Shakespeare was an insult master, as were Churchill, Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde and… Cézanne? Apparently so. In The Irish Times, Colm Tóibín reads through the painter’s letters, one of which includes a gripe that “Pissarro is an old fool [and] Monet is a wily bird.” (You could also read Claire Cameron’s Millions review of Tóibín’s latest novel.)
As of this morning, the 2014 IMPAC Dublin longlist is out, and the titles that made the final cut are an eclectic assortment. The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín (which we reviewed) made the cut, as did The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (which won the Pulitzer earlier this year) and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (which won the Booker Prize).
Amazon released their annual Best Books of the Year: Top 100 in Print list today (as well as a free and helpful Reader’s Guide), and numerous Millions favorites made the cut. Both George Saunders’s Tenth of December and Philipp Meyer’s The Son cracked the top 10. We reviewed both here and here, respectively. Other notable books boasting extensive Millions coverage include Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (review), George Packer’s The Unwinding (review), Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (review), Dave Eggers’s The Circle (review), James Salter’s All That Is (review), Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove (interview), Stuart Nadler’s Wise Men (review), Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic (review), and Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (review). Meanwhile, the top spot belongs to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.
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.
Colm Toibin and Jhumpa Lahiri headline the 2013 Booker shortlist, which also offers newer names like NoViolet Bulawayo, making the list with her first novel, and Eleanor Catton, shortlisted for her second. The longlist was offered here with some excerpts a month ago, but since you might not have gotten around to them then, we’ll offer the same with the shortlist below.
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (excerpt)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (publisher synopsis)
Harvest by Jim Crace (excerpt)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (excerpt)
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (review)
The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín (Millions review, excerpt)
In a welcome change of pace from the customarily masculine lists of years past, the 2013 Booker Prize longlist is notable because women outnumber men. The thirteen novels on this year’s “Booker Prize dozen” are from an eclectic mix of up-and-comers as well as established heavy hitters. Interestingly, only Colm Tóibín and Jim Crace have previously been featured on Booker longlists. Meanwhile NoViolet Bulawayo, Eleanor Catton, Eve Harris, and Donal Ryan are each making their first appearances. This year’s longlist is among the most diverse ever put out by the Booker judges. In total, seven different countries are represented by the authors of these books.
All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with excerpts where available):
Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw (excerpt)
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (review)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (publisher synopsis)
Harvest by Jim Crace (excerpt)
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris
The Kills by Richard House (author interview)
If I can’t believe in God, I do believe in fiction. Reading a novel is an act of devotion that will slowly, I hope, build an empathetic understanding of people and experience beyond my own. I can learn how it might feel to be a young woman recruited for MI5 in 1972, or why I might have murderous urges towards my spouse while living in a declining suburb in Missouri, or how it was to be Cromwell with a sunburn after a day of falconry with King Henry VIII. Organized religion may be one way to find an understanding of the world, but reading fiction is mine.
When I set out to read The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, a short novel about Mary the mother of Christ, it was the author’s interest in the subject that caught my attention. Tóibín’s mother characters often don’t do what you might expect. In Mothers and Sons, his collection of short stories from 2006, each story is about a mother and son relationship, but focuses on their distance whether it be physical or mental. A recurring theme in New Ways to Kill Your Mother, his book of essays about writers and their families, is how to define a life outside the confines of the family fold. “Mothers get in the way of fiction,” Tóibín said to The New York Times, “they take up the space that is better filled by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality.” He is more interested in a person than their role in a family.
When you close your eyes and picture the Virgin Mary, what do you see? There are countless possibilities, a woman with a halo of light around her tilted head, a cloaked figure with tears of blood or a vaguely burnt apparition on a slice of toast. Your answer will depend on how you were raised, the galleries you have visited, or the books you have read. Regardless of how you’ve come across her, Mary is part of a story you’ve been told. She is a powerful symbol of motherhood. And she is not only a mother, but the mother of Christ. Your view on him will probably dictate what she means to you. In Tóibín’s hand, Mary is more than her role as a mother or a symbol. Instead, she becomes the most interesting of creatures: a credible human.
How does Tóibín see Mary? This is the story of a woman living out her last days in exile with the excruciating memory of watching the torture and crucifixion of her only son. To read this book is to see, move and feel through Mary. While her thoughts and feelings are elegantly, yet simply, laid out, the author purposefully avoids description. He has said that this is to allow the reader to enter the character’s spirit and mind, “It’s first-person intimate rather than first-person singular.” In his hand, Mary is no longer a symbol. She is not defined by her son, but has feelings and thoughts of her own.
The novel is shaped around Mary telling her story of the crucifixion to the writers of the gospel. They are working on the book that will become the Bible, but Mary’s story is not what they want to hear. They poke and prod for a different version. She won’t bend. Plagued by her remorse over her lack of action during the crucifixion, she thinks back to when her son was a child, “beautiful then and delicate and awash with needs” and tries to reconcile this memory with the powerful leader. She sees him carrying the cross to his own death. He is clubbed. A large spike is driven into the soft point in his wrist. As she watches, she becomes completely overwhelmed in knowing that her son is more defenseless than when he was a baby in her arms.
Mary does nothing to stop the crucifixion. Fearing the political persecution of her friends and family she stays back in the crowd. She does not identify herself as his mother, nor try to pull his body down. “I was there…you say that he redeemed the world,” she says of what she saw to the writers of the gospel. “It was not worth it.”
Tóibín’s masterstroke in The Testament of Mary is to give the reader a way to believe. People who take things on faith often don’t require proof, but a follower of fiction can be a slightly more awkward creature. In trying to gain an understanding of the world, a reader looks for fiction that feels true. Only the very best writers can navigate the choppy waters of a reader’s conviction and this is the point where writing becomes an art rather than a skill. A novel exists in the space of what we know and what we don’t. It defines the gap between what we think and how we feel.
Tóibín reinvents the story of Mary by opening up this gap. We know the Bible. In Tóibín’s telling, the writers of the gospel were attempting to tell a story about redemption. When they hear Mary’s version of the crucifixion, they discount it and go on to write about a resurrection instead. We feel a mother who has lost her son. Tóibín’s intimate approach makes Mary feel more credible and human than the other versions of her we’ve come across before, whether they be in a crèche, a church or on a piece of toast. To her, the crucifixion was a horrific tragedy and this intuitively feels right. No parent could see the torture and death of his or her child in any other way.
Tóibín has set himself a similar task to that of the writers of the gospel. He is retelling story that shapes how we see the world around us. He has fit his story in between what we know and how we feel. The result, The Testament of Mary, feels true. Or this is how someone who has faith in fiction might read the book. And I am a believer.
Some heavy hitters out this week: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan; Dear Life, Alice Munro’s latest collection; Woes of the True Policeman by Roberto Bolaño; The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín; and Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon’s massive follow-up to The Noonday Demon. Also out are My Ideal Bookshelf, in which figures from Judd Apatow to Jennifer Egan share about which books shaped them; Jon Meacham’s biography of Jefferson; 40 years of poems by Louise Glück; a new issue of McSweeney’s food mag Lucky Peach; debut The Heat of the Sun by David Rain, and She Loves Me Not, a new collection of stories by Ron Hansen.