Lydia Davis Wins the 2013 Man Booker International Prize

Lydia Davis has won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize—and the £60,000 that go with it.

Here’s Davis’s short story “Money” from Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (and also in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis)

I don’t want any more gifts, cards, phone calls, prizes, clothes, friends, letters, books, souvenirs, pets, magazines, land, machines, houses, entertainments, honors, good news, dinners, jewels, vacations, flowers, or telegrams. I just want money.

According to the Man Booker press release,

Sir Christopher Ricks, chairman of the judges, said her “writings fling their lithe arms wide to embrace many a kind. Just how to categorise them? They have been called stories but could equally be miniatures, anecdotes, essays, jokes, parables, fables, texts, aphorisms or even apophthegms, prayers or simply observations.” Davis then is not like any other writer and she follows, and contrasts with, the previous winners of the prize -Ismail Kadaré, Chinua Achebe, Alice Munro and Philip Roth.

I love love love Davis’s work, including her essays, and am glad to see her win the money and the award. Maybe it speaks to a shift in what people are willing to accept as fiction. Or maybe not.

If you’re at all interested in Davis’s work, I highly recommend The Collected Stories,  which collects her first four volumes (read my review if you need more persuasion).

Here’s Davis reading some of her stories:

You can also read some of her work here.

Bring Up the Bodies (Book Acquired and Sort of Reviewed, 4.23.2013)

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I wrote a three-part review of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies when it came out in hardback last year, which I’ll cannibalize right after this short paragraph, which is lazy, but hey, sorry. Anyway, Bodies is new in trade paperback from Picador, freshly blazoned with the Booker Prize sticker. When Mantel won the award the second time, there was a lot of grumbling and mockery in my Twitter stream—terms like middlebrow and hack were thrown around. I think a lot of this derision comes from 1). the perception that the Wolf Hall trilogy is genre fiction and 2). dare I say it, unreflective sexism. Anway, I thought both books were great and am looking forward to the third. Here is me plagiarizing myself:

Bring Up the Bodies—now seems as good a time as any to point out that, hey, that’s just a great title—Bring Up the Bodies picks up right where Wolf Hall left off. Just as that first book throws its audience into the deep end, with one of the more bewildering openings in recent memory, so too does Bring Up the Bodies begin abruptly in media res. Please forgive me if I begin in the middle of things as well—to be clear, it’s not a good idea to jump into Bodies until you’ve read Wolf Hall. And Wolf Hall is worth your time.

It’s 1535 and our protagonist Thomas Cromwell is 50 and starting to feel his age (he laments at one point that he no longer remembers any of the snippets of Welsh he once knew; he can no longer play tennis). His prince, King Henry VIII, is also quickly aging, his body turning to the fat lump that we tend to picture him as these days. An expanding tummy is the least of Henry’s worries, however—and Henry’s worries are Cromwell’s worries. The major plot arc will likely be Henry’s plans to oust his newish bride Anne Boleyn, a repetition of sorts from Wolf Hall, where Henry and Cromwell (mostly Cromwell) worked to annul Henry’s marriage to Queen Katherine. Obviously though, we can’t accuse Mantel of a lack of imagination in crafting her plots. She’s working from history of course, and what’s most amazing about both Wolf Halland Bring Up the Bodies is how Mantel invigorates that history. Who knew the hoary Tudor saga needed a retelling?

It works here of course because Cromwell is such a fascinating character. Mantel anchors her impeccable free indirect style in Cromwell’s mind, and she channels his intense intellect with sharp grace.  Here’s a remarkable passage that somehow summarizes (broadly, of course) much of Wolf Hall and showcases Mantel’s ability to move her prose seamlessly from exterior to interior,  from how others might see Cromwell to how he might understand himself:

Thomas Cromwell is now about fifty years old. He has a labourer’s body, stocky, useful, running to fat. He has black hair, greying now, and because of his pale impermeable skin, which seems designed to resist rain as well as sun, people sneer that his father was an Irishman, though really he was a brewer and a blacksmith at Putney, a shearsman too, a man with a finger in every pie, a scrapper and brawler, a drunk and a bully, a man often hauled before the justices for punching someone, for cheating someone. How the son of such a man has achieved his present eminence is a question all Europe asks. Some say he came up with the Boleyns, the queen’s family. Some say it was wholly through the late Cardinal Wolsey, his patron; Cromwell was in his confidence and made money for him and knew his secrets. Others say he haunts the company of sorcerers. He was out of the realm from boyhood, a hired soldier, a wool trader, a banker. No one knows where he has been and who he has met, and he is in no hurry to tell them. He never spares himself in the king’s service, he knows his worth and merits and makes sure of his reward: offices, perquisites and title deeds, manor houses and farms. He has a way of getting his way, he has a method; he will charm a man or bribe him, coax him or threaten him, he will explain to a man where his true interests lie, and he will introduce that same man to aspects of himself he didn’t know existed. Every day Master Secretary deals with grandees who, if they could, would destroy him with one vindictive swipe, as if he were a fly. Knowing this, he is distinguished by his courtesy, his calmness and his indefatigable attention to England’s business. He is not in the habit of explaining himself. He is not in the habit of discussing his successes. But whenever good fortune has called on him, he has been there, planted on the threshold, ready to fling open the door to her timid scratch on the wood.

Of course, good fortune is not without its headaches, and Bring Up the Bodies quickly establishes the daily grind of being the king’s chief minister. Cromwell has to worry about the uncertain finances of the kingdom; the plots of the Catholic Church; the ever-present threat of Katherine’s nephew, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor; Cromwell also has to worry about scheming at court and gossip in the towns. And yet he keeps a level head, even as he appeals to his memories of the late Cardinal Wolsey, who hangs like an ironic ghost over the early chapters of Bring Up the Bodies. (I’m hoping Wolsey’s ghost will continue to haunt the book). It’s when Cromwell turns his sharp mind to a critique of the cleric class (he’d turn out all the abbeys and seize their coffers), or to a flat rebuttal of the concept of confession (“God doesn’t require an intermediary”), or even when he sniffs at Machiavelli as too conservative that we see in Cromwell the advent of modernity.

Mantel’s ability to express Cromwell’s keen intelligence reanimates the Tudor saga, which I frankly could give a rat’s ass about on its own. Okay, the plot is fascinating, but much of history fascinates. What’s remarkable is the manner by which Mantel channel’s Cromwell’s mind. His brain is always at work, and Mantel shows us that brain at work. It would be a mistake to suggest that Bring Up the Bodies has no prose style, but it’s difficult to describe the style—Mantel elides authorial intrusion; her free indirect style stays close to Cromwell’s perceptions, but she knows when to move her camera out, knows when to show her audience a shot of his face or a gesture of his hand when he receives some piece of information or imparts some command. She rarely tells us what Cromwell is thinking, instead allowing us to go through the cognitive process with him.

And that cognitive process never rests. There’s a remarkable passage near the end of the book that ties together so many of the book’s themes and images. I would quote in full but I listened to the audio, so I’ll have to paraphrase (forgiveness, please). Cromwell is busy making arrangements for the executions of Boleyn and the men accused of sleeping with her, and his mind turns somehow to imagery of gristle and bone and fat—and he wonders what the ancient Greek pagans and Hebrews of the bible did with the meat from their sacrifices—Surely they didn’t waste the meat, surely they gave it to the poor, he thinks. Cromwell figures Boleyn as a sacrifice and then converts that sacrifice into a concern for the common people of the commonwealth.

Of course, it’s a mistake to see Cromwell’s motivations as absolutely pure. The revenge plot of Bring Up the Bodies unfolds so smoothly that the reader (okay, this reader) is slow to catch on, to see how delicately and expertly Cromwell snares those who brought down his beloved mentor Cardinal Wolsey. His control is so precise (Mantel’s control is so precise) that he refuses to tip his hand to himself, let alone the schemers around him, let alone the reader.

Still, Bring Up the Bodies concludes with an uneasy Cromwell, a man already looking for solace in grandchildren, in some kind of futurity, in a life (in a rare metatextual gesture on Mantel’s part) on paper, a figure marked in ink and words. He’s too perceptive—too sharp a reader—not to see the writing on the wall, even if that wall is some years out, even if that writing is still malleable and undefined. Cromwell has controlled the myriad political, familial, and personal circumstances that surround the wishes of his prince, King Henry, but he knows that it’s only a matter of time before his favor falls.

Bring Up the Bodies is a fantastic sequel to Wolf Hall, picking up the reins in media res, yet never resting on that first book’s tropes (“Choose your prince”; “Arrange your face”), but rather absorbing them and then adding to them. Mantel has given those of us not particularly interested in historical fiction a great reason to read some, although dithering about genre seems silly here. Ultimately, she gives us a powerful, character-driven story, a story that we think we already know, but understand anew in her retelling. Recommended.

André Brink’s Philida (Book Acquired, Some Time in January 2013).

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André Brink’s Philida is new in handsome trade paperback from Vintage. Love the cover on this one, and the story seems intriguing. From the Man Booker Prize site (the book was longlisted last year):

The year is 1832 and the Cape is rife with rumours about the liberation of the slaves. Philida made a pact for freedom with Francois Brink, the son of her master, but he has reneged on his promise to set her free. Deciding to take matters into her own hands, Philida risks her life by setting off on foot for distant Stellenbosch, in a journey that begins with the small act of saying no.

And from The Guardian’s favorable review:

In order to underline the multiplicity of experiences, Philida hops from one narrator to another, interspersed with third-person, quasi-historical material; each chapter begins with what is to follow in précis (“In which Philida and Ouma Petronella travel to the Caab where they encounter a woman who farms with slaves”), gesturing towards the conventions of both the picaresque novel and the folk-tales that [one of the characters] relates. Unsurprisingly, given the strength of her story, Philida’s voice dominates. If she can occasionally feel like a mouthpiece for a rather overworked metaphor (“What happen to me will always be what others want to happen. I am a piece of knitting that is knitted by somebody else.”), she can also be brilliantly irreverent and almost ribald. “That’s what the old goat make us listen to every night at prayers,” she reflects on Cornelis’s fondness for Bible stories of a sexual nature. “And almost every time it is a woman who get it in her sticky parts.”

Hilary Mantel Wins the 2012 Booker Prize

The Guardian and other sources report that Hilary Mantel has won the 2012 Man Booker Prize for her novel Bring Up The Bodies.

Bring Up the Bodies continues Mantel’s reappraisal of the Tudor saga through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, a story she began in Wolf Hall, which won the Booker Prize in 2009.

Biblioklept was a fan of both books; check out our reviews of Wolf Hall, and our reviews of Bring Up The Bodies.

The Man Booker site reports that

Hers is a story unique in Man Booker history. She becomes only the third author, after Peter Carey and J.M. Coetzee, to win the prize twice, which puts her in the empyrean. But she is also the first to win with a sequel (Wolf Hall won in 2009) and the first to win with such a brief interlude between books. Her resuscitation of Thomas Crowell – and with him the historical novel – is one of the great achievements of modern literature. There is the last volume of her trilogy still to come so her Man Booker tale may yet have a further chapter.

 

Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues (Book Acquired, 2.10.2012)

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I try to spend 10 or 20 minutes with every book that comes in to Biblioklept World Headquarters—assessing plot and prose, trying to get a sense of the potential audience for each volume, etc. Sometimes this task is difficult, and especially difficult when I find myself with too much to read, yet intrigued by the book at hand.

This is a lot of hemming and hawing leading up to: I very much enjoyed the first fifty or so pages of Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues. Here’s a plot description from the Man Booker Prize website:

‘Chip told us not to go out. Said, don’t you boys tempt the devil. But it been one brawl of a night, I tell you…’ The aftermath of the fall of Paris, 1940. Hieronymous Falk, a rising star on the cabaret scene, was arrested in a cafe and never heard from again. He was twenty years old. He was a German citizen. And he was black. Fifty years later, Sid, Hiero’s bandmate and the only witness that day, is going back to Berlin. Persuaded by his old friend Chip, Sid discovers there’s more to the journey than he thought when Chip shares a mysterious letter, bringing to the surface secrets buried since Hiero’s fate was settled. In Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan weaves the horror of betrayal, the burden of loyalty and the possibility that, if you don’t tell your story, someone else might tell it for you. And they just might tell it wrong…

Edugyan writes in an energetic colloquial syntax, one that matches–and embodies—the spirit of the jazz musicians at the forefront of her narrative.  So far, great stuff.

Picador has picked up the book and given it a wider distribution in the US. Check it out.

Book Acquired, 2.03.2012 — Edward St. Aubyn Edition

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Picador has put together all four of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels in anticipation of the final novel, At Last, which debuts later this month from FS&G. I haven’t read St. Aubyn’s stuff, which hasn’t been widely available in the US until now, but I do know that Open City put some of it out, and they put out stuff by heroes of mine like David Berman and Sam Lipsyte (who blurbs the book). Anyway, here’s a short description from Picador:

For more than twenty years, acclaimed author Edward St. Aubyn has chronicled the life of Patrick Melrose, painting an extraordinary portrait of the beleaguered and self-loathing world of privilege. This single volume collects the first four novels—Never Mind, Bad News,Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk, a Man Booker finalist—to coincide with the publication of At Last, the final installment of this unique novel cycle.

By turns harrowing and hilarious, these beautifully written novels dissect the English upper class as we follow Patrick Melrose’s story from child abuse to heroin addiction and recovery. Never Mind,the first novel, unfolds over a day and an evening at the family’s chateaux in the south of France, where the sadistic and terrifying figure of David Melrose dominates the lives of his five-year-old son, Patrick, and his rich and unhappy American mother, Eleanor. From abuse to addiction, the second novel, Bad News opens as the twenty-two-year-old Patrick sets off to collect his father’s ashes from New York, where he will spend a drug-crazed twenty-four hours. And back in England, the third novel, Some Hope, offers a sober and clean Patrick the possibility of recovery. The fourth novel, the Booker-shortlisted Mother’s Milk, returns to the family chateau, where Patrick, now married and a father himself, struggles with child rearing, adultery, his mother’s desire for assisted suicide, and the loss of the family home to a New Age foundation.

Edward St. Aubyn offers a window into a world of utter decadence, amorality, greed, snobbery, and cruelty—welcome to the declining British aristocracy.

I haven’t had much time to dip into this, even though it intrigues, because my wife immediately snapped it up. I had to go find it in her night stand to do this post. At the risk of mangling this completely though (and correct me if I’m wrong), it seems like a little bit like a contemporary Henry James shot through with Bret Easton Ellis (and maybe a touch of Downton Abbey). I will ask my wife to report.

Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question Wins the Booker Prize

The Guardian and other sources report that Howard Jacobson has won the 2010 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Finkler Question. The novel, which we haven’t read, is apparently a comic piece about love, loss, Jewish identity, and male friendship. The win is perhaps something as an upset, as many folks had Tom McCarthy’s C pegged as the favorite (last week bookmaker Ladbrokes even suspended betting on the Booker after bets on C crowded out the competition). Read our review of C here.