6 September 2009

The Man Booker and La Rentrée Littéraire

The English blogosphere is full of reviews and speculation on this year’s Man Booker longlist, which strikes me, in the main, as very predictable. We may have three first novelists represented – Ed O'Loughlin with Not Untrue and Not Unkind, James Lever with Me Cheeta, and Samantha Harvey with The Wilderness, but we also have previous two-times Booker winner J. M. Coetzee, Booker winner A. S. Byatt, William Trevor, Colm Toibin, and Sarah Waters, for instance. The one in this list that interests me is Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze – a second novel, which follows his debut novel The Truth About These Strange Times – as anything to me about Dr Matthew Allen and his High Beach asylum in Epping Forest is of interest, especially with its associations with John Clare (and, of course, Allen’s financial fiasco with Tennyson). But I digress. Why can’t the Man Booker, like the French Prix Goncourt, have a policy of only allowing an individual author to win only once, and in so doing, one hopes, put lesser known writers to the forefront. And surely there are more interesting novels in the (non-American) English world of letters apart from some of these?

Or is it just that the French-speaking world produces more interesting books? I shall not be in France this year, but the rentrée littéraire looks very interesting. There are some novels from widely known writers – Pascal Quignard’s La Barque silencieuse, Laurent Mauvigner’s Des hommes, Lydie Silvayre’s BW (named after her partner Bernard Wallet), Marie NDiaye’s Trois femmes puissantes, and Jean–Yves Cendrey’s Honecker 21, for instance.

Books that I find of interest, though (apart from Thierry Hesse’s Démon, which has been compared in part to Matthias Enard’s Zone), include Gérard Oberlé’s Mémoires de Marc-Antoine Muret. A friend of Ronsard’s, Muret (1526–85) was a humanist and poet who was imprisoned for sodomy, but later found more tolerance in Italy and Poland.

Véronique Ovaldé’s Ce que je sais de Vera Candida begins on an imaginary island off the coast of South America, where the pregnant character of the title strives to break free from her female destiny, from her past.

Philippe Delerm wrote a fascinating book of very short stories, La Première gorgée de bière et autres plaisirs minuscules (1997), where great importance is attached to tiny, ostensibly banal things in life. His latest novel is Quelque chose en lui de Bartleby, which obviously takes its protagonist’s name from Herman Melville’s quietly anarchistic clerk in Bartleby, the Scrivener (1853), who famously ‘would prefer not to’. Arnold Spitzweg (who has already appeared in Monsieur Spitzweg s'échappe) is not a particularly intelligent person, and by external appearances by no means an interesting one. He is a postal clerk whom life has more or less passed by, apart from a brief dalliance with a fellow worker. But he discovers that he has one gift in life: he can write a good blog, and becomes very successful. And that, of course, is the problem.

Of first novels, of note are Vincent Message's Les Veilleurs (which has already won the Prix Laurent Bonelli), and David Boratav's Murmures à Beyoglu.

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