Accio Coetzee

August 26, 2005 at 1:22 am Leave a comment

Early in the year I make a note in my diary of the publication dates of those books I’m looking forward to reading that year. This year there were ten authors whose novels I was eagerly anticipating, and six of them have made the longlist: Barnes, Coetzee, Ishiguro, McEwan, Rushdie and Zadie Smith – proof that this is a year when the big guns really delivered? The other four were: JK Rowling (Noooo – don’t mock the afflicted!), John Irving (not eligible), Nick Hornby (Not literary enough? Too funny?) and Andrew Miller (His time will come).

Talking of JKR, I finished Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince last night, and all I can say is: phew! She certainly seems to conform to the view that it gets darkest before the dawn. In fact it seems to be de rigeur for the penultimate book in a sequence to be the darkest: Malorie Blackman’s Knife Edge, for example, was the most depressing children’s book I’ve ever read.

I didn’t think the Booker longlisted titles would have much chance of dragging me away from Potter & co, and yet one nearly did. Indeed, if I hadn’t been so near the end maybe I would have defected to the dark side, like the Half Blood Prince himself. Sorry JKR, but trying to work out who your mysterious RAB is will have to wait until after PJE has finished the new book by JMC – see below.

I have decided to get hold of as many of the longlist as I can and, rather than try to plough through them one at a time, dip in and out – switching from one to another in a crude sort of continuous comparison test, at the risk that some of them may blur together. Sacrilege? No. I think a great novel will grab you: haunt you while you are away from it, and drag you back into it like a powerful magnet. A clear, vivid and, ultimately, memorable novel will not only be unputdownable but, one that, should you manage to put it down, will be easy to drop back into, because the narrative and the characters have burned themselves into your memory.

Thanks to our wonderful public library system (well, did you think I was made of money?) I’d already ready two of the longlisted books, and I’ve recently managed to accumulate ten more: so the dipping can begin…

But first the two I’d already read:

Saturday is certainly memorable enough, as well as pushing the right literary buttons, to be a near certainty for the shortlist. (Ha! I probably said that about Enduring Love.) McEwan has certainly rediscovered some of the edge I thought he had lost – his recent books seemed too deliberately literary for my liking. (Atonement reads like a model answer in a ‘How To Write Literary Fiction’ textbook.) However, the details of neurosurgical procedure in Saturday scream out: “look at the thoroughness of my research Professor…” and “I think my editor wanted to leave some of it out but I stared him out…”

Never Let Me Go, sad to say, left me cold. You can take subtlety too far and Ishiguro does. Don’t get me wrong – The Remains of the Day is my favourite among all the Booker Prize winners I’ve read (twenty out of thirty-eight, at the last count) – with the possible exception of Vernon God Little, which rocks in a way that Booker Prize winners shouldn’t – but I just didn’t buy the picture of the future that he was painting. If McEwan gives us too much detail of the here-and-now, Ishiguro is all-too-vague about his Brave New World.

My itchy little fingers couldn’t resist touching up Arthur & George as soon I was alone with them, erm, it. The old-fashioned looking and very tactile cover certainly stands out on the shelves: “pick me up and feel me – you know you want to” it seems to say. Well I’m always eager to read a new Julian Barnes novel anyway, and with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as one of the characters this had to be a strong contender for book of the year. Elementary my dears! Surely the presence of Sherlock’s creator gives Barnes a head start in the Booker race, just as adopting the voice of Ned Kelly made Peter Carey a shoo-in back in 2001. (With Ian McEwan providing strong competition in both cases.)

Well, sad to report the first few chapters fell rather flat for me. The way Barnes alternates between Arthur & George is a tiresome technique (as is my own addiction to alliteration, no doubt) and my eyelids’ reluctance to stay up when faced with anything redolent of the 19th century has hampered my progress. Meanwhile John Banville’s poetic style is clearly going to require the right mood – a certain stillness, let’s say – to appreciate it fully.

So what did almost drag me from the dark doings of the Death Eaters at Hogwarts? Accio Coetzee: The emotional ferocity of Slow Man grabbed me by the throat within a few pages. The sheer brutality of Coetzee’s prose is stunning. It’s like inviting someone into your home, only for them to bring a cricket bat and start battering you with it: his strokeplay is awesome, but… ow! Stop it, please! It became my favourite book of the year (so far) within ten pages. That could change though – lots more to dip into – watch this space…

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The Man Booker Prize 2005: Longlist Not seeing, how shall he know?

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