead. (The morticianary insinuations of that sentence were not intended, but they are discomfitingly apt. It is only now, in fact—as in right this second—that I finally fully get Banville’s biographer-as-embalmer joke in The Newton Letter.)
Strangely, when I did finally end up sitting down and having a conversation with him just a couple of months ago, his first reaction to my telling him that I had written my thesis on his work was to apologize for not being dead. I laughed, but made no comment on the spooky perceptiveness of his joke.
“You must absolutely despise me,” he said. I told him—truthfully—that I had somehow managed not to. What I didn’t tell him was that he had often, indirectly at least, given me occasion to despise myself. The awkward ambivalence of my psychological relationship with him, though, was not something I thought it wise to bring up over mini salmon vol-au-vents and room temperature white wine. I had not planned the meeting; in fact, I had had no idea that it would be happening until a couple of hours beforehand. I had received an email from my former Ph.D. supervisor, who had himself just received an email requesting, as a matter of extreme urgency, that someone—anyone—volunteer themselves to conduct a public interview with Banville that evening in a lecture hall in University College Dublin. He was due to receive an honorary lifetime membership of the university’s Law Society that evening, and whoever had initially been scheduled to handle the interview aspect of the proceedings had to cancel at the last minute, and they were now desperately looking for someone who could pull it off at short notice. I wasn’t sure that I was necessarily their guy but, deliberately denying myself any time to think about it, I rang the number anyway, and two hours later I was sitting in the UCD staff bar with the boss man, making small talk. (Against all reasonable expectations, Banville is really very good at small talk.)
While acknowledging that he would be unlikely to conceive of it in the same way, I had always imagined our eventual meeting would be a kind of lower-intensity literary version of that café sit-down scene in Michael Mann’s Heat, in which Pacino and De Niro appear on screen together for the first time. (In moments of greater clarity I understood that, at best, it would be an episode of Inside The Actor’s Studio, with me as a less polished and fulsome James Lipton). The way it panned out, though, not even I could fool myself into sensing any kind of frisson of tension or significance. Banville appeared not to have any particular interest in the topic of my thesis—or at least if he did, he managed not to betray it by asking me any questions on the matter. I was both slightly disappointed and slightly relieved by this. The thesis was entitled “Narcissism in the Fiction of John Banville”, and so there was always the slight but non-negligible possibility that he might understand the whole project to be a long-winded and tortuous accusation of self-obsession and vanity on his part. Even if he didn’t take it personally, there was a chance—far less slight and non-negligible—that he would consider the whole approach facile or wrong-headed or obtuse or in some other way completely beside the point. I had absolute confidence in my work, but—as paradoxical as this might sound (and probably is)—less than absolute confidence in my ability to maintain that confidence in the face of any degree of criticism or dismissal from of its subject. Now that I think about it, it’s likely that Banville had similar reasons for not asking me about it.
Apropos the issue of my spending (give or take) four years reading, thinking about and writing about his writing, he mentioned having interviewed Salman Rushdie for the New York Review of Books in about 1993, at the very height of the fatwa. He spent two full days transcribing their taped conversations. By the time he had finished, he said, he was consumed by an intense hatred of both Rushdie and himself. So he could, he assured me, imagine how I must feel about him after four years.
I chuckled drily and, I hoped, urbanely. It struck me that having a conversation with the man amounted to having Banville on tap. All I had to do was make a comment or ask a question and, as though I’d popped a coin in a vending machine, it would provoke an emanation from the same source that produced The Book of Evidence, Doctor Copernicus and Shroud. I felt an unaccountable, giddy compulsion to start pointing to things and people and demanding that he describe them. How would you characterize the taste of these vol-au-vents, Mr Banville?; or See that elderly man over there at the bar? Let’s have an adjective for him; or What would you say if I asked you to describe this wine? This was, after all, someone who has described the taste of gin more frequently and more variously and more vividly than probably any other novelist in history—gin, with its “silver-sweet fumes” (Eclipse), and its “cold and insidious and subtly discomposing” taste with “the faintest tinct of paraffin-blue in its depths” (The Infinities).
At this point the undergraduate from the university’s Law Society who had introduced us—and who seemed to be the main organizer of the event—had excused himself to go and check on the turnout in the lecture hall. Banville had just finished his own wine and was wondering aloud, presumably rhetorically, whether he might get away with swiping the untouched glass the Law Society guy had left behind. I gave him my blessing, though he seemed not to require it.
A large grey-bearded man with a German accent sidled up to our table and shook hands with Banville. He congratulated him on what he called his “apotheosis”—presumably he meant the lifetime membership of the Law Society—and handed over a pile of about five or six first editions and foreign translations, which Banville dutifully signed. (The man offered him a biro, but he declined, withdrawing from an inner pocket of his jacket a gracefully gold-trimmed Mont Blanc. This glamorous implement now unsheathed, the mere idea of Banville ever writing with anything else was instantly relegated to the category of the preposterous.) I thought how strange it was that the man had used this word, “apotheosis,” so enduringly associated as it was, for me, with Banville’s writing. I had, in fact, written something in my thesis about his repeated use of it. I wondered, briefly, whether the man could be making some kind of sly allusion here, but then checked this flight of obsessive fancy, realizing how unlikely it was that he would be as wonkishly preoccupied as I was with Banville’s fondness for a particular word, and what it might mean in the context of his work as a whole.
The conversation turned again, somehow, to the topic of death, specifically that of Banville’s death. We spoke briefly of the difficulties future biographers and scholars would come up against now that no one, not even novelists, wrote letters any more. He pointed out that emails were probably more useful from a future scholarship point of view, given that they were all automatically archived and organized and searchable, to which I countered that that was all well and good if you had the password. He conceded that this was a fair point, and suggested that if I played my cards right he might think to pass on his login details to me before he died. I said that I would be honored. The idea of Banville having anything as vulgar as login details, however, seemed as strangely implausible as Nabokov owning a pickup truck—he is that kind of writer. Did he use instant messaging, I wondered? (It was an odd thought, but it was not inconceivable. A few years ago, I interviewed the philosopher Peter Singer for a magazine, and he still occasionally pops up on Google Chat, an occurrence which gives rise to all kinds of inane impulses.) I speculated idly on whether Banville’s password might be something like “@pose0s1s” or, maybe, “banvillenobel2016.” Was he a Gmail man, I wondered? Probably not. Outlook Express, if anything.
The interview was less of an ordeal than I had imagined it might be. On our way down to the lecture theatre I had told him that I had agreed to it only a couple of hours previously, that I was as a consequence grossly underprepared and that he would therefore have to do a lot of the heavy lifting himself, and he had patted my arm lightly and said, “Oh, don’t worry about that, I’m a raddled old whore at this stage.” My questions seemed to me to shift from the bafflingly gnomic to the recklessly long-winded without ever occupying any intervening sweet spot of coherence and concision but, true to his word, he responded to them with an eloquence that, retrospectively, made those questions appear shrewd. Afterwards, there was a flurry of book-signings and hand-shakings, through which I stood awkwardly off to one side. There was some kind of official photograph that needed to be taken, and I allowed myself to be hustled into the shot, and then that was pretty much it for the evening.
As we walked toward the exit, Banville asked me whether I needed a lift home. I had not anticipated this; had I foreseen it as a possibility, I might well have taken the bus there instead of driving. I told him that I had my car—I think I may even, moronically, have produced my keys and held them aloft, as though some kind of proof of my having driven might be required—but almost immediately regretted doing so. It would, I thought, have been worth the trouble of getting the bus back the following morning to collect my car, had it meant getting a lift home with Banville. I found myself wishing, suddenly, to know what kind of car he drove and, above all, what kind of driver he was. Would he handle his car like he did his prose, with supreme confidence and restraint, changing lanes with suave precision, overtaking with brisk wit and style? Or would he be ill at ease behind the wheel, as I imagined his protagonists would be, constantly wrong-footed by the stubborn actuality of traffic lights and lane-mergers, the boorish incursions of other motorists? I remembered a bit in Martin Amis’s The Information about the comparative driving skills of poets and novelists. The (almost certainly spurious) jist was that Novelists are generally decent drivers, while poets don’t drive, or at least shouldn’t: “Never trust a poet who can drive. Never trust a poet at the wheel. If he can drive, distrust the poems.” And then I remembered Banville’s tendency to make grandiose-sounding claims in interviews about his aspirations of forging some sort of formal synthesis of poetry and the novel. Would he drive, I wondered, like a poet or a novelist? Would I gain some oblique insight into his mind, into his philosophical stance toward the world, by observing him negotiate the M50 and the Red Cow roundabout (that black comedy of infrastructural errors in which thousands of Dubliners play a daily role)? What would we chat about? How would he respond to questions as to fuel consumption, reliability, general performance? What radio stations, if any, would be preset on his car stereo? Would he have a SatNav, or one of those hands-free Bluetooth earpiece setups for his phone? I would now probably never know the answers to these questions. But perhaps that’s not such a terrible thing.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I successfully convinced a publisher that my thesis was worth the time and money it would cost them to publish. So I’ll be spending a further few months on Banville-related activities, hacking and thrashing the thing into a book-like shape; and then, if I’m lucky, my first monograph will afford me some sort of reputation as an academic, as, specifically, a Banville scholar. And these would all be great things, things that might—I permit myself to hope—even lead to that greatest of great things, an actual full-time job. In the meantime, I’ll just have to get over my discomfort with what seems to me to be the rank presumption of regarding oneself as an “expert” on the work of someone who is still living and writing and (who knows?) possibly using a hands-free Bluetooth earpiece while driving.
Eventually, I’ll have to come up with another topic on which to position myself as an expert. In my cockier moments, I sometimes fancy my chances with Nabokov. I would, of course, imagine him being utterly dismissive of whatever reading of his work I might decide to argue for. But that wouldn’t matter very much, because he is safely, unapproachably dead, and therefore reassuringly unlikely to sit down at the next table in a café, or offer me a lift home. I think it would be an easier relationship.
Back | 1. In a section dealing with the novel Shroud, I find that I wrote the following: “‘Apotheosis’, in its associations with ideas of self-perfection and deification, is a key term in Banville’s later work. The narcissistic content of the word as he tends to use it is connected to the notion of the self as a work of art.”
There are many ways to measure a year, but the reader is likely to measure it in books. There was the novel that felt as fresh and full of promise as the new year in January, the memoir read on the bus to and from work through the grey days of March, the creased paperback fished from a pocket in the park in May, the stacks of books thumbed through and sandy-paged, passed around at the beach in August, the old favorite read by light coming in the window in October, and the many books in between. And when we each look back at our own years in reading, we are almost sure to find that ours was exactly like no other reader’s.
The end of another year brings the usual frothy and arbitrary accounting of the “best” this and the “most” that. But might it also be an opportunity to look back, reflect, and share? We hope so, and so, for a seventh year, The Millions has reached out to some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2011 a fruitful one.
As we have in prior years, the names of our 2010 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.
Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Fiona Maazel, author of Last Last Chance.
John Banville, author of The Sea, The Infinities, and many other books.
Al Jaffee, legendary Mad Magazine writer and cartoonist.
Lionel Shriver, author of So Much for That and several other books.
Emma Rathbone, author of The Patterns of Paper Monsters.
Joshua Cohen, author of Witz.
Jonathan Dee, author of The Privileges and several other books.
Jennifer Gilmore, author of Something Red.
Stephen Elliott, editor of The Rumpus and author of The Adderall Diaries.
Dan Kois, author of Facing Future.
Bill Morris, Millions staff writer and author of Motor City.
Mark Sarvas, author of Harry, Revised, proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Emma Donoghue, author of Room and several other books.
Margaret Atwood, author of Year of the Flood and many other books.
Lynne Tillman, author of American Genius and several other books.
Hamilton Leithauser, of The Walkmen.
Padgett Powell, author of The Interrogative Mood and other books.
Anthony Doerr, author of Memory Wall and other books.
Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies.
Tom Rachman, author of The Imperfectionists.
Aimee Bender, author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and several other books.
Philip Lopate, author of Notes on Sontag and several other books.
Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask and other books.
Julie Orringer, author of The Invisible Bridge.
Joseph McElroy, author of Women and Men and several other books.
Alexander Theroux, author of Laura Warholic and several other books.
Laura van den Berg, author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.
Emily St. John Mandel, Millions staff writer and author of Last Night In Montreal and The Singer’s Gun.
John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass.
Edan Lepucki, Millions staff writer, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Ed Champion, proprietor of edrants.com and The Bat Segundo Show.
Maud Newton, proprietor of maudnewton.com.
Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review.
Tom McCarthy, author of C and Remainder.
Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men and founding editor of n+1.
Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There and co-founder of The Morning News.
Paul Harding, author of Tinkers.
Sigrid Nunez, author of Salvation City and several other books.
Matt Weiland, editor of The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup and State by State.
Allegra Goodman, author of The Cookbook Collector and several other books.
Adam Levin, author of The Instructions and several other books.
Michael Cunningham, author of By Nightfall, The Hours and several other books.
Sam Anderson, book critic, New York magazine.
Richard Nash, of Cursor and Red Lemonade.
Seth Mnookin, author of Hard News and The Panic Virus.
Joanna Smith Rakoff, author of A Fortunate Age.
Marisa Silver, author of The God of War and other books.
David Gutowski, of Largehearted Boy.
Emily Colette Wilkinson, Millions staff writer.
Jenny Davidson, author of Invisible Things and other books.
Scott Esposito, proprietor of Conversational Reading and editor of The Quarterly Conversation.
Carolyn Kellogg, LA Times staff writer.
Anne K. Yoder of The Millions.
Marjorie Kehe, book editor at the Christian Science Monitor.
Neal Pollack, author of Stretch: The Unlikely Making Of A Yoga Dude and other books.
Danielle Evans, author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.
Allen Barra writes for the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Beast.
Dorothea Lasky, author of Black Life and AWE.
Avi Steinberg, author of Running the Books, The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.
Stephanie Deutsch, critic and historian.
Lydia Kiesling, Millions staff writer.
Lorraine Adams, author of The Room and the Chair.
Rachel Syme, NPR.com books editor.
Garth Risk Hallberg, Millions staff writer and author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
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One of the major problems with literary awards, especially those that take place overseas, is that they tend to be winner-take-all propositions in which the champions, riding high on their recent laurels, come sweeping across the Atlantic ready to reap the benefits of the newfound attention being paid to them by the American market. And while this often signals a boon for the victor, only later will the others—the truly lucky ones—slink over, forced, however appropriately, to trudge about in the shadow of their Man Booker or Costa Prize Winning forebears, and by this time, unless there’s the potential for contention—think the 2008 Booker White Tiger/Northern Clemency debate—whatever excitement their accolades might have garnered for them in the American press has dissipated. No one gives a welcome parade for the runner-up.
Thus, despite having been a finalist for the Booker, Orange, Guardian First Book and Betty Trask Prizes, it is unheralded and in the gigantic shadows cast by Hilary Mantle’s all-conquering, historical epic Wolf Hall and Ian McEwan’s latest, Solar, that Samantha Harvey and her debut novel, The Wilderness, are poised to enter the American literary scene. Unlike its baroque counterparts, The Wilderness is a subtle, a quiet book whose American cover—a tea cup set amongst a row of mossy stone crags—gives little evidence as to the masterpiece lying within it.
From The Wilderness’s bravura opening, recounted from the navigation seat of an old bi-plane soaring to dizzying heights, Harvey outlines the trajectory of all that is to follow:
In amongst a sea of events and names that have been forgotten, there are a number of episodes that float with striking buoyancy to the surface. There is no sensible order to them, nor connection between them. He keeps his eyes on the ground below him, strange since once he would have turned his attention to the horizon or the sky above, relishing the sheer size of it all. Now he seeks out miniatures with the hope of finding comfort in them.
This is a novel heavy with the exploration of the minute, seemingly innocuous and uneventful moments that pass us by while we are busy waiting for something extraordinary to happen. Detail, and the flourishes of it, abound in The Wilderness. There is no minimalism here. Harvey is a writer unafraid of prose, one willing to write in a manner reminiscent of early Henry James, yet her sentences lack the attention to showmanship that occasionally superseded and hindered James’s equally obtuse narratives, and it would not be an exaggeration to claim that Harvey might be the best pure English language stylist to arrive on American shores since John Banville, whose 2005 Booker Prize winning novel, The Sea, The Wilderness will at times recall.
Ultimately Harvey’s decision to revel in the small is a wise one, for it is only through exactitude and attention to minutia that it is possible for The Wilderness’ third-person narration, which remains firmly grounded in the tenets of psychological realism, to recount the life of Jacob (Jake) Jameson, whose mind is ravaged by Alzheimer’s disease. In a way, Jake, a widower with an alcoholic son in prison for larceny, is a Job-like character, though one who lacks a God capable of restoring all His whim has seen fit to take away. The son of an Austrian Jewish mother who emigrated to England before the Second World War, Jake is an architect and a pragmatist both in love with and haunted by the theory entropy, with the need to construct, to build something in order that he might make his mark on the world, leave tangible evidence as to his presence on earth. He is obsessed with the “lack,” by the notion that he, too, will ultimately disappear the way his mother’s family did and that, when he is gone, there will be no one left to remember him.
Because of the nature of its protagonist, The Wilderness is concerned less with plot than with how to communicate the story of Jake’s life through the ever shifting and mutating memories that flash through his mind. These memories constantly fade in and out of focus, and Harvey’s play with perception and the subversion of it is akin to the way a doctor might purposefully impair one’s vision when checking for flaws in eyesight. What appears at one moment as incontrovertible fact is later shrouded in uncertainty. What seems as though it must, for all logical purposes, be the rambles of an atrophying mind, is later substantiated. In the end, our truths come only from the pieces we are able to assemble and corroborate from the brief anecdotes and phrases offered by those once close and now nearly forgotten friends who lay on the periphery of Jake’s world.
Entropy, or the idea of it, is central to Harvey’s narrative. No matter how many things we build in a lifetime “nature’s fingers unpick as if trying to leave things as they would be if humans never existed.” Harvey’s world is a fatalistic one, a place where, thinks Jake, “One must always fight back, not in the hopes of winning but just to delay the moment of losing.” For Jake, “it is not the happiness of a memory that he is looking for, it is the memory itself; the taste and touch of it, and the proof it brings of himself,” yet, even in his dementia, he understands that it is memory that holds the power “to make a shattered dream come true.” His need is to manage somehow to retain his possession of these streams of stories—his story—the “myth upon myth, tangling with myth, myth becoming fact, fact becoming fiction,” because without them, there is nothing to legitimize him, and all he desires is “to appropriate a place before leaving, just to affirm that it was indeed him leaving, and not him being expelled.” Because, even when everything is unraveling, we still possess the distinctly human desire to be in control.
The Wilderness is a Russian doll of themes and tropes, as Harvey concerns herself not only with the story but also with the metaphysical essence of self, with construction of religion, human morality, death and love in both its mythological and cruelly human nature. The image of Jake as architect continually reappears throughout The Wilderness, as he is someone who, both metaphorically and figuratively, is obsessed with the duality between creation and destruction, “A see-saw, a tide, life, death, poetically tilting from one pole to the other. And yet this so-called poetry has created nothing, or little, he can now put his name to.” For Harvey, memory, the illusion of the truth we create, is a nebulous thing, and the stories told, the religions, traditions and customs practiced are all, in their own way, nothing more than an overt way to define the self. Still, what Harvey seems most concerned with is not the building of the mythology, but with the deconstruction of it, with examining what happens when the illusion falls apart, when the same mind that has been integral to the conception of one’s own space in the world rebels and no longer will allow one to linger in the comfort of that created world.
Moreover, Harvey should not only be applauded for her ability to subtly espouse a philosophy of life but also for the way she constructs The Wilderness, which does not simply start sharply and then fall into disarray as Jake’s brain unravels, but instead possesses a beautiful fluidity; scenes bleed back into themselves, shift and morph, yet all the while Harvey maintains such control of the narrative that, even in the most opaque of moments, (and there are many places where a lesser writer would have lost the reader completely) one is confident they will reemerge from the depth and darkness of the forest to rediscover the path they strayed from not so long ago. All events, no matter how large or small, how clear or opaque, feel completely organic, as though they can only happen, must only happen at this particular moment in time. For Harvey presents characters trapped inside cages of their own making, ones whose bars result from all of the little, seemingly innocuous decisions compiled over the course of a lifetime.
One must, however, be forewarned that The Wilderness is not a book to be taken on lightly. It challenges the reader, makes demands of them and requires a significant investment of both emotion and attention for one to truly appreciate all that Harvey has managed to pull off here. And because of this, the most fulfilling aspects of The Wilderness also tend to be its most haunting. The moments when the reader finally makes the connections, connects the dots between the odd assortment of details—a zoo, a cherry tree, a yellow dress, a glass house— that pepper the book and that eventually come together to create a poignant, heartbreaking and mesmerizingly beautiful portrait of a man desperately trying to reclaim his sense of self are, literally, breathtaking.
In The Wilderness, Samantha Harvey shows us, in the truest sense, what it means to be human, to live, to love and to lose. How to, as Jake muses, “be small.” To understand “that an individual is an extremely small thing of small pursuits, that the world is sometimes background, sometimes foreground, depending on how big one feels but inevitably… one is small whether one feels it or not.” It is a novel about how each breath is, unromantically, one exhalation closer to the grave, and that our choices for nostalgia, “that last refuge of the old,” as Jake terms it, define a present need in us and uncover, through our melancholy reflection, that which we crave presently. It is about how to truly be alone in the world and at the same time a celebration of the many levels of human relationship. It is, quite succinctly, a true piece of great art.
The Irish novelist John Banville is a prolific author of prodigious talent. He has written fifteen novels, although the tally rises to eighteen if you count the three crime novels he has penned under the name Benjamin Black since 2005. Banville’s elegant prose elicits frequent comparison to Nabokov and his wit to fellow countryman Samuel Beckett, all of which has earned him recognition as “one of the finest stylists at work in the English language.”
Banville’s latest novel, The Infinities, marks his first return to literary fiction published under this own name since The Sea, which won the Booker Prize in 2005. The Infinities is a contemporary comedy told in the classical mode, replete with Greek gods meddling with the human life below. Zeus’s son Hermes narrates the goings-on of the Godley household as the family gathers in anticipation of the death of the family patriarch, the renowned physicist Adam Godley. Banville himself calls The Infinities an attempt to blend Greek drama with Shakespearean burlesque. In The National Newspaper, Christian Lorentzen praised Banville’s success at this feat, “If the steady accumulation – over the course of one day – of this burlesque and ultimately comic plot and the narrator’s Olympian insights and casual revelations about the novel’s parallel world afford a wealth of pleasures, they are bettered still by Banville’s stylistic facility.” And Claire Messud said that the novel “manages, through divine sleight of mind, to bring glimmers of possibility to its dark characters: as such, it is a novel for our hopeless times.”
I had the pleasure of speaking with Banville, who lives in Dublin, over the phone last week about The Infinities, ambitious characters and their potentialities, the characteristics of great art, and the beauty of the sky. In interim, he has crossed the Atlantic, and he will read tonight with Colum McCann at the 92nd Street Y in New York.
The Millions: The Infinities opens with Zeus’s son Hermes narrating the goings-on of the Godley family, who have gathered under the same roof as the family’s patriarch, Adam Godley, lies on his deathbed. The novel’s title alludes to the immortality of the gods as well as Godley’s Brahma theory of infinite infinities and interpenetrating universes that debunked the then-prevailing theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. Although, for a book that addresses mortality, much of the focus is on the finite, particularly human mortality and the imminent death of Adam Godley. Why is there such a focus on death in a novel concerned with the infinite?
John Banville: Well first of all, all of the science is just what we call cod science here. It’s fake. And the book is not really concerned with quantum physics and those things, which is very frightening for all of us. It’s a human comedy. We may be amused and fascinated and enthralled by scientific theories but we have to live through our days in the world, and we have to face death, and death is what gives life it’s flavor. I’m absolutely convinced of this. I mean, most of the philosophers have recognized that. Spinoza says the wise man thinks only of death but all of his meditations are a meditation upon life. Which is true. Death is not the point. Life is the point. But death is the beginning of what gives life its point.
TM: The elder Adam Godely nears godlike immortality as much as any human can, both through his Brahma theory and because he pursued a life committed to knowledge and thought. But on his deathbed it seems like he begins to regret the life of action that he forsook. He thinks: “Doing, doing, is living, as my mother, my poor failed unhappy mother, among others, tried her best to din into me. I see it now, while all along I thought thinking was the only thing.” Was his pursuit of ideas a waste of life? Or is his regret inevitable because man’s life is finite and his choices are limited?
JB: Oh, it’s not a wasted life. He has done marvelous things. He has had the most extraordinary intellectual adventures and some not-so-intellectual adventures as well. He’s had a good life. But, of course, like everybody, he feels sorry for himself, especially at the end of it. I think that he would exchange all his worldly success and all his scientific and mathematical success to be young again and sleep with his daughter-in-law, Helen. I mean, one of Yeats’s last poems is where he’s sitting and watching this girl and saying, what are Russian or Spanish politics to me, “O that I were young again and held her in my arms.” It’s very simple.
Life at its simplest is very simple. We spin the most extraordinary intellectual conceits and emotional conceits but in the end, it’s quite simple. We want to be happy. We want to be delighted. And, you know, a beautiful woman, as Helen is in the book—in many ways she’s the center of the book. She’s this wonderfully erotic sensual creature. She’s like those women by a great master like Tiepolo, one of those big, blonde women flying in the sky. And young Adam, for all his ineptness and all his silliness and all of his sense of inadequacy, is going to keep her. So it’s kind of a happy ending. To my great surprise, it’s a happy ending.
TM: To my surprise as well. Picking up on Helen, and Roddy as well, I wanted to ask about their ambition. They share a common ambition in their potentialities—in their desire to make themselves something greater. Both are described as hard-hearted and relentless and share a common desire to alter their identities. They resemble other brooding characters from your previous novels, such as Victor Maskell, the spy and art historian in The Untouchable, at least in this way of altering identity. The younger Adam, in contrast, is more simple and less ambitious. Although he’s plagued by more insecurities, he seems more content with his humanity. I was wondering what the link is between potentialities and ambition, artistic greatness, and the human desire to be godlike.
JB: Yes, these are good questions you’re asking. Constantly in my work is the tension between the life of the mind and life in the world—the physical life, the life that we want to lead, the Helen side of things, that wonderful, erotic (and I mean erotic in the whitest sense of the word), that sensual sense of being in the world, as against the desire to speculate and to think and to make theories. Old Adam professes to have this dismissive attitude toward his son, but he’s sort of puzzled by his son because his son is the one who is living in the world. And the son, of course, is the one who believes in the possibility of good and the possibility of the simplistic and the possibility that the simple life might be as valuable, and perhaps even more valuable, than the life of the mind, the great thinker. It is a comedy.
You know, Heinrich von Kleist, whose play Amphitryon is the skeleton of the book, his ambition was to blend Greek drama with Shakespearean burlesque. And that’s what I’m trying to do as well. The great thoughts and the great thinking and the great speculation and the great notion of being alive only when one is thinking is constantly undercut by the simplicity of living in the world, the simplicity of desire, even of hunger, of being Rex the dog, who is pure animal. So it is a comedy.
TM: I think you pull that off very well—the contrast of the Greek drama and the Shakespearean burlesque.
JB: Why, thank you.
TM: I was going to ask about Kleist’s influence, because this seems like a departure from your previous novels, in its narration, in that it’s a comedy and that it’s a story told in the classical mode with the presence of gods and an adherence to Aristotle’s three unities. There’s also an inherent playfulness and relative lightness in comparison to your previous work. I wanted to ask about your desire to base the story on Amphitryon by Kleist because you already adapted his play once for the stage in God’s Gift. What is it about his play and this myth that has inspired you to rewrite it again as a novel?
JB: On a very simple level, I think that Kleist’s Amphitryon is one of the great works of European literature. I mean, Kleist is hardly known at all in the English speaking world, with great sadness. Goethe is the one that everybody knows but nobody knows Kleist. He lived but a quarter of the lifetime of Goethe but he did astonishing things in that short lifetime. Amphitryon is his superb, dark masterpiece. It’s comic and it’s tragic and it’s continually heartbreaking because Amphitryon loses everything. He loses his wife, he even loses his identity, he even loses his name. This is a beautifully, it’s an awful cliche to say but it’s a bittersweet drama that one never knows quite whether it’s tragic or comic or dark or light. And that’s what I wanted to catch because that’s how life is. Life at one moment is tragic, at another moment it’s comic, at another moment it’s extraordinarily erotic and sensual, at another moment it’s gray and dull. And that’s what fiction should, and that’s what all art tries to catch is what life actually feels like.
There’s no message. I constantly say one of my absolute mottos is from Kafka, where he says the artist is the man who has nothing to say. I have nothing to say. I have no opinions about anything. I don’t care about physical, moral, social issues of the day. I just want to recreate the sense of what life feels like, what it tastes like, what it smells like. That’s what art should do. I feel it should be absolutely gloriously useless.
TM: I noticed you pay great attention to physical details, in this book, and in other books like The Sea, where the sense of smell was very prominent. And I found this interesting in the sense of juxtaposing the lives of the gods and of the humans. Love and death are the two human characteristics that the gods envy. And man, likewise, envies the immortality of the gods. In The Infinities, there’s also a heightening of the corporeal, especially the human body in its many beautiful and grotesque forms—from the elder Adam’s defecation that caused his stroke, to his hands which are like “a package of scrap meat from the butcher’s, chill and sinewy,” and the younger Adam’s “prizefighter’s rolling shoulders” and “weightlifter’s legs.” Is man’s life sweeter in its sensuality?
JB: Yes, of course. I think that one of the saddest things that’s happened to us in our Western Civilization is that we have—how would I say—in order to pretend we’re something other than we’re not, we’ve had to banish the notion of the body from our philosophy. Our philosophy is all to do with the head, it’s all to do with thought, how we think, how we perceive the world. But very few philosophers, with the remarkable exception of Nietzsche, give due recognition to the fact that we are not pure spirit trapped in a mere body, but that body and spirit have an equal weight. So, again, I think this is one of the great things that art does, one of its duties is to remind people about, as you say, our corporeal, our physicality, that we’re not just brains trapped in this grotesque thing. The grotesque thing, so-called, that this body is as much a part of us as our minds, and is as much a part of our personality as our minds are. I mean, I love that scene where Helen is going to the lavatory in the morning. I really enjoyed writing that, because I wanted to… I wasn’t making a point of any kind, I just wanted to show that this is what people do every morning. I’m not saying we should dwell on this, since it’s not a particularly pleasant aspect of our lives. But it is an aspect of our lives that we should not try to ignore and push aside
TM: And the gods always seem to envy this.
JB: Well, of course the gods envy this. The gods, of course, are Adam Godley’s mind. They don’t have any physical reality, they don’t have any reality at all outside Adam Godley. I mean, the whole thing is got up by him, I think. It’s all happening in his head. It’s the old argument which I’ve been writing, I suppose, all my life—which is more important, or are they equally important, the life of the mind or life in the world?
TM: That’s interesting. I noticed how Godley and Hermes seemed to merge at a certain point in the narration. In the novel, Hermes is the narrator, and his role as the narrator allows for a greater breadth of perspective than the first-person narrators of many of your previous novels, which are limited to one, sometimes unreliable, point of view. Hermes’ omniscience lets the reader penetrate the minds of many characters, even the family dog, Rex and the comatose Adam. The end result is a kaleidoscopic perspective that undermines man’s tendency to place himself at the center of the universe. I was wondering how this decentering fits into your greater plan for the novel.
JB: People used to say I’m a postmodernist in days when postmodernism was still fashionable. It no longer is. If I’m anything I’m a post-humanist. I don’t see human beings as the absolute center of the universe. I think one of our tragedies and maybe our central tragedy is that we imagined that at some point in evolution we reached a plateau where we were no longer animal. That we had left the animal world and became pure spirit unfortunately tied to this physical body that we have to carry around.
This seems to me a very bad mistake. We should admit our physicality. We have lost contact with the animals, which I think is a disaster. I think we should realize we are immensely intricate animals, but we are animals still and we should not lose sight of that. I don’t like… This sounds like my social plan for the world, you know—let’s go back to the animals and everything will be fine. We’re talking about a novel which is meant to delight and stimulate. As I say, I have no philosophy other than the philosophy of trying to live as well as we can. This is what my characters are doing. And all of them are doing it. Even in my darkest books, my characters are trying to live as well as they can, and to live as rich a life as is possible. That’s what art is for—it’s to say to people, look, the world is an extraordinarily rich place. Look at this extraordinary place we’ve been put into, this world.
You know, somebody phoned me the other day, a charity for the blind, and they said they’re running some series where they’re getting people to say in a sentence what is the thing they would miss most. And I said, apart from the faces of my loved ones and the paintings that I love, what I would miss most is the sky. This extraordinary thing that we have above us all day long, all night long is the most amazing thing. It keeps changing. With the seasons it changes; it is constantly beautiful, it is constantly mysterious. And to think that we live our lives under this absolute miracle day after day is an astonishing thing. And that’s all I try to do in my books is to celebrate this world and our place in it, our predicament in it, for good or ill.
TM: The sky is something I take for granted, and that’s something that comes up in the book.
JB: Where do you live?
TM: I live in New York, in Brooklyn.
JB: Oh, you see there’s not much sky in New York.
TM: No, the skyline is more prominent than the sky.
JB: That’s one of the great advantages of living in Ireland is that we have these enormous skies because the buildings are tiny. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to Manhattan on Monday and I can’t wait. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful city. But I do find myself walking along Fifth Avenue looking at the sky, which is like looking at the bed of a luminous river.
TM: Man’s incapacity to grasp the world aligns us with the animals. Adam Godley’s Brahma theory provides almost too much knowledge for mankind. As Adam remarks, “…we had enough, more than enough already, in the bewildering diversities of our old and overabundant world.” Hermes comments, too, that man’s inability to grasp the immensity of existence comes from a “defective imagination” that makes living possible. As a result, many of the characters hold opinions that are often based on false notions of the world (such as the younger Adam’s espousal of the Christian conceit of good battling evil). Much of the time humans are deluded by their own conjectures, so what are humans to make of life? And can science only take us so far?
JB: My goodness, these are very deep questions you’re asking me. Why don’t you ask me what my favorite color is, or my favorite pop group?
TM: Well, the final question is a fairly easy one.
JB: Again, the essence of art is that it’s always light, in all senses of the word. What kills art is solemnity. Art is always serious but never, never solemn. Good art recognizes, as I say, our peculiar predicament in the world, that we’re suspended in this extraordinary place, we don’t know what it’s for or why we’re here. We know vaguely, but there is no answer to it. It’s simply that by just some chance of evolution we evolved beyond the animals, we got consciousness of death, which goes back to the beginning of our conversation, gives all life its flavor. This is peculiar to us, so far as we know. Who knows, the animals may know that they’re dying but it doesn’t shape their lives in the way that consciousness of death shapes ours. But art, as I say, has to be light, it has to be frivolous, and it has to be superficial in the best sense of these words. Nietzsche says upon the surface, that’s where the real depth is, and I think that’s true. I never speculate, I never psychologize, I just present, so far as I can, the evidence—this is what one sees, this is how the world looks, this is how it tastes and smells. In other words, I don’t know how to answer your question.
TM: In this book in particular, names seem significant. There’s Adam and his son Adam, the “clay men” named after the first Biblical Adam. There’s Dr. Fortune, Petra who is a stone in her mother’s breast. The act of naming is mentioned multiple times, including the older Adam’s disinclination to call people by their names. So, what here is in a name?
JB: For a novelist, getting the names right, it’s simply on a technical level. Once you have the names, all the characters right, then you’ve got the book. And in my other life, as a book reviewer, I always know a book is flawed when the names don’t suit the characters. There’s no science to this, there’s no way of saying why a character is suited to a certain name, or vice versa, but it’s simply true. John le Carré, for instance, not a great novelist, but he has a genius when it comes to names. I mean, all the names called in his cast are absolutely perfect. Henry James is similar. You can tell when a novelist is not comfortable with the material if he gets the names wrong. But that’s the mystical thing, because I don’t know how it works.
I mean, Helen I was calling her something else for a long time—I can’t remember what it was. But then I thought, of course she has to be Helen. It’s a very simple name, it’s straightforward, it’s all of those silly references back to the Greek, and so on. But it was the right name for her. She only came alive for me when I found her name. It’s no great science, it’s a quite simple thing.
The naming of names, of course, this is what literature does. It names things, and it examines a name. It brings back to attention the question of what it is to be called something. We all have that curious sensation of when a word slips away from its context, when it becomes a grunt. That’s a very scary phenomenon. This is one of the things art does, literary art does, is to name things well.
TM: And so therefore the writers are the “relentless taxonomists.” [Hermes calls man this in the novel]
JB: Oh yeah. And by the way, my favorite color is blue.
TM: Which explains why blue is prominent in the novel. Here’s the easy question: The Infinities is the first novel published under your name, John Banville, since The Sea which won the Booker Prize in 2005. In the meantime, you published three literary crime novels under the name Benjamin Black.
JB: Don’t say they’re literary. Just call them crime novels.
TM: Well, they have been called literary. How did writing those novels inform this one, if they did at all? And do you plan to continue publishing novels under both names?
JB: Oh yes, I have a new novel coming out shortly under Benjamin Black’s name. It’s a completely different discipline. I like doing it, it’s an inglorious craftwork that I enjoy immensely. And yes, I’ll keep doing it. It’s an adventure I’ve embarked on, and whether I’m making a mistake or otherwise, I don’t know. But we stumble along in darkness. We think that we’re deciding to do things, we think that we’re directing our lives, but we’re not. We’re just being blown hither and thither by the wind.
Update: Don’t miss our newest “Most Anticipated” list, highlighting books for the rest of 2010 and beyond.
There’s something for every lover of fiction coming in 2010, but, oddly enough, the dominant theme may be posthumous publication. Roberto Bolaño’s relentless march into the canon has inured us to the idea of the bestseller from beyond the grave (and of course, for as long as there have been literary executors, this has been nothing new), but beyond the four(!) new books by Bolaño we also have have potentially important works by the likes of Ralph Ellison and Henry Roth, intriguing new books from Robert Walser and Ernst Weiss, a guaranteed bestseller from Stieg Larsson, and, looming in 2011, the final, unfinished novel of David Foster Wallace. Perhaps, amid all this, it is a relief to hear that we have many exciting books on their way from those still with us, including Elizabeth Kostova, Joshua Ferris, David Mitchell, Jennifer Egan, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Yann Martel, and many others.Special thanks to The Millions Facebook group for helping us compile this list.January (or already available)
Three Days Before the Shooting by Ralph Ellison: Fitting that this book preview starts off with a posthumous novel. Ellison’s unfinished opus will not be the the only posthumous work to grab readers attention in 2010, but it will be perhaps the one with the most history attached to it and maybe, in the accounting of those who manage the canon, the most important. Ellison famously struggled to complete a second novel after the landmark publication of The Invisible Man. After Ellison’s death, Juneteenth was cobbled together by his literary executor John Callahan and met with decidedly mixed reviews. But, as a 2007 article in the Washington Post argues, Three Days Before the Shooting, the result of years of work by Callahan and co-editor Adam Bradley, was always meant to be the true Ellison second novel. Readers will soon find out if it’s the masterpiece they’ve been waiting for for decades.The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris: If your debut effort (in this case, Then We Came to the End) gets nominated for a National Book Award, you are on the express train to literary stardom. Quickly, however, focus shifts to the sophomore effort. For Ferris, early signs look good. Word is that The Unnamed is dark in tone, darker than and by all early accounts dissimilar to TWCTTE. The protagonist Tim’s affliction is that he’s unable to stop walking. In an early review, Bookforum likes it and says “Ferris possesses an overriding writer’s gift: a basic and consistent ability to entertain while spurring engagement.” See also: Joshua Ferris writing at The MillionsMonsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño: The frenzy of posthumous Bolaño publication will continue in 2010 with as many as four (that I was able to find) books by the Chilean author published. Bolaño has been unmistakably one of the biggest publishing stories of the last few years, and publisher New Directions has been capably and speedily adding title after title to the Bolaño shelf at your local bookstore. Monsieur Pain (January) is about a Peruvian poet with a chronic case of hiccups. Antwerp (April) has been described as both a prose poem and a crime novel. The Return (July) is a new volume of short stories, as is The Insufferable Gaucho (August?), which was apparently the last book Bolaño delivered to a publisher. And look for more Bolaño in 2011. Garth may need to start updating his Bolaño Syllabus on a quarterly basis.Fun with Problems by Robert Stone: Fun with Problems will be Stone’s first collection of short fiction in twelve years. And his first book since his 2007 memoir Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties (see Garth’s review).Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd: Boyd’s novel is already out in the UK where it has been receiving characteristically good notices. “There are tantalising hints of a broader ambition in William Boyd’s wide-ranging new thriller,” said The Guardian. The book is ostensibly about a man on the run, but Boyd, in an interview with Edinburgh Festivals alluded to the depth that The Guardian picked up on, “It’s a chase. And the drive is that the man is being hunted. But like the last four of my novels, it’s also about identity, about what happens when you lose everything that makes up your social identity, and how you then function in the modern city.”The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova – The follow-up to Kostova’s big selling The Historian (the first ever first novel to debut at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list) promises to be just as densely detailed as its predecessor, weighing in at a hefty 576 pages. Recently departed Kirkus has some quibbles with the plot machinations, but says “lush prose and abundant drama will render logic beside the point for most readers.” PW adds “The Swan Thieves succeeds both in its echoes of The Historian and as it maps new territory for this canny and successful writer.” See Also: Elizabeth Kostova’s Year in ReadingIn January, Archipelago Books will publish a translation of Ernst Weiss’ Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer some 70 years after the novel’s appearance in German. Enthusiasts of German-language literature have compared Weiss favorably with his contemporary Thomas Mann and his friend Franz Kafka, but he has remained something of an unknown on this side of the Atlantic. Already, Joel Rotenberg’s translation has begun to remedy this neglect. An excerpt appeared in A Public Space a while back. (Garth)February
Point Omega by Don DeLillo: Anticipation for DeLillo’s forthcoming book has been decidedly truncated. Publisher Scribner first tweeted about DeLillo delivering the manuscript in June, and the book will hit shelves a scant eight months later. One reason for the quick turnaround might be the book’s surprising slimness, coming in somewhere between 117 pages (says PW) and 128 pages (says Scribner). Imagine: reading an entire DeLillo novel in an afternoon, or perhaps just over lunch. So will the book’s slight profile belie some interior weightiness? A recently posted excerpt may offer some clues, and PW says “Reading it is akin to a brisk hike up a desert mountain—a trifle arid, perhaps, but with occasional views of breathtaking grandeur.”Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields: We’ve already discussed Shields’ forthcoming “manifesto” quite a lot at The Millions. It was first noted, in glowing terms, by Charles D’Ambrosio. This prompted me to dig deeper in a longer look at the book. From my sleuthing, and noting blurbs by J.M. Coetzee, Jonathan Lethem, and others, I posited “the intriguing possibility that a book of ideas will capture the popular interest [in 2010].” The book now sits on my desk, and while haven’t yet jumped in with both feet, I can report that it is both structurally (a lettered and numbered organization scheme whose logic is not immediately discernible) and stylistically (deep thoughts, reminiscences, aphorisms, and pop culture nuggets abound) unique. It will be interesting to see if readers decide the book coalesces into a successful whole. This just in – British publisher Hamish Hamilton reports that Zadie Smith will be writing up the book in The Guardian soon. See Also: David Shield’s Year in ReadingThe Infinities by John Banville: Banville follows up his Booker-winning effort The Sea with a novel with a rather unique conceit: it is narrated by the god Hermes. The reviews hint at further oddities. In The Guardian, for example, “Old Adam, a physicist-mathematician, has solved the infinity problem in a way that’s not only led to some useful inventions – cars that run on brine, for example – but also proved the existence of parallel universes, a category that includes the one he inhabits. In this novel, Sweden is a warlike country, and evolution and relativity have been discredited.”Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett: Haslett made a big splash in 2002 when his debut effort – a collection of short stories called You Are Not a Stranger Here – was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Union Atlantic, his first novel, takes the depths of the recent financial collapse as a backdrop (which explains why a work of literary fiction is getting notice from publications like American Banker). PW gave it a starred review and insinuates it might be a seminal novel of that particular historical moment. Esquire recently published the novel’s prologue. It begins, “Their second night in port at Bahrain someone on the admiral’s staff decided the crew of the Vincennes deserved at least a free pack of cigarettes each.”March
Solar by Ian McEwan: McEwan’s new novel was discussed extensively in Daniel Zalewski’s New Yorker profile of McEwan in February 2009. More recently, the magazine published an excerpt from the novel. The book’s protagonist is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and it appears that the book’s chief drama will arise in his becoming embroiled in the climate change “debate.” The book is also being called a satire, but, to the extent that several of McEwan’s books have elements of satire, it’s unclear whether Solar will be much of a departure for McEwan. The excerpt in the New Yorker would seem to indicate it’ll be a typical, and probably quite good, effort.The Ask by Sam Lipsyte: Lipsyte had a breakout hit with Home Land in 2005. His follow-up novel was reviewed recently in The Quarterly Conversation, which says “let’s be frank: this is a hard novel to review. The Ask makes for your heart with its claws so efficiently that it leaves you torn and depleted. How are you to review a book that simply frightens you?” Ultimately, TQC decides The Ask “isn’t quite as good as Home Land. The latter was nearly perfect in idea and execution—an ’80s high-school movie gone sick with nostalgia for its own John Hughesian past. The Ask is more generationally diffuse. While just as snot-blowingly funny as its predecessor, The Ask is more devastating in its pitilessness.”The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee: Bookdwarf read this one recently and says Lee “offers no easy endings or heartwarming coming-together, instead bringing to life a powerful, unpredictable, and occasionally painful story.”Burning Bright by Ron Rash: Rash’s follow-up to Serena is a collection of stories. The book’s title story appeared in Ecotone in 2008.One More Story: Thirteen Stories in the Time-Honored Mode by Ingo Schulze: Garth has been talking about Schulze here for at least two years. Most recently he wrote “The East German setting of New Lives, and its uroboric epistolary structure – starting late in the story, slowly filling in the background – made for slow going at first, but the ethical intensity of its restaging of Faust has haunted me since I read it.” The English (and somewhat illogical) title of Schulze’s new book would seem to obscure the unifying theme of the new collection, whose title, translated directly from the German original, is Cell Phone: Thirteen Stories in the Old Style. According to an abstract for a paper in the journal German Monitor, “the cell phone functions in many stories as a threatening symbol of exposure to pressures and problems that make East(ern) Germans feel ill at ease.”So Much for That by Lionel Shriver: More hot button issues. Just as Ian McEwan’s forthcoming novel is informed by climate change, Shriver’s latest takes on the healthcare debate.
The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk: Cusk’s novel is already out in the U.K. where Hilary Mantel wrote, “It is the author’s mix of scorn and compassion that is so bracing. Sometimes she complicates simple things, snarling them in a cat’s cradle of abstraction, but just as often, a sentence rewards with its absolute and unexpected precision.”Silk Parachute by John McPhee: This new collection by McPhee is built around what FSG’s promotional material calls “McPhee’s most anthologized piece of writing.” “Silk Parachute” is, especially for the typically measured McPhee, a brief, tight, funny and emotional essay (It’s available here as a .doc file). The rest of the new collection is composed of McPhee’s recent New Yorker essays on lacrosse, “long-exposure view-camera photography, the weird foods he has sometimes been served in the course of his reportorial travels, a U.S. Open golf championship, and a season in Europe ‘on the chalk’ from the downs and sea cliffs of England to the Maas valley in the Netherlands and the champagne country of northern France.” Since McPhee’s most recent collections have had fairly strong thematic threads running through them, this more loosely tied book sounds like a bit of a departure.Long for This World by Sonya Chung: And, of course, Millions contributor Sonya Chung will see her debut novel Long for This World arrive in March. Sonya wrote about the peculiar challenges of settling on a book design in a recent essay.April
The Notebook by Jose Saramago: Nobel Laureates can do “blooks” too. The Notebook is the collected entries from 87-year-old Saramago’s blog, O Caderno de Saramago. The book, “which has already appeared in Portuguese and Spanish, lashes out against George W. Bush, Tony Blair, the Pope, Israel and Wall Street,” according to the Independent, in its report on the book’s Italian publisher dropping it for criticizing Prime Minister Silvio Burlusconi. Despite his age, Saramago is a busy man. In addition to The Notebook, there’s an August release date in the U.K. for a new novel, The Elephant’s Journey, which “traces the travels of Solomon, an Indian elephant given by King John III to Archduke Maximilian II of Austria,” and Cain, “an ironic retelling of the Bible story,” was recently published in Portuguese and Spanish.Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey: Carey’s new book is based on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville and wields two narrators. Olivier, the de Tocqueville “character” is, like de Tocqueville, the heir apparent of a wealthy family. Parrot is his clever servant who also happens to be a spy and all around rake. Early reviews from Australia, where the book is already out, have been strong. The Sydney Morning Herald called it “a tour de force, a wonderfully dizzying succession of adventures and vivid, at times caricatured, characters executed with great panache.”The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle: This book wraps up Doyle’s The Last Roundup trilogy (previously: A Star Called Henry and Oh, Play That Thing!). This time Henry Smart has gone to Hollywood and then back to Dublin. A bomb blast there turns him into an accidental hero.What Becomes by A.L. Kennedy: This short story collection is already out in the U.K. The Spectator likes it: “The hardest thing about the advent of a new collection of stories by A.L. Kennedy… is the search for synonyms for ‘brilliant.'”Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel: Though Martel’s previous effort, Life of Pi, was far from universally loved, the book became something of a literary phenomenon, putting up sales impressive even for a Booker winner. As a result, nearly a decade later, Martel’s follow up is one of the most heavily anticipated books of the year. As before, it seems Martel will be trading in talking animals, a taxidermied donkey and monkey. More details: The book is about the Holocaust, reportedly. It’s Canadian publisher has called it “shocking.” And Martel is comparing it to Animal Farm.The Big Short by Michael Lewis: Original set for November 2009, the publication of Michael Lewis’ much anticipated chronicle of the financial crisis, The Big Short has been pushed back to April. In October 2008, when economic uncertainty was at its height and fears were voiced in some rarefied quarters about the possibility of some sort of structural collapse, we wrote, “The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.” There have already been many books about the collapse and what caused it, from The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown to The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, but many readers have been waiting for a book by Lewis, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street’s excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine at the height of the crisis. Some readers may be weary of the topic by the time the book comes out, but it’s sure to garner some interest. Noir by Robert Coover: An excerpt of this new novel by “pioneering postmodernist” Coover was published a while back in Vice. It is introduced thusly: “Noir is a short novel starring you as Philip M. Noir, Private Investigator. It began as a story about a dockside detective in pursuit of something—like truth or beauty, the ineffable—and became over the course of its writing a kind of companion piece to Ghost Town, which played with the western genre and mythology the way this one plays with the hard-boiled/noir genre and urban myth. It was the French who discovered and defined noir; consequently, this book will have its first publication in Paris, in French, in the spring of 2008.”May
The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis: This book, long in the works, has been evolving as Amis has struggled to write it. In 2006, he told The Independent it was, “blindingly autobiographical, but with an Islamic theme.” As it turns out, the autobiographical bits were causing Amis trouble. He told the National Post in August 2009, “it turned out it was actually two novels, and they couldn’t go together. So I wrote The Pregnant Widow, [that’s] one half of it, and the other half I started, and it will be very autobiographical, the next one.” Subsequent comments from Amis appear to indicate the two book solution is still the plan.
Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis: Imperial Bedrooms is reportedly a sequel to Ellis’ first novel Less Than Zero. First sentence of the novel? “They had made a movie about us.”The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer: Orringer received more than the typical notice for a debut short story collection when her 2003 How to Breathe Underwater was named a New York Times Notable Book, landed on various other lists, and picked up a small prize or two. It’s looking like that promising first effort may translate into a “big” novel for Orringer in 2010. Library Journal reported a 60,000-copy first printing for The Invisible Bridge – the book follows a trio of Hungarian brothers in Budapest and Paris before and during World War II – and it carries with it a blurb from Michael Chabon (“To bring an entire lost world… to vivid life between the covers of a novel is an accomplishment; to invest that world, and everyone who inhabits it, with a soul… takes something more like genius.”)The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson: Larsson’s nordic crime fiction (which has won Larsson posthumous stardom in the States) isn’t exactly in The Millions wheelhouse, but, with nary a mention on the site, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo vaulted into our Millions Top Ten and has stayed there. When Millions’ readers get behind a book, it’s often worth taking notice. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is the final book in Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy” (Dragon was the first and The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second). Though just becoming well known in the U.S., Larsson was the second top-selling author in the world in 2008. Part of Larsson’s sudden success is his odd path to (posthumous) publishing fame. Larsson was a journalist and activist who died of a heart attack. The manuscripts of his novels were found after his death. He had apparently written them just for fun. Five years later, the books are a publishing sensation.Private Life by Jane Smiley: There’s not much info on this one yet other than that it follows a Missouri woman’s life, from the 1880s to World War II.The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman: Pullman (famous for his His Dark Materials children’s series) will once again be courting controversy with this new book. According to The Guardian, “The book will provide a new account of the life of Jesus, challenging the gospels and arguing that the version in the New Testament was shaped by the apostle Paul.” In addition, the book will be released on Easter in the U.K. and is part of Canongate’s “Myths” series of books. Pullman also wrote an introduction to that series.The Microscripts by Robert Walser: The pothumous publication of Nabokov’s The Original of Laura, reproducing, front and back, the notecards on which Nabokov hat charted this unfinished work, was met with no small amount of scorn. This year, another posthumously published book, based off of notecard scrawlings, may be met more favorably. The story behind Walser’s Microscripts is fascinating. From the New Directions blog: “Walser wrote many of his manuscripts in a highly enigmatic, shrunken-down form. These narrow strips of paper… covered with tiny ant-like markings only a millimeter or two high, came to light only after the author’s death in 1956. At first considered a secret code, the microscripts were eventually discovered to be a radically miniaturized form of a German script: a whole story could fit on the back of a business card… Each microscript is reproduced in full color in its original form: the detached cover of a trashy crime novel, a disappointing letter, a receipt of payment.”June
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell: After Black Swan Green, a departure from the frenetic, layered Cloud Atlas which was broadly considered one of the best novels of the last decade, Mitchell fans may be pleased to hear that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is being described as a return to form. It’s long (512 pages) and set in Japan in 1799. The Guardian says, “Mitchell returns to the big canvas with this historical novel set in a Japanese outpost of the Dutch empire.”An American Type by Henry Roth: Here’s another interesting posthumous publication. Roth is revered for his 1934 novel Call It Sleep and his 1990s “comeback” effort, the Mercy of a Rude Stream cycle, and so news of this book, “discovered,” according to the publicity materials, “in a stack of nearly 2,000 unpublished pages by a young New Yorker editor,” will surely interest readers. A little more detail from the publicity materials: “Set in 1938, An American Type reintroduces us to Roth’s alter ego, Ira, who abandons his controlling lover, Edith, in favor of a blond, aristocratic pianist at Yaddo. The ensuing conflict between his Jewish ghetto roots and his high-flown, writerly aspirations forces Ira, temporarily, to abandon his family for the sun-soaked promise of the American West.”A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: This new novel by National Book Award nominee Egan sounds like it’s as ambitious and layered as Look At Me–and I’m sure it’ll be as addictively readable as The Keep. According to Amazon, it centers on the life of Bennie Salazar, “an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs,” and the narrative traverses various eras and locales, “from the pre-Internet nineties to a postwar future.” Color me intrigued. (Edan)July
Update: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: A reader points out in the comments that Shteyngart has a new book coming out and since we absolutely would have included it had we known about it, here it is. A recent item at The Rumpus has the scoop: “His new novel is set slightly in the future. When he started writing it a few years ago, he envisioned a world where the world’s economy had collapsed and the central banks had to bail out the Big Three automakers. As that came to pass, he had to keep changing his novel, which got bleaker and bleaker. And now it’s set in ‘a completely illiterate New York,’ he said. ‘In other words, next Tuesday.'”
Sympathy for the Devil: This is a long way off so it’s hard to say how good it will be, but it sounds pretty cool: an anthology of stories about the devil from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Kelly Link, China Mieville, Michael Chabon, and others.I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson: Petterson has been on the road to international literary stardom for a few years now and that means his new novels get translated into English with relative alacrity. This means that English-speaking readers will get to see I Curse the River of Time, first published in Norwegian in 2008, later this year. The book won the Norwegian Brage prize and, according to a “sample translation” on Petterson’s agent’s website, it begins: “I did not realize that my mother had left. There was too much going on in my own life. We had not spoken for a month, or even longer, which I guess was not that unusual, in 1989, when you consider the things that went on around us back then, but it felt unusual.”
C by Tom McCarthy: At Ready Steady Book in September 2007, Mark Thwaite asked McCarthy: “What are you writing now?” And McCarthy responded: “Pathetically, my answer to this question is the same as it was when you last asked it over a year ago. I’m just under half way through a novel called C, which is about mourning, technology and matter. I’m writing it very slowly. It’s called C because it has crypts, cauls, call-signs, cocaine, cyanide and cysteine in it. And carbon: lots of carbon.”Unknown
Nemesis by Philip Roth: News of this novel was announced nearly a year ago, but there is no release date thus far and not much is known about it beyond that it’s “a work of fiction set in the summer of 1944 that tells of a polio epidemic and its effects on a closely knit Newark community and its children.”Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Jonathan Franzen’s follow-up to The Corrections, Freedom, is likely to cause a stir when it appears, most likely in the fall. Among the prominent media narratives – the backlash, the backlash-to-the-backlash – will be the length of the novel’s gestation. Really, though, in novelist time (as distinct from internet time), nine years is a mere blip – particularly when you publish two books of nonfiction in the interim. Far more remarkable is how tight-lipped Franzen has managed to be about the novel’s content. From various obscure interviews, we’ve managed to cobble together the following: 1) The novel has something to do with U.S. politics, of the Washington, D.C. variety. 2) Franzen’s original conception of how those politics would intersect with the narrative changed radically in the writing, likely shifting from an “inside baseball” look at bureaucracy toward the personal. 3) Germany, where Franzen has spent some time recently, “will play an important role in the novel.” 4) After two New Yorker short stories notable for their smallness and misanthropy, the excerpt from the novel that appeared last year was notable for its return to the more generous ironies that endeared The Corrections to our “Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) panel.” (Garth)The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: Wallace’s unfinished opus is sure to be a blockbuster when it appears – April 2011 is the latest word on a release date. The Howling Fantods, home to all things DFW, has been staying on top of the story. A recent report contained a number of tidbits, including this: “The subject of the novel is boredom. The opening of the book instructs the reader to go back and read the small type they skipped on the copyright page, which details the battle with publishers over their determination to call it fiction, when it’s all 100% true. The narrator, David Foster Wallace, is at some point confused with another David F. Wallace by IRS computers, pointing to the degree to which our lives are filled with irrelevant complexity.”There are many other exciting books coming out in 2010 not mentioned here – let us know what books you are most looking forward to in 2010 in the comments section below.
Of all the many literary awards out there, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is the most egalitarian, international, and exhaustive in scope. This year, 169 libraries in 45 countries nominated 138 novels. All of the books must have been published in English or in translation in 2005. Libraries can nominate up to three books each. Taken as a whole, the literary proclivities of various countries become evident, and a few titles recur again and again, revealing which books have made a global impact on readers. Here are this year’s highlightsOverall favorites: books that were nominated by at least five libraries.Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (one in Canada and five in the US)Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden (all six in Canada)Saturday by Ian McEwan (one each in England, Germany, Greece, New Zealand and Russia)The Accidental by Ali Smith (one each in Belgium, Brazil, England, Ireland and Scotland)The Kreutzer Sonata by Margriet De Moor (all five in The Netherlands)The Sea by John Banville (two in Ireland and one each in the US, Hungary and Czech Republic)You can also look at the list and see which books are favorites in different countries. Aside from Three Day Road in Canada and The Kreutzer Sonata in The Netherlands, several books were nominated by multiple libraries in the same country. Here’s a few:In South Africa, Gem Squash Tokoloshe by Rachel ZadokIn New Zealand, Blindsight by Maurice GeeIn the US, Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala and March by Geraldine BrooksIn Australia, The Secret River by Kate GrenvilleThere were also several countries with only one library nominating just one book. Here are a few of those:From Pakistan, Broken Verses by Kamila ShamsieFrom Malaysia, The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash AwFrom Spain, Cold Skin by Albert Sanchez PinolFrom Suriname, Circle of Love by Soecy GummelsThe shortlist will be announced on April 4, 2007 and the winner on June 14, 2007.