Was anyone keeping an eye on the award of the Man Booker Prize last week? It’s, like, the World Cup for novels.
Well, that’s not quite right. Historically, the Man Booker has only been open to authors of the Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland, or Zimbabwe. So it’s kind of more like the Commonwealth Games for novels. The 2014 prize was the first year the prize was open to authors from anywhere in the world. AS Byatt said the prize risked diluting its identity, but blog favourite A.L. Kennedy was all for it.
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[Update, 20 Oct., early evening: I’ve just finished Toni Morrison’s Jazz. And what pleasure in finding at the end that, in the post below, I made the same mistake as the ultimate narrator; the mistake the author wants the reader to make. Jazz isn’t about the City. It’s about the people and the relationships among them and about the two lead characters. A bit like this post, as it turns out. Do, Dear Reader, sign up for the Tiny Letter; I suspect that next week there may be a slightly more extended conversation to be had here.
But, back to the Booker for a second….]
In the end, Australian Richard Flanagan’s victory for The Narrow Road to the Deep North suggests that — for the moment at least — fears of U.S. authors coming to dominate the prize are unfounded. And would it really make that much difference, anyway? We’re about half way through the first semester of my Creative Writing M.Sc. at the University of [first UNESCO City of Literature] Edinburgh, and the novels we’ve read so far have included classics by a Polish national with British citizenship and an American who lived the last quarter century of her life in France, as well as another novel that’s a kind of love letter to France from an American novelist who married his second wife in Paris.
Nevertheless, my favourite course novel to this point has been one by a Scotswoman born in Edinburgh who lived in London and New York City before settling in Tuscany in the ’70s, till her death in 2005.
Many Scottish students read Muriel Sparks’ The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in high/senior school. For the purposes of this blog, I suppose it’s appropriate that my set read The Great Gatsby instead.
This was all for the good, because it meant that I had a lovely time with Miss Brodie the other week (even if James Wood‘s idea that she’s “much-loved” is an odd one). The book captures a certain segment of Edinburgh society and strand of Presbyterian fatalism brilliantly, of course. But in my reading log, I made sure to mention something else — how striking the humour is, particularly if you’re familiar with Edinburgh.
It’s been suggested to me that you have to be fairly intimately knowledgeable about Edinburgh society to get lots — but not all — of the humour in Brodie. Regardless, the writing is awesome. Consider this passage from an early ‘sixties novel describing Edinburgh between the wars (and a month and a week ago):
[D]ark heavy Edinburgh itself could suddenly be changed into a floating city when the light was a special pearly white and fell upon one of the gracefully fashioned streets.
And Edinburgh is the kind of awesome city that can ruin you for other cities for life. Don’t believe me? Check this out. But Brodie it may be supplanted as my course favourite soon, because I’m working my way through this:
As I write this, I’m about half way through Jazz. I’m not a Nobel Prize for Literature jurist, so you don’t need me to tell you the writing is awesome. Fittingly, the words are formed into stabs of the horn and then page-long slabs of riffing. And one of its major characters is my other favourite city, New York. The place where, as Toni Morrison’s narrator writes, people feel more like themselves, more like the people they always believed they were.
I never lived in “the City” in the ‘twenties, though Tillman’s on 26th Street was an awesome Chelsea representation of Harlem gone downtown. But Morrison’s city is recognisable in many aspects. And I love her riff on Thursdays that begins, Weekends and other days of the week are possibilities but Thursday is a day to be counted on.
And this: When they fall in love with a city, it is forever, and it is like forever…. There, in a city, they are not so much new as themselves: their stronger, riskier selves. And in the beginning when they first arrive, and twenty years later when they and the City have grown up, they love that part of themselves so much they forget what loving other people was like — if they ever knew, that is…. [W]hat they start to love is the way a person is in the City….
All these bits about Thursdays and love and the City are shot through with wistfulness, but not quite twenty years after moving to the City and not quite two after leaving, it feels like there might be a way to catch lightning in a bottle. Like all the things we love — Aberdeen beating Rangers 4-1 at Hampden, the line the airplane takes along the Forth, our lovers — if we carry a piece of them with us, they can grow to be part of us, providing strength when we need it.
Longsufferinggirlfriendoftheblogbeth and I first blew on the flames of a mutual interest in word games and hip hop-related humour on a Thursday. Holding on to that shard of orange light kept me semi-conscious just long enough on 1 October, 2012 to be able to move to Edinburgh with her after we’d negotiated the first stages of stroke recovery. I’ve brought a little bit of the City with me to Edinburgh.
And so has she. And I love the way a person is in the City.
4 thoughts on “Jazz”
I think the US should apply for Commonwealth admission so we can get in the games. Accepting the Queen will admittedly be a hard sell though.
Incidentally, the Rugby Sevens was my favorite sporting event of late. Fun times!
See?! Weren’t you told that fully-fledged independence was a terrible idea, and that you were too wee and too crap to make it on yer own?!
Does this mean you’re ready for the next step? A full-length, 80-minute autumn international at Murrayfield?
(Autumn! Pfft! Pretty sure autumn threw in the towel this morning.)
So I haven’t read the Flanagan or Jazz or the other book you mention.. But I have been reading some booker and national book award long listers since the start of September or so, which has me reading a lot of literary fiction. Since the TinyLetter asked about books, let me share some thoughts.
Orfeo by Powers (booker). What a fantastic book. A aged 20th century music composer and performance artist retells his life through central bits of 20th century composed music while on the flee from the FBI for his home-brewed bioengineering terrorism suspicion. Admittedly, if you wanted to write a parody of a book I would like you may come up with that sentence. But it’s fantastic.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Ferris (booker). A yank! On the booker!! And with this book. I’ve read all three of his books and am not sure of a total ordering. But dentistry and a weird religion and the concept of identity mix wonderfully in this. His second book, 2010’s unnamed, is a wonderful experimental book about mental illness, too.
The Bone Clocks by Mitchell (booker). I mean, I love Mitchell but this one was a bit so-so. A friend described it well as “The greatest neal stephenson book ever”, which makes it a 4th quartile Mitchell outing. Worth it to tie out the lose ends in Jacob DeZoet, but a bit fanboy.
The Blazing World (booker) seemed clever but too precious and I stalled. And I’m reading J (booker) right now.
I also really dug, in other awards, Station Eleven by Emily John St-Mandel, which was natl book award longlisted, and the most enjoyable apocalypse book I’ve read, and last years Pulitzer winner The Orphan Master’s Son which is an incredibly bleak fictionalization of North Korea.
Did I mention I’ve been reading a lot lately? Ha! Well anyway, except for the book I abandoned and haven’t finished, I would recommend all of these. Do any reflect on my home town though?
Well my home town is Brooklyn. Ferris is all in that modern quasi-young New York urban vibe. And Orfeo has a big chunk in New York. But the rest are far away (I mean, I complain about the city sometimes, but Pyongyang is worse).
New York books, though? The New York Trilogy. I guess I love that.
But books which I really carry inside me aren’t about a city. They are about an experience or an organization of the world. Think of Black Swan Green, which is about the disorienting experience of parents divorcing when you are 13 in 1983 (natch). Or Wolf Hall, which is about power, influence, and society. There’s a couple of my favorite books in the last decade.
Fun stuff. Where to begin…?
Orfeo does sound like that book. But that’s OK. I’m intrigued. Books bioengineered for you will probably hit the spot. When I mentioned Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore in our pre-course ice-breaker session, it seemed to generate some interest among the tech-savvy at-risk yoof.
Just finished The Bone Clocks as a Radio 4 Book at Bedtime, and had a similar reaction to you. It feels ridiculous for the author of Passengers to write that, but such is the curse of high expectations in the wake of Black Swan Green, which — you’re right — is made of awesome. It’s a shame, because The Bone Clocks is humming with potential at the beginning. The central conceit seems so relevant, timely, and weighted, but it’s all in service of…
…a big CGI Gandalf-off?
Speaking of, Wolf Hall has come up in school a couple of times. Not least because one of my colleagues is doing a cracking job of submissions of historical and counter-historical fiction. With five more novels to read before the end of term, the rest of the above are going on the Pinterest list of books I must read for pure pleasure.
Thank god I’ve read Auster’s New York Trilogy before. That is the win for NY book, I think. Would be good in our “Acts of Storytelling” class, now I think about it. Oddly, one of the runner-up prizes goes to Anthony Bourdain’s Bone In Throat. A little slight for such high praise, maybe, but it really catches something of The City.
Next up in class, Tracks by Louise Erdrich. But what I’m really excited about are yet more things I shoulda read but haven’t yet: The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Lolita….