Reading the Runes

By Derbyshire, Jonathan | New Statesman (1996), January 4, 2013 | Go to article overview

Reading the Runes


Derbyshire, Jonathan, New Statesman (1996)


Last year, the organisers of the Man Booker Prize did much to repair the damage caused in 2011 by Dame Stella Rimington's facile effusions about what constitutes "readable" and "enjoyable" fiction. They appointed a notably serious-minded judging panel, with Sir Peter Stothard, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, in the chair. Stothard said that the judges' deliberations this time around had proceeded by "argued literary criticism" and he evinced as a criterion for those deliberations "the shock of language", rather than the plots that "zip along" favoured by his predecessor.

The 2013 Man Booker shortlist is also likely to be the product of pretty strenuous literary critical argument: this year's chair of judges is the Cambridge academic and author Robert Macfarlane. Joining him are his Oxbridge counterpart (and fellow New Statesman contributor) Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, the former literary editor of Scotland on Sunday Stuart Kelly, the writer, comedian and classicist Natalie Haynes and the broadcaster Martha Kearney.

One candidate for consideration by that august company is Fallen Land (Atlantic Books, May), the second novel by the American-born writer (and holder of an Oxford doctorate in 20th-century English literature) Patrick Flanery. Flanery's outstanding debut, Absolution, was ignored by Stothard's panel. His publisher will be hoping that this book, set during the financial crisis of 2008, gets a better hearing.

George Saunders isn't eligible for the Booker, on account of being American, but his short-story collection Tenth of December (Bloomsbury, January) is a reminder of his singular talent (and explosive humour). Saunders's compatriot Dave Eggers publishes his latest novel, A Hologramfor the King (Hamish Hamilton), in February. The protagonist is Alan Clay, a self-employed American consultant living and working in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah. The New York Times praised this novel, which was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award, for speaking on behalf of a "new America that has to think globally".

Few novelists did more to import a distinctively modern American idiom into the language of fiction than Saul Bellow. In April, Bloomsbury publishes Saul Bellow's Heart, a memoir of his father by Greg Bellow. Other literary lives due in 2013 include Deirdre David's Olivia Manning: a Woman at War (Oxford University Press, January); The Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing (HarperPress, February), Jane Dunn's biography of Daphne du Maurier; a new edition of Benjamin Moser's life of Clarice Lispector, Why This World (Allen Lane, May); and Kafka: the Years of Insight by Reiner Stach (Princeton University Press, June).

Literary correspondence is well represented in the catalogues, too, with the fourth volume of The Letters of TS Eliot, edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, arriving from Faber & Faber in mid-January and with Italo Calvino's letters from Princeton University Press in April. …

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