Monday, 16 September 2013

Schopenhauer and the Booker Prize

Wise words for a Monday morning:

“The art of not reading is a very important one. It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public. A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.”  - Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms.


The shortlist of novels nominated for the annual Man Booker Prize was announced last week, and Schopenhauer's words come to mind, as they should every year at this time. Tomorrow's blog will feature NoViolet Bulawayo's debut novel We Need New Names, one of the six finalists. As if you needed reminding the others are:

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (Granta) 
Harvest by Jim Crace (Picador) 
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury) 
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate)
The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín (Viking)

I read Jim Crace's Harvest when it came out and thought it was really very fine. Written at full tilt in six months it is, the author has informed us, his last book. He's the bookie's favourite (and bookmakers always know a lot more about literature than anyone else, including authors). I hope he wins because it's a good novel (about the enclosure of common land in the Middle Ages) and he's a very good writer. I shan't read Colm Tóibín's novella about the Virgin Mary because he's a terrible writer, really terrible. Of the others, and with Schopenhauer's words fresh in our thoughts - what to say?

Four of the six authors are female and none is British. Eleanor Catton's second book is a period novel about the New Zealand gold rush which has been highly praised. It's very long indeed, so I shan't read it. Most reviews praise the 'exquisite' composition and plotting, the seamlessness (as if writing were a branch of couture) and the lack of lumps or bumps (as if writing were also a form of pastry-making). I don't value polish and (Crace aside) I don't much like historical novels for the same reason I don't much like television costume dramas, because I'm constantly on the alert for anachronism, lexical or visual, and this is tiresome.

A Tale for the Time Being? The title really annoys me. Auden wrote For the Time Being (a Christmas Oratorio) in 1941-42, and it was published in 1944. It was prompted by the death of his mother and is a noble work. Annoyingly when one goes to Google (as I did just now to check the date of publication) it's the Ozecki book that comes up, not the Auden title. It seems to me a silly appropriation, as if the author wrote A Book about War and Peace or A Story for Madame Bovary. I realise this is on itself not the grounds for dismissing a book but I've just watched the author give a reading at the Norwich Writers' Centre (you can see it yourself on YouTube) and it (the reading) and she (the author) annoyed the hell out of me. For her the "Time Being" is a literal creature, without Auden's ambiguous  sense of contingency. She might argue that she'd never heard of the Auden poem - that wouldn't surprise me. There's more: in a dire new development this is a book that comes with an official trailer.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri? I'm unsure how to pronounce 'Jhumpa'. Jumper? Yoompa? It's a minor annoyance, comparable (as Iris Murdoch noted in Under the Net) to drinking in a pub the name of which you don't know. However this is the one I'd read if (a) I hadn't already read the Jim Crace's Harvest and (b) I ever read novels on prize shortlists, which I don't. As Schopenhauer says, life is short.

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