The Man Booker Prize Readings at the Royal Festival Hall

In two days’ time, the award of the biggest literary prize in the UK publishing calendar will be announced to much fanfare, live on the BBC 10 o’clock news to an audience of millions. When you consider actual sales, revenue and public interest compared with the music, movie or gaming industries, it often appears the publishing industry punches far above its weight in garnering such publicity.

Tonight saw an example of that. The beautiful auditorium of London’s Royal Festival Hall was only three-quarters full for a preview of the Man Booker Prize night, with all six short-listed authors present, supposedly to read from their work and answer questions. Sadly, no audience questions were possible as the idea of putting microphone stands in the aisles for people to gather behind had escaped the organizers – oh well, at least we had six very different readings.

First up was Howard Jacobson with his The Finkler Question. Jacobson’s been longlisted twice before, but this was his first time breaking through into the final half dozen. He talked a bit about how important it was to him to write a funny book and wondered how far you can take the humour when a tale descends into tragedy. The Finkler Question is a story of three Jewish men, their friendship and how they deal with grief. For Jacobson, the key character of the three is the widower, and his reading was of a first date for this man after the loss of his wife of fifty years. It was a powerful, engaging and funny opening to proceedings.

Andrea Levy came next with her The Long Song. I’ve read her Small Island, winner of the anachronistic (women only) 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction. I struggled with that as no one seemed to come out of it well – for me to enjoy a book I need some kind of empathy with it. Here, the move from Queen’s English to Jamaican reading accent was fabulous and whisked you straight into the slave revolt of 1831/32. Typical of the way Levy intertwines her stories and the links between slave and free, black and white, the main character is the slave girl daughter of a slave and the slave overseer. Of course such offspring were common. Levy ended her reading with the image of rebellious slaves being gunned down mercilessly and the chilling line that there would be “Compensation for the owners for the loss of their property”. Harrowing stuff.

South African Damon Galgut spoke of how his previously shortlisting for The Good Doctor in 2003 had transformed his literary career. As each author spoke their cover was projected five metres tall in the background and we could all read “Author of The Good Doctor Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize” in very large letters on the current cover behind him. He said his new novel In a Strange Room was about journeys and he read a passage about a mentally set adrift woman drinking when she knew full well it interfered with her medication. There were occasional worthwhile images, but it struggled to hold my attention.

Next came Tom McCarthy, defiantly refusing to acknowledge his third novel, simply entitled C (were the first two A and B, I wonder?), as experimental. McCarthy’s prose is so dense it’s like poetry. He described the book as about being “in media” or “in language” and read a passage about its main protagonist Serge, from around a century ago. The language was hard to follow and inevitably, with a character so named, I started humming Kasabian. Betting on the winner was suspended for a while last week when a bookmakers had taken a run of money on McCarthy. He acknowledged his favourite’s status with a wry smile.

When the appalling, horrific story of Josef Fritzl’s kidnapping, imprisonment and incest with his daughter emerged a couple of years ago, I suppose it was inevitable that the literary or cinematic adaptations wouldn’t take long to follow. Emma Donoghue’s Room is one such reimagining, told from the point of view of five year old Jack whose life has been spent in a single room. Donoghue told us that, for the first time, she was to read from a section of the book when Jack and his mother are brought outside the room, to “the clinic”. When asked why she’d written about such a topic, she argued that the book was more about parenting than about the Fritzl case itself, but it felt unconvincing. Also, in her reading, I didn’t feel the extract maintained the five-year-old’s voice throughout. There was, though, an allusion to the house elves of Harry Potter, but that only served to me to suggest a lack on imagination on Donoghue’s part. I prefer my authors to create their own stories.

Last up was twice previous winner Peter Carey. In my twenties, living in Oxford, everyone I knew (including me) read and loved Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, winner in 1988. With True History of the Kelly Gang triumphing in 2001, Carey could become the first author to win the award three times. Carey lived in New York for twenty years and found himself relating to Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America (1830). His latest story, Parrot and Olivier in America, follows Olivier (a French aristocrat I think modelled on de Toqueville) and his English servant, Parrot. Unlike Levy’s reading, Carey made no attempt to recreate Parrot’s apparent west country accent, telling the audience we would doubtless imagine it perfectly when reading on the page. The writing sounded as polished as ever, but the story for me sounded as though it lacked passion.

What amazed me was to learn that the longlist of 13 and its shortlist of 6 was drawn from only 136 entries. No wonder it’s a collection of the same old names, year after year. When a shortlisting can make such an astronomical difference to a book’s sales, surely this suggests a dereliction of duty by publishers to their authors in not putting enough titles forward for the honour of being “the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland”.

As to who will win, on the evidence of tonight, and the passion he showed about the subject and his characters, and for surprising me in terms of which title on the list I would like to read first, it should be Jacobson, but I was strangely drawn to McCarthy’s poetic prose too. We’ll all find out on Tuesday evening.

~ by keithmansfield on October 10, 2010.

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