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Sunday, November 17, 2019

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Prior to the announcement of the Giller Prize winner in 2009, bookstore sales indicated that Annabel Lyon ought to have been leading the pack. Have readers figured out that being on 3 short lists is an indication of quality, rather than just waiting for the winner? And when the winner of the Giller—Linden McIntyre—was announced, so I’m told, everyone in the room gasped, including the emcee. So a television journalist from Cape Breton—the long shot by everyone’s account—wins the prize the same year Alistair McLeod, a Cape Breton lad, is the only Canadian on the jury. Hmmm.

The next announcement was another surprise; Kate Pullinger won the GG for fiction,  beating out both Alice Munroe and Annabel Lyon. The McIntyre book quickly moved to the bestseller list, confirming the claims of the Giller organizers that their prize is the important one. But Lyon charged up the Amazon ladder, at one point beating out Dan Brown. Finally The Writers’ Trust announced its fiction winner—Annabel Lyon. Phew, Lyon breaks the curse—in previous years the several books that had made all three short-lists were shut out, and didn’t take a single prize.

As I write this, early January 2010, the McIntyre book sits at number 1 on the bestseller list, but there is Annabel at number 3. The Pullinger book doesn’t appear at all.

Next we head into another phase of the CanLit calendar—Canada Reads. In past years there has been a focus on celebrity on the panel which has included past prime ministers (okay, it was Kim Campbell), rock and roll stars, esteemed writers, actors and the occasional lesser-known surprise. This year the panel is Perdita Felicien, a hurdler with a propensity toward getting injured or falling down at the wrong moment; Samantha Nutt, executive director of War Child Canada; Edmonton Poet Laureate and 23 year old rapper Roland Pemberton, Vancouver talk show host Simi Sara and Quebec-based broadcaster, writer and former clown, Michel Vezina. Other than Vezina, why would I be interested in what books these folks are reading, and what kind of qualifications do they bring to the task?

Oh, and confess—if this is a celebrity panel, how many names on the panel did you recognize?

1982 Booker Jury: Professor John Carrey is known for his” anti-elitist tone and iconoclastic views on high culture, as expressed in What Good Are the Arts? (2005).” He has twice chaired the Booker Prize committee, in 1982 and 2004, and chaired the judging panel for the first Man Booker International Prize in 2005. He is chief book reviewer for the London Sunday Times and appears in radio and TV programmes such as Saturday Review and Newsnight Review. Paul Bailey, novelist and broadcaster—shortlisted in 1977. Frank Delaney, Irish broadcaster, critic and novelist. Janet Morgan, an academic, editor of the Crossman diaries, married to Lord Balfour of Burleigh. Lorna Sage, Welsh academic, literary critic and reviewer.

Lawrence Durrell Constance: or Solitary Practices VPL

For 1981 the Vancouver Public Library had all but one of the books and several were out on loan. For 1982 this Durrell is the only one in the collection. Weird.

Category: Sex, death and Freud. Again! So soon? I was 20 or so pages into this book and realized I didn’t know who any of the characters were. I started over and after 10 pages, started again for the third time this time keeping crib notes. Having spent a great deal of time way back when reading Nancy Drew books I recognize the problem of serial books. You don’t want to bore your readers from the previous books with too much detail but you do need to give new readers enough background to follow along. In this instance Durrell does not succeed. You never know whether a character mentioned in passing is part of the lush description of Egypt and France or if he will turn up around page 300 with a significant role to play. For example, Livia, sister of Constance, of the title is mentioned in the first chapter, and in passing a couple of other times. Then she appears briefly, and commits suicide. Apparently these events are explained in the next novel in the series. Perhaps if you read the quincunx it would all fall into place.

Constance and some chums have just spent a glorious summer in Avignon (the preceding novel Livia) but there are ominous signs that war is approaching. The group disperses and the novel follows some of their exploits—to Cairo, Geneva, back to Avignon. Some of the novel’s themes include the allure of war (particularly for a certain type of male) and weapons of mass destruction (honest, that’s the exact phrase—do you think, maybe? Nah), religion (Templars, Gnostics, Catholics, Muslims), the limits of Freudian analysis, and the line between fact and fiction. Audrey Blanford is a novelist who creates two characters, Toby and Robin Sutcliffe, the latter is also a novelist. But Sutcliffe keeps showing up, though he was dead at the end of the second novel! I don’t see that Durrell does much with this idea; certainly it doesn’t approach the cleverness and brilliance of At-Swim-Two-Birds.

Durrell takes on various sexual scenes involving violence, menstrual blood, obliging duty nurses and cross-cultural, cross-social and cross-racial couplings. My favourite is one involving frogs. Here’s one example between Sutcliffe and the Negress Trash (who might also be a fictional character):

“You can’t do this, Trash,” he croaked, but already she had guided his costive fingers towards the moist scarlet slit, her second mouth, where they found their tender purchase in the one place which made her lift her head with pleasure and snuff the air like a tigress, moving slightly to feel his finger caressing her vital trigger. When she was ready she threw off her fur and mounted him with delight, like a child with its first rocking-horse. He was angry with her and it put him on heat, so that he turned in an excellent dogmatic performance which had her groggy. They melted at last into the supreme fiction of joining with a sable orgasm of deep lust and pith. She was made for love, this nymph! Kiss, kiss, the taxonomy of virtuous compliancy with nothing grim, nothing furtive, just the cryptic vision of wholeness. It was Eros versus Agape. And here he was, condemned to spend his life shooting his brains through his fists because this nymph refused her jumps. He lay there in a tousle feeling that he must smell of babies’ milk stools and antiseptic soap while she panted beside him, her breasts as fresh as dewponds. God, Trash!” he said with sadness the size of a cauliflower. She had begun to recite the 16th Psalm in a whisper. “Don’t,” he said in an agony…she was rousing him again, her skilful hands were trying to rebuilding (sic) the sandcastle of his erection which the tide of their passion had demolished. “Give me that hanging fruit, Buster,” she muttered as she grabbed and manipulated his choicest possession. But now he revolted against her and refused to get an erection until she answered his question. He did this by closing his eyes and thinking of ice cream…

The final chapter of the novel is operatic in scope. In fact, in my opinion, to a degree that doesn’t fit the scale of this novel. The blurb on the back of the first novel in the set, Monsieur, says that it “contains some of the finest descriptive set-pieces even Durrell has ever written” and on that I would agree—the descriptive parts are good. But other sections of the writing are purple and sometimes preposterous. I suspect this novel made the short list on the strength and reputation of The Alexandria Quartet. But if I were giving an award for Variety of Sex Scenes, Constance would make the cut, even when put up against The White Hotel.

Tomothy Mo—Sour Sweet UBC

This is the first novel to appear on the Booker short-list about the immigrant experience. “The Chens had been living in the UK for four years, which was long enough to have lost their place in the society from which they had emigrated but not long enough to feel comfortable in the new.” Chen works as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant that serves concocted dishes that Chinese people would never eat. His wife Lily looks after their young son, and pretty soon the family is joined by Lily’s older sister, Mui. Both perceptive and comic, we see the family struggling to make its way in a world that is mostly baffling in its language and customs.

For example, as a young girl Lily has been trained by her father as a boxer. When Lily teaches her son these techniques—including kickboxing—and he exercises them at his school against a gang of bullies the teacher accuses him of dirty fighting. Lily can’t understand it. As well as being a journalist and writer Mo himself is a professional boxer.

Eventually the ambitious Lily persuades Chen to start their own restaurant, apparently in the Chinese Soho area of the time. Mui learns what she knows about the English by watching television and Coronation Street.

Set against this domestic group are the Asian gangs of London who exploit the immigrant population and run the cocaine trade. Those parts seems melodramatic—filled with the kind of stage gangsters that we associate with James Bond movies. In the end Chen is murdered by one of the gangs because of a deception by a previous coworker at the restaurant.

It’s difficult in 2009 to put this novel in the context of 1982’s publishing scene. In part it might be working on the coattails of Rushdie. With the abundance—perhaps overabundance, Glendinning might argue—of immigrant experience literature that has been published in the last 25 years this novel doesn’t seem to stand out as anything really startling.

William Boyd  The Ice Cream War UBC

Category: Inept Brits Abroad/WWI

Felix and his older brother Gabriel are privileged children of the manor house. Gabriel marries Charis and a few days into their less-than-successful honeymoon in France, they return home on the cusp of war. Temple runs a farm at the foot of Kilimanjaro in British East Africa—he’s an American who stayed on after managing Roosevelt’s hunting and specimen collecting expedition to Africa. His neighbor, just a few miles away but in German East Africa is von Bishop, married to Liesl.

Gabriel is posted to Africa, is injured, is sent to recover in a German hospital and falls in love (though he never declares himself) with Liesl. Felix stays at home, has an affair with Charis, his brother’s wife, who subsequently commits suicide. Temple is run off his farm by von Bishop and spends the war trying to track the German down for vengeance.

Complicated? Coincidence? Yup, too much.

There is a formulaic tendency which is off putting. A character or place is introduced followed by a high-school-assignment-like description. I did a little research and found out that William Boyd is primarily known as a dramatist—plays and film—and that this was his second novel, published when he was 30. Perhaps from that angle I can see the novel’s place on this list, for great promise. But ultimately it is the work of a young writer who relies too heavily on transparent manipulation. The privileged children of the manor are as unaware of the servants as the colonists are of the native Africans. (Gabriel is killed and beheaded by Africans because of poor communication skills!) It’s rehashed colonialism without much new. Though the novel does aptly portray the utter mayhem and ineptitude of war, “What kind of a war was this? He demanded angrily to himself. No enemy in sight, your men slowly being starved to death, guarding a huddle of grass huts in the middle of a sodden juggle.”

Alice Thomas Ellis The 27th Kingdom UBC

Alice Thomas Ellis is the pseudonym for Anna Haycroft, with her husband long-time editors at Duckworth and also editor of Beryl Bainbridge.

The writing is sure, tight and sparse. It’s a delightful little book that kept surprising me even once I’d figured out what was going on. Plus, it explains what came first, the chicken or the egg. A Mother Superior, her sister the bohemian Aunt Irene, the Adonis bad boy nephew Kyril, Focus the cat, and a black thaumaturge name Valentine are a few of the eccentric characters. The cat is by far the smartest.

The plot is less important than the keen eye for detail and a dazzling wit about post WWII Chelsea.

George and I are off on a trip around the world. A couple of years ago we did a cruise, our first, around Cape Horn. Cruising wouldn’t be our first choice for a vacation but GB doesn’t have the best traveling tummy and it’s the only way we would ever have seen that part of the world. This time we are spending some days in Athens then taking a cruise to Egypt, through the Suez Canal then on to Asia. This meant some planning ahead for reading. The next two novels I dragged along with me from UBC library. The following 3 years (can I read that many books on this cruise?) I purchased over a period of months at various used books stores. Some were harder to find that others but I was able to find them all.

So it was just dumb luck that I was reading the following novel when we landed in Athens.

John Arden Silence Among the Weapons UBC

I’ve been putting this one off. The inside cover is a map of the Mediterranean in the First Century BC. The subtitle is “some events at the time of the failure of a republic.” The book begins with a couple of pages of historical notes. It’s going to be a war novel and you know how I feel about those. I know John Arden as a playwright not a novelist, but here goes…

In four books, the novel examines the chaos of power struggles in the Mediterranean through the life of an actor. Categories: history, war and sex. I liked the first book and a bit. It’s an interesting worldview, made more so by Arden’s obvious knowledge of the world of the theatre. But a short way into the second book Arden starts to use a different style. Other characters in the book start giving written reports of events. Information about battles is relayed second and third hand (these sections reminded me of Shakespeare’s history plays but there the device is a way to relate a great amount of information to the audience in a short period of time as well as avoiding staging the war scene) which starts to seem like bad newspaper reporting.

These sections put my brain into questioning mode. What was the literacy rate of the regular citizenship at this time? According to this novel pretty well everyone can read posted rules and a common actor has the skills to write a detailed novel, and at one point write a letter as a sabotage—and apparently the minions in the army can also read. Also what access to maps or what knowledge did the average citizen have about geography—a character talks about the towns in the “heel and toe” of Italy, an expression that could not have common usage unless maps were commonly available. These things may be quibbles but in conjunction with the faltering writing style I soon lost interest. I sped read the last half of book 2, most of 3 and a bit into 4 when I returned to my detailed reading style for the remainder or the novel.

The book is playful with the debauchery of the times and recreates a version of theatre life that would probably be of interest to theatre buffs or historians. If you like war novels, give this one a try. But otherwise Arden has produced much better work than this novel.

Thomas Keneally Schindler’s List (also published as Schindler’s Ark) –purchased

The story of Oskar Schindler is so compelling—an industrialist, womanizer, hard-drinking German who saved 1200 Jews through his camps. In the Author’s Note at the beginning Keneally writes: “To use the texture and devices of a novel to tell a true story is a course that has frequently been followed in modern writing. It is the one I chose to follow here—both because the novelist’s craft is the only one I can lay claim to, and because the novel’s techniques seem suited for a character of such ambiguity and magnitude as Oskar. I have attempted, however, to avoid all fiction, since fiction would debase the record, and to distinguish between reality and the myths which are likely to attach themselves to a man of Oskar’s stature.” And the book seems to support that position, which is one reason it is both so remarkable and such a tough read, at times.

Heavily researched with interviews and correspondence from survivors, the book records the “methodical slaughter” of Jews by the SS, how they “used people as labor for a time, but their ultimate industry was death and its by-products—the recycling of the clothes, of remaining jewelry or spectacles, of toys, and even of the skin and hair of the dead.” In this environment Oskar works to “adjust the balance of evil over a snifter of cognac.”

For Hitler was more than a man: he was a system with ramifications. Even if he died, it was no guarantee the system would alter its character. Besides, it was not in the nature of a phenomenon such as Hitler to perish in the space of a single evening.

I might be one of the few people not to have seen the movie. And I struggled at times, as others have noted, with the book itself. Keneally declared no fiction and much of the book reads like a well-researched and thoughtful history. If so, should it even have been considered for the Booker? And was the success of the book due to the scale and importance of its topic? In the end I decided it is a novel because Keneally says it is. And what is remarkable about the novel is the care, control and precision of the writing. It’s a tough, tough read, and leaves us with no comfort that such a thing might not happen again. The careful examination of motivation, obligation (to country, family, religion) and corruption does not allow the reader off the hook: we are all implicated.

As we travel through different cities, and airports, we check out bookstores. There is an astonishing and depressing sameness to them all. Just as there is a sameness to the books around the pool, or in the airport waiting lounge—Dan Brown and John Grisham. Like seeing tourists gobbling Big Macs at the foot of the pyramids or sucking Starbucks at the gates of the Forbidden City. Our guide to the Great Wall of China says her son’s favourite meal is KFC.

In the 80s I was the editor of a monthly newsletter and annual directory about business format franchising. Franchising was really booming in the late 70s, early 80s. At conferences members of the industry would praise the ‘assurance of quality’ or ‘transferability of guarantee.’ It’s a good thing, goes the argument, that traveling families who experience problems with a car are no longer at the mercy of the local mechanic. You can pull into any Speedy Muffler and know the job will be done, and work guaranteed after you make the long trip home. It’s about sameness, and volume of sales.

That seems to be the way the book industry has gone. There are fewer reviews of books in newspapers because reviews are controlled by advertising dollars. Result: fewer book reviews, more movie and video game reviews. With the collapse of Borders in the UK over 1100 employees received layoff notices. More so than ever before the book trade is driven by corporate profits.

Denise Bukowski is the agent representing Annabelle Lyon. Despite good reviews she could get no interest in foreign book sales. Only when the book received 3 award nominations was Denise able to sell the rights. And she didn’t point out to the publisher that two editors from the press had previously rejected the novel.

Denise also says that things are so bad in the UK industry that publishers are hardly buying anything. What might this mean for Canadian writers and readers? Unless you are a big-name writer or have already won an award your book isn’t likely to be published in the UK. No UK publisher, no shot at the Booker. Perhaps there will be a shift in emphasis to the IMPAC which is a more open and international prize.

1982 Paul Bailey from The Guardian

There are many things I regret doing, and being a judge for the Booker prize is one of them. For some years after I was associated with two novels I absolutely loathed and would not have even started reading in other circumstances (on the shortlist that year were Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark, John Arden’s Silence Among the Weapons, William Boyd’s An Ice-Cream War, Lawrence Durrell’s Constance or Solitary Practices, Alice Thomas Ellis’s The 27th Kingdom and Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet). They are history now and are likely to remain so. My one good deed was to ensure a place on the shortlist for Sour Sweet, consequently bringing his work to a larger audience. But otherwise it was a dispiriting experience. The winner, by a single vote, was Schindler’s Ark, a controversial but ultimately very popular choice.

The prize was founded, in part, to encourage competitiveness. Which of the six novelists will make it to the finishing post? This grisly notion constitutes a perfect recipe for envy, back-biting and self-glorification. The Booker has certainly mirrored fashion – the collapse of the empire; post-modernist Victorian pastiche; New Age sentimentality. Several stinkers have been honoured, but there have been some glorious losers: Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid, John McGahern’s Amongst Women and Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk. A wonderful book such as Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower was completely ignored, and I hope the judges for 1995 are blushing now to be reminded of their grotesque oversight.

3770 words, November 8, 2010

Jean Baird

Jean Baird

Jean Baird is the co-editor, with George Bowering, of The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning (Random House, 2009), and the author of The Booker Project.

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