However we might feel about the subjectivity and inclusiveness of literary prizes, they certainly help to raise the profile of authors and books that a more general audience might not come across otherwise. So I’m all for this ‘democratisation’ of literature. In the queue for Olga Tokarczuk (and her translator Jennifer Croft, who share the Man Booker International Prize for 2018), most of the people I spoke to admitted they had neither read Flights nor heard anything about the author, but were curious to find out more. And after the very charismatic duet that the two of them gave with moderator Gaby Wood, almost everyone in the audience was charmed and rushed off to buy the book and get it signed by her. Hurrah!
I’d just recently read her book and was smitten with it and with the possibilities it offered for fiction (review forthcoming). And I am also very proud to say that Asymptote Journal was the first to publish an excerpt from it back in 2016, so we have a good eye for quality! (Actually, of the 6 authors and 9 translators featured on the Man Booker International Shortlist, we could count 3 authors and 5 translators amongst our contributors). And there was some satisfaction in Tokarczuk attending the prize-giving ceremony wearing the earrings she had bought with her paltry salary when she was working as a chambermaid in London 15 years ago. I will write a separate post on Iconoclasts (writers who go against the grain, do not fit into the established literary norms), but it would be fair to say that Olga fits into this category as well.
First of all, her approach to the novel is completely unconventional. I kept thinking Flights was non-fiction, but the first person narrator is not Olga herself, although she shares certain characteristics. However, the narrator is the only solid base to cling to in this dazzling and dizzying array of stories, situations, reflections, sudden shifts of gear and locations. This is what the author herself calls a ‘constellation novel’: just like the human eye creates patterns in the night sky to orient themselves, this novel is full of disparate shapes and themes and stories, and each reader will create their own pattern, dependent on their past experience, mood, how they come to the reading of the book. She described how she assembled the book by printing it all out, putting the different sections on the floor and then rearranging visually from a high point within the room (very much how I approach a poetry collection), so that the tyranny of linearity of writing on a computer is destroyed. Why write like that? Because Olga believes that the traditional 19th century door-stopper novel no longer fits with the way we lead our lives now. Everything seems to be fragmentary perceptions, from many different sources (some often contradictory), with brief flashes of insight. Stories are a great way to perceive reality, but sometimes they are not quite enough, so it’s important to juxtapose them with facts, lecture-like discourse and other elements.
Meanwhile, it became clear just how crucial her translator Jennifer Croft was in bringing her work to the English-speaking audience. She encountered Tokarczuk’s work while on a study year in Poland and has been a champion for it ever since (approaching publishing houses on her behalf, running her English language Facebook page, touring with her etc.). Jennifer also pointed out that, although the novel is conceptually very ambitious and seems ‘difficult’, the language is very clear and accessible, making it a fun and easy read. I certainly look forward to reading more by Olga – and two of her books will be coming out later this year and in 2019 respectively. Meanwhile, back in Poland she is very well known, has published 10 novels, one of her books has been filmed by Agnieszka Holland and she has become political almost without intending to. She somewhat ruefully said that her generation thought that after the collapse of Communism politics was over in Poland and most of the writers switched to introverted style and inner-life topics. But now it appears that any personal opinions, such as feminism, animal rights, love of democracy, have become political in her home country.
The International Dylan Thomas Prize winner Kayo Chingonyi was the second event I attended and it is once again extremely gratifying to see the prize awarded to poetry at long last. Founded in 2006, this £30,000 Prize is awarded to the best published or produced literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under. Furthermore, Kayo is of Nigerian descent, growing up in the UK, and English was not his first language, so I will present his talk in more detail in the post on Iconoclasts, but suffice it to say he blew me away with the breadth and depth of his knowledge and his sensitivity to nuances and the world around him. (Well, most poets are like that!) Plus, he likes Douglas Dunn, Kathleen Jamie, Don Paterson and other such poets that I admire!
I wasn’t planning to attend the 10 a.m. panel on Sunday morning on the Golden Man Booker Prize, but I’m glad I changed my mind, because the three panellists were thoughtful and funny and brilliant, as you might expect with Elif Shafak (I adore that woman and that writer!), Juan Gabriel Vasquez and Philippe Sands. All of them brought a distinctly international flavour to this celebration of English-speaking literature (mostly the former Empire and more recently opened to the US – which was once former Empire as well, let’s not forget). To celebrate 50 years of the Man Booker, five judges were each assigned a ‘decade’ and asked to select one winner. The shortlist was announced at they Hay Festival on the 26th of May and readers can vote for their favourite online. The panellists talked about their favourites, their surprises and disappointments in re-reading or reading the shortlist, with Philippe Sand admitting he found he had to work too hard for something he did not enjoy with Lincoln in the Bardo, while Vasquez admitted what a huge influence Naipaul’s book had been on him as a writer. Overall, it appears that Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, surprise winner over Kazuo Ishiguro or Salman Rushdie, were the favourites both with the panel and with the audience in the tent.
They pointed out of course just how different the novels are both thematically and stylistically. Yet in some way, they are all about ways of dealing with the past, how an individual gets swept up by the course of history, and they all demonstrate that there is no single truth but rather a multiplicity of versions of history. Perhaps because both Shafak and Vasquez come from very different storytelling traditions, they did not enjoy so much Hilary Mantel’s linearity, while Sands reminded the audience that Mantel criticised Ondaatje’s lack of linearity back in 1993.
‘The English language is very open and welcoming to new words in the vocabulary, unlike Turkish, but its literature is much more inflexible and not so open to new forms, to stories within stories, which are simply other traditional ways of telling stories that clash with linearity.’ (Shafak)
‘I’ve seen many a Spanish or French book destroyed in the British reviews because they contain multiple stories that have nothing to do with each other or contain digressions that shouldn’t really be there.’ (Vasquez)
Could it be that Tokarczuk’s win marks the start of a new era? That the inclusion of Lincoln in the Bardo on that list also means something? That English-language literature is opening itself up to less rigid consecutive structures and experimenting more with simultaneous stories with no unique interpretations or clear answers?