Tuesday, 2 September 2008

2008 Booker Long-list

I have a great deal of admiration and sympathy for the judges of the Booker Award (or, for that matter, any literary prize). To trawl through more than hundred novels in six months, and to prepare long-lists and short-lists (which, let's face it, never satisfy all) can seem like a burden. Unless you are Philip Hensher, one of the long-listed authors this year, and himself a judge in 2001. Hensher, who perhaps is more widely known as a critic and reviewer than a novelist, famously declared a few years ago that he read an average of five books a week, and the number of novels he read in six months as a Booker judge was no more than his average frequency. But then Hensher is in that enviable position where he reads books to earn living. Wouldn't it be nice if you have the luxury of viewing your profession not as a real profession but an agreeable frame of mind, a way of going about things rather than things you exactly do?

This year’s Booker long-list, in keeping with the recent trend, has five debut novelists, four novelists from the Indian subcontinent, and a few established names including a couple of former Booker winners. The categories mentioned here are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

I have not read any of the long-listed novels, although I have read some or more novels of some or more long-listed authors. There are some novels I shall probably buy—Booker or no Booker—once the paperback editions are out: some because their authors are my favourites (Rushdie and Grant); some because I have enjoyed reading their authors’ previous novels (Ghosh, Hensher); some because their authors have been on my ‘to be read’ list for years and I have not so far got round to read any of their novels and I might as well begin with the Booker-long-listed novel (Barry); and some others because I am curious to find out what the fuss is about (Hanif). Finally there are some novels on the list which I shall read only if they go on to win the Booker (Adiga, Rob-Smith, de Krester, O’Neill, Arnold and Toltz). I should come clean and admit that I had not heard any of the authors in the last category till they, rather their novels, got long-listed for the Booker. It is a known fact that the novels which win prestigious literary awards such as the Booker enjoy a sharp uplift in their sales; I should very much doubt whether the long-listed novels enjoy similar good fortune, unless their authors are well-known and have a dedicated fan-following (in which case they do not depend on being long or short-listed for the Booker).

One of the long-listed authors is John Berger—I know, I know; he is not just a novelist: he is also an artist, essayist and a critic—who caused something of an upset in 1972 when he won the Booker award with his experimental novel, G, piping some worthy opponents (Thomas Keneally and David Storey) to the post, and then probably caused more upset by announcing that he was donating half his prize money to the Black Panther movement in protest of what he alleged was Booker’s colonialist policy in the West Indies. (Someone should have pointed out to Berger that the Black Panther movement had in fact dissolved two years before.) Will the old warhorse cause upset again with A to X, ‘A Story in Letters’? I think not.

Philip Hensher, another critic and reviewer, and himself a judge in 2001, is long-listed for Northern Clemency. I have read three of his earlier novels two of which—his debut novel, Kitchen Venom, and Pleasured—I enjoyed thoroughly, especially the former which was in the tradition of vintage Evelyn Waugh. The third, The Mulberry Empire, in which Hensher, in a departure from his earlier books, tried his hand at a historical epic, was so well-crafted it was almost contrived, and, despite being packed with dramatic set-pieces, was strangely soulless. What will Northern Clemency, which, at 740 pages, is the longest of the long-listed novels, be like? On the plus side, it promises to be a chronicle of the contemporary English life, something Hensher, in my opinion, excels at. On the other hand it is disconcerting to note that Hensher, apparently, took inspiration from ‘the great nineteenth century Russian novels’ when he wrote Northern Clemency (which perhaps explains the length of the novel). Judging by the less than exhilarating results the last time Hensher attempted something ambitious and sprawling, I believe my concern is justified. When one is getting a bit long in the tooth, one does not want to be left feeling underwhelmed, especially when one has shown the perseverance to trawl through more than 700 pages. Will Hensher win the Booker? I should doubt it.

Sea of Poppies is Amitav Ghosh’s seventh novel. Of his previous novels I have read two: The Calcutta Chromosome, which, I think, was his debut novel—I thought it was disappointingly lacking in depth; the novel’s subtitle was ‘a novel of fevers, delirium and discovery’; it was, for me, more like a novel of terrifying dullness—, and the splendid Glass Palace. In Sea of Poppies, Ghosh returns to the genre he handled so well in Glass Palace—historical epic. This is one to watch. Ghosh might just hit the jackpot.

Sebastian Barry was short-listed in 2005 for A Long Long Way. He is long-listed this year for The Secret Scripture, the heroine of which is the cousin of Eneas McNulty (Barry’s eponymous debut novel), who has spent longer time in an asylum in Ireland than either she or anyone can remember. The psychiatrist under whose care she is admitted is curious about the circumstances in which she was admitted. I find the subject matter interesting—stories of mentally unhinged and those who think they can cure them have always appealed to me; make of it what you will—and I should read it. If I like it, I’ll probably get hold of Barry’s debut novel.

Linda Grant is a favourite author of mine. I have read two of her previous novels—the Orange Prize winner When I Lived in Modern Times, and Still Here—and liked them both thoroughly. I shall definitely read Clothes on their Backs which tells the story of a Hungarian Jewish family. This is another subject that interests me and I expect the novel to be as engrossing, perceptive and witty as Grant’s earlier novels. I will not be surprised if it is short-listed. It may even win, the only factor weighing against it is it has sold very well—it was reprinted twice even before it was long-listed. Sounds cynical? Cynical? Moi?

Of the by now customary slew of debut novelists making it to the long-list, Tom Rob Smith has made a history of sorts: his novel, Child 44 is a thriller; and novels in this genre do not often get long or short-listed for literary awards. Unfair? Probably; but such is life. The other day I tuned into the BBC Radio 4 and found myself bang in the middle of a heated (the epithet should be used advisedly with regard to Beeb) discussion about what comprises literature and whether thrillers (or suspense novels as Patricia Highsmith was known to describe her novels) are literature, the occasion being the publication of the latest John le Carre novel (The Most Wanted Man). le Carre, of course has not won any literary award. Tom Rob Smith participated in the debate (no one should and will grudge him his fifteen minutes of fame), and, when the presenter suggested to him that it was an outrage that le Carre has been persistently overlooked for literary awards, pointed out (very reasonably, I thought) that the main reason for that was le Carre never gives permission to submit his novels for any awards. He also felt confident, having no doubt researched the subject at great length, to disabuse the BBC presenter of the notion that his, Rob Smith’s, novel was the first thriller to be long-listed for the Booker: Brian Moore was short-listed twice, in 1987 and 1990, for The Colour of Blood, and Lies of Silence. So well done Tom Rob Smith. However, I suspect that this is as good as it is going to be for Child 44. I can’t see the panel—unless they are driven by a sense of malicious hilarity—short-listing the book which moved one reviewer to write that he could not ‘respect a committee that decides to pick a book like Child 44’. Then there are the much-hyped The Netherland, this year’s Great American Novel (contractual terms require the use of this phrase in all reviews; while I have no plans of reviewing the book and I am absolutely positive that no one is going to log on to this blog, I shouldn’t take any risks), The Case of Exploding Mangoes, a satire on the events surrounding the death of General Zia the Pakistani dictator in the 1980s, and A Fraction of the Whole, which has been compared to Tom Wolfe’s chartbusters from the 1980s (which probably means large print and lots of pages).

Finally, there is Sir Salman Rushdie, weaving familiar themes and developing elaborate conceits into a fulgurant fantasy, The Enchantress of Florence, which will enrapture his legion of fans.

So, here is the Booker long-list:

Arvind Adiga (The White Tiger)

Gaynor Arnold (Girl In A Blue Dress)

Sebastian Barry (The Secret Scripture)

Philip Hensher (Northern Clemency)

Salman Rushdie (The Enchantress of Florence)

John Berger (From A to X)

Linda Grant (The Clothes On their Back)

Tom Rob Smith (Child 44)

Mohammad Hanif (The Case of Exploding Mangoes)

Michelle de Krester (The Lost Dog)

Joseph O’Neill (The Netherland)

Steve Toltz (A Fraction of the Whole)

Amitav Ghosh (The Sea of Poppies)

Which amongst the above will be short-listed, if the short-list is of, say, five?

Here is my guess:

Linda Grant (The Clothes On their Back)

Amitav Ghosh (The Sea of Poppies)

Salman Rushdie (The Enchantress of Florence)

Sebastian Barry (The Secret Scripture)

Steve Toltz (A Fraction of the Whole)

We shall know on 9th September.