Part 2 of #HayFestival: The Prize Winners

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!

Olga listens to Jennifer reading that wonderful passage about the English language (will refer to it later in my review, because I LOVED it).

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.

Forgot to take a picture of this panel, so you’ll have to make do with a gratuitous generic picture.

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?

I loved the baaing of these sheep as I picked up my car in the evening.

 

Two Books Tipped for Prizes

I seldom follow closely the longlisted or even shortlisted books for any of the International Literary Prizes. I might pick up a winner if it sounds interesting to me anyway, or I might pick up the one that other people think should have won (or been shortlisted). However, there is one advantage with shortlisted titles (at least for the UK) – they raise the profile of the author and usually make it to the shelves of my local library.

That is where I found Fiona Mozley’s¬†Elmet and I can see I’m only the fourth person to borrow it, with the other three all taking it out around the time of the Man Booker Prize 2017 announcement. This is a shame, because it is a beautifully written book, which deserves a wider readership. But it will never be popular – the subject is too grim, the pace is too slow. Above all, it contradicts the established canon of British nature writing as a nostalgic retreat into a rural fairyland. Nature as fond mother cradling and redeeming the sinners (sorry, Amy Liptrot) or close observation of natural phenomenon as if to document its universal appeal (Melissa Harrison, whose work I enjoy a lot). Mozley writes sensitively about the tranquility and beauty of the countryside, but this is a landscape under siege from the brutality of developers, large-scale farmers, supermarkets and progress more generally.

This is unvarnished countryside, with rough and unlikable people being shaped by it. Daniel, his sister Cathy and their father are outsiders and rather disturbingly eccentric, to be perfectly frank. They do not automatically become good people because they co-exist harmoniously with nature. This is the view of the countryside that my peasant family would recognise: a hard, unforgiving life. Nature is not all nice and pretty-pretty, something to be admired and set aside when we’ve had enough of it. Land has been (and still is) the thing most fought over, as countless wars testify.

Let me share two contrasting passages with you, both from the beginning of the book, but at different moments of time. Before and after the rape of the land, if you will:

We arrived in summer when the landscape was in full bloom and the days were long and hot and the light was soft. I roamed shirtless and sweated cleanly and enjoyed the hug of the thick air. In those months I picked up freckles on my bony shoulders and the sun set slowly and the evenings were pewter before they were black, before the mornings seeped through again. Rabbits gambolled in the fields and when we were lucky, when the wind was still and a veil settled on the hills, we saw a hare.

The long, run-on sentences and lack of punctuation mimic the unity of human and nature, of the family who has arrived in these places, as well as the lazy, hazy summer days. Contrast that with:

I still smell embers. The charred outline of a sinuous wreck. I hear those voices again: the men, and the girl. The rage. The fear. The resolve. Then those ruinous vibrations coursing through the wood. And the lick of the flames. The hot, dry spit. The sister with blood on her skin and that land put to waste.

How fragmented, spiky, rough those short, sharp phrases are now! It is the pant of someone enraged, scared and running away. Leaving nothing behind. It reminded me somewhat of Fiona Melrose’s book Midwinter¬†(and not just because the authors share a first name) – the same timeless quality to the prose and the story. The main characters exist on a different, unrushed timescale to the rest of us – the rhythm of nature perhaps – until they are forced to submit to our cruel contemporary world.

Meena Kandasamy’s¬†When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife has recently been shortlisted for the Women’s Fiction Prize and is therefore more readily available. When I first heard of it from Naomi Frizby’s blog, it was much harder to get hold of it and I had to order it from abroad. I was fascinated by the (somewhat autobiographical) premise: a well-educated woman who wants to become a writer is trapped in an unhappy and violent marriage with a well-educated but very controlling professor. I suppose I sought out the book for parallels to my own life, although I never experienced physical violence. Yet it is much more than a simple account on a topic which is still somewhat taboo (particularly in India, I would imagine). If it had been just a straightforward memoir of domestic violence, I might have avoided it, as the topic is too painful.

The scenes of violence are certainly difficult to read, but this book is also about trying to emerge as a creator when you feel you are having all creativity thrashed out of you. The narrator is reframing and taking back control of her story after months of feeling powerless, that agency had been taken away from her. And she does so in fun, experimental ways, making lists, bringing in quotes, finding a soundtrack and becoming the director of the film of her life.

And cut! I am the wife playing the role of an actress playing out the role of a dutiful wife watching my husband pretend to be the hero of the everyday. I play the role with flair. The longer I stretch the act of the happily married couple, the more I dodge his anger. It’s not a test of talent alone. My life depends upon it.

It’s not just the acting that I have to consider, though. I’m responsible for the whole, flattened film that has become my life. I think of camera angles.¬† think of how I should preserve the intricacies of the set. I must manage to capture what it means for a once-nomad to be confined to the four walls of a house. I must figure out a way to show on screen how even a small space of confinement begins to grow in the mind of the woman who inhabits it with her sorrows, how the walk from the bedroom to the door of the house becomes a Herculean task, or how the thought of checking on the slow-cooking chicken Chettinad curry when she is busy reading a book becomes an impossible chore.

I’m now curious to see what else both of these authors have written or are going to write. They certainly fill my heart with hope that the future of feminine writing is in good hands.

Literature of the Borders 2015

I mentioned this literary prize last year: an opportunity for French-speaking writers in Switzerland to measure themselves against French writers living and working in the Rhone-Alpes region. The shortlist for this year included:

From franceculture.fr
From franceculture.fr

Jacques A. Bertrand: Comment j’ai mang√© mon estomac (How I ate my stomach)

The author turns his trademark humour on a very serious topic: his stomach cancer. This is not just an account of the illness, its diagnosis and months of treatment, but also a touching love story, since his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer at about the same time.

How can you not love an author who says his favourite books are Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal, Hesse’s Steppenwolf and Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita?

From payot.ch.
From payot.ch.

Xochitl Borel: L’Alphabet des anges¬†(The Alphabet of Angels)

This Swiss author spent part of her childhood in Nicaragua, toured round the world with her parents when she was 13, and now lives in Lausanne. This is her debut novel, the story of a disabled girl who wants to learn the alphabet before she goes completely blind.

Borel mentions the work of Marina Tsvetaeva and Panait Istrati as influences, so again a reason to want to know more about her.

chavassieuxlettresfrontieresChristian Chavassieux: L’Affaire des vivants¬†(A Matter for the Living)

A historical family saga set in the mid 19th century, about a simple farmer whose family believed he was destined for great things and therefore named him Charlemagne.

Not my cup of tea, even if the author pays tribute to Madame Bovary and Truman Capote.

Slobodan Despot: Le Miel (Honey)

Born of a Serbo-Croat father and a Bosnian mother, the author came to Switzerland as a child. In this novel he revisits the Yugoslav war, seen through the eyes of a mild teacher turned beekeeper and his two sons.

Despot cites Moby Dick and Anna Akhmatova as his inspiration.

Christophe Fourvel: Le Mal que l’on se fait¬†(The Evil We Do to Ourselves)

Born in Marseille, Fourvel has worked as a bookseller and librarian in France and enjoys interdisciplinary writing projects. This novel follows the passage of a mysterious man, with no future and no past, who appears out of nowhere in three different nameless town, on three different continents. Described as both an external and an internal journey and a bit of a puzzle.

Fourvel mentions Marguerite Yourcenar and Les Liaisons dangereuses as his influences.

From babelio.com
From babelio.com

Valerie Gilliard: Le Canal

A little girl drowns in the canal of Yverdon, a spa town in Switzerland. The five witnesses each have their own account of the incident, but their voices form a choir (sometimes a cacophony), and ultimately paint a poetic portrait of life in a small town, where nothing is quite discussed nor ever completely hidden.

With mentions of Milan Kundera and Flaubert as favourite authors, I am sufficiently intrigued by this story to try and seek it out at the library.

From tdg.ch
From tdg.ch

Max Lobe: La Trinité Bantoue (The Bantu trinity)

Born and raised in Cameroon, Lobe came to Switzerland at the age of 18 to study. He now lives and writes in Gevneva but his work is still very much influenced by African folktales and storytelling.This semi-autobiographical novel follows the trials and tribulations of a young African man trying to start a new life in Switzerland.

His literary mentors include: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ramuz and Dany Laferrière. Another one worth investigating further.

Jean-Michel Olivier: L’Ami barbare¬†(My Barbarian Friend)

This is a fictional reimagening of the life of Vladimir Dimitijevic, born in Skopje, passionate about football, reading and writing, who founded the publishing house L’Age d’Homme in Switzerland. The author Olivier is an essayist and fiction writer born in Vaud.

From rtl.fr
From rtl.fr

Jean-Christophe Rufin: Le Collier rouge (The Red Necklace)

Well-known for his humanitarian and diplomatic activities, Rufin is a respected travel writer, essayist and historical novelist and a member of the French Academy. This novel is about the futility of war and its many sacrifices. A veteran of the First World War commits a crime and is imprisoned in a small town in France in 1919. His dog starts howling in despair, driving all the people in the village crazy, but he is also the only one who knows the secret as to why his master is in prison. A military judge becomes curious about this strange person.

Eric Vuillard: Tristesse de la Terre (The Sadness of the Earth)

A novel about Buffalo Bill and the massacre at Wounded Knee for this French writer and film-maker, who frequently draws upon historical events for his inspiration.

Only two women on the shortlist, one black writer, and two other immigrant writers. It’s not just the US/UK publishers and literary prizes who are not that diverse then… And only three that I fancy reading.

The winners were: Xochitl Borel on the Swiss side and Christian Chavassieux on the French side.