Archive for August, 2009

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

August 31, 2009

Purchased from the Book Depository (click on cover for more info)

Purchased from the Book Depository (click on cover for more info)

It would not be a proper Booker longlist if there was not at least one lengthy historical novel included. In 2009, there are two, arguably, three — Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book and Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger. I have no problem with this; writers who undertake longish fictional works of our history deserve appropriate attention.

Using that criterion, Wolf Hall is the most ambitious of this year’s three. Mantel has retreated almost 500 years to offer a treatment of the Tudor era. In a 650-page doorstopper, she introduces and develops the notion that Thomas Cromwell is a person that history has overlooked, that he deserves to be regarded as every bit as much an influence as Cardinal Wolsey or Thomas More at one of the key tipping points in English history. And, to bring things back to the present, her book is attracting attention. My online bookmaker now has it at only 2-1 to win the Prize from the 13 longlisted books — it opened at 5-1 and the odds quickly moved down. (Bookies make no comment on the quality of the book — they do accurately reflect how much money is being wagered on each book.)

A quick contextual summary. Henry VIII is King, Katherine of Aragon is his wife and has produced no male offspring. He has become enthralled with Anne Boleyn, who (wisely) won’t jump into his bed until he agrees to marry her and make her Queen (her sister, Mary, meanwhile is a regular bedmate). The result is a split with Rome and the creation of the Church of England, altering western world history for all time. I am absolutely certain you already know this.

None of this could happen without a lot of manoeuvering in the background and Wolsey and More have throughout history certainly attracted a lot of attention, books and films. Mantel’s book posits the idea that Thomas Cromwell was Henry’s key advisor through this period — I make no judgment on the legitimacy of that claim, but reviewers with a far deeper knowledge than I of that period in history, give it credence.

While Mantel breaks her book into six parts, I’d separate it into three:

— Cromwell’s “learning” period as Wolsey’s henchman, ending with the Cardinal’s death. The son of a blacksmith who beat him, Cromwell headed to Europe as a soldier, learned how to make money and exercise power and returned to find a position in Wolsey’s entourage that allowed him to hone his inherent skills.
— A “development” period, as Anne (in the novel) forces Henry to meet her conditions. Cromwell, betrayed by those who removed Wolsey, lines up with the interest of the Boleyns, learns the ropes, executes well and Henry’s second marriage eventually takes place.
— The “exercise” of power. Once Katherine has been put aside, Henry’s problems are far from over. Mantel portrays the King as a bit of a caricature but Cromwell is anything but. This part occupies almost the entire final half of the book and is by far the strongest section. Mantel portrays Cromwell as both ruthless and humane; there is more than one gruesome execution but, as well, her hero is committed to developing and placing the surrogate sons and daughters that are part of his household.

Anne and Henry are still together when this book ends (with the execution of More) so it is a snapshot of a period of the Tudor era, rather than a comprehensive look at Henry’s reign. Above all, it is a portrait of Cromwell, the influencer and executor.

Here are the problems that I had with this novel (severe enough that I had to put it aside halfway through):

— It does not travel well. I don’t know a lot about Tudor history, but I know the elements of the story. Perhaps if I lived in Britain, I would have been interested in all the detail that the author presents. I don’t live there and I found much of that aspect of the book very heavy slogging and, quite frankly, did not learn much that I did not already know. Mantel’s treatment of the secondary characters is particularly weak on this front.
— My reading style does not suit this kind of book at all. I usually read in sessions of more than two hours, so I would expect to finish this book in three or four sessions. The lack of plot (beyond what I already knew) and the painfully slow character development produced significant irritation. If your reading style is to read 20 or 30 pages a night and then contemplate, you’ll probably do far better than I did with this novel — and you have a whole month of reading to which to look forward.
— I did Mantel no favor with the other reading I did while I read this book. After setting it aside roughly at the halfway points, I read William Trevor’s Love and Summer and Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness. Trevor and Munro are mainly short story writers and they share an ability to capture in two paragraphs what most authors take 10 pages to say. Mantel, on the other hand, takes 10 pages to develop (often through confusing dialogue) what most authors take care of in two paragraphs.

I make those observations to indicate that my frustration with Wolf Hall is more about myself, my habits and my tastes than criticism of the author or her book. It certainly is not the first time that I have found a Booker “big” book wanting.

I fully expect Wolf Hall to be on the Booker shortlist when it is announced Sept. 8 — and I will be only mildly surprised if it eventually wins the Prize. Having said that, not all good novels (or even Booker winners) are for everyone’s taste, and this one certainly was not for mine. I do feel a little bit guilty about being negative about Wolf Hall — for a much more enthusiastic review, check out dovegreyreader’s thoughts here . There is no doubt that Wolf Hall is an impressive piece of work, I just think many readers will join me in finding it wanting in evaluating the time that has to be invested in reading it.


Love and Summer, by William Trevor

August 28, 2009

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada (click cover for more info)

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada (click cover for more info)

Ellie is a foundling, raised by the nuns at Cloonhill, placed with the widowed farmer Dillahan as a servant (“there’s not many as lucky”) and later promoted as his wife — the only difference in that new state being that she now shares a bed.

Florian Kilderry is another orphan, albeit a recent one. His watercolor-painting parents have recently died and he has inherited a rambling and declining 18 room house and a lot of debts. He is a decent enough fellow, still trying to find himself, somehwat aimless with no real trade or ambition.

Miss Connulty (she has a first name but even her twin brother hasn’t used it for decades) is the daughter of the recently deceased matron of the town of Rathmoye. The family controls much of the town commerce (pub, coal yard and B and B) and she has just moved into the large bedroom, taking with her the family jewels and her own tortured memories.

Orpen Wren used to be a servant of the St Johns of Lisquin, a family long departed from Rathmoye with their own scandals responsible. But Wren continues to live in that past, jealously guarding the family papers as he awaits the return of a St John of the current generation and, in the meantime, wandering the town in his own version of a realitiy set some decades past.

Does this seem to shape up like William Trevor country? While I haven’t read a lot of his work, it did seem like familiar territory to me only a few pages in — a cast of characters who are for the most part likable, yet every one of them harbors powerful influences from a past that, as the book unfolds, will move more and more into the present and become ever more threatening.

Florian shows up at Mrs. Connulty’s funeral with his camera (photography is the latest career option for him). He is actually in search of the remnants of the town cinema (where Mr. Connulty perished in a fire) but does stop to take some pictures of the funeral, much to the dismay of Miss Connulty. He asks Ellie for directions.

And they fall in love.

If you want straightforward, logical plot, William Trevor is not your author. If you are willing to grant him a fair bit of licence, you get ample rewards. He specializes in burrowing to depths of detail that, in the final analysis, do support the uncertainty of his plot developments:

Cycling out of town, Ellie wondered who the man who’d been taking photographs was. The way he’d asked about the old picture house you could tell he didn’t know Rathmoye at all, and she’d never seen him on the streets or in a shop. She wondered if he was connected with the Connultys, since it was the Connultys who owned the picture house and since it had been Mrs Connulty’s funeral. She’d never seen photographs taken at a funeral before, and supposed the Connultys could have employed him to do it. Or he was maybe off a newspaper, the Nenagh News or the Nationalist, because sometimes in a paper you’d see a picture of a funeral. If she’d gone back to the house afterwards she could have asked Miss Connulty, but the artificial-insemination man was expected and she’d said she’d be there.

Trevor’s characters lead small lives in a small town with small concerns, like meeting the artificial-insemination man. That does not mean that the tragedy that awaits them is anything but small.

Florian and Ellie continue to meet, seemingly without purpose, except to the spying eyes of Miss Connulty who projects her own unhappiness and history onto their relationship. It is entirely without basis; it turns out to be correct.

Ellie’s husband, the farmer Dillahan, carries his own remorse — he backed a loaded trailer into his wife and child, killing them both. Ever since, he has carried the feeling that the entire town is speculating on what his responsibility for the accident (drunkenness? desire?) was. The characters of Love and Summer don’t repress history, they attribute meaning to it and let it influence their present.

And while Orpen’s memories may come from a confused, semi-demented past they do have their own version of sense — and his determination to recount them provides a key leverage point in Trevor’s plot.

This novel (and previous Trevor works that I have read) does have its inconsistencies — such as the rapidity with which Ellie and Florian fall in love. Also, while Florian lives within easy cycling distance of Rathmoye it appears he has never been there before the book opens, neither do any of the residents know him. Farmer Dillahan, who has a car, has never been to Florian’s village either. None of this is believable in a conventional sense; I’d like to think that Trevor is using these illogical inconsistencies not sloppily but deliberately, to remind readers that some characters consciously choose to lead constrained lives. The author makes them pay a price for that.

It took me two readings to appreciate what Trevor accomplishes with this novel. The world that he portrays is so tightly-constrained that the first time through “major” incidents pass unnoticed — there is not a lot of cause in this work, there is a lot of effect. I think his point is that the simple contains all the elements that will produce tragedy that the complex does and his world is that simple. It is an exceptionally well-done work that demands attention and “ear” from the reader like few others, but in the end rewards the perseverance. It is not the kind of novel that appeals to everyone’s taste; it certainly appealed to mine.

For anyone who is contemplating the Booker longlist, it is impossible not to make comparisons between this novel and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn (reviewed here). Both are set in small towns in Ireland that are experiencing change (Trevor doesn’t actually say Rathmoye is in Ireland but it seems a fair assumption). The central character in both — Trevor’s Ellie and Toibin’s Eilie — is a confused young woman, not quite up to dealing with everything that is around her. There are certainly differences; Toibin has more breadth (much of Brooklyn is set in the U.S.), Trevor has more depth. This novel is more finely written, but Toibin’s bigger canvas adds more layers of interest. I liked both and do appreciate the differences. If forced to make a choice (as the Booker jury at some time must), I would opt for the Toibin — but that is probably more a reflection of my living in North America rather than a conclusion about the quality of the book.

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

August 25, 2009

Review copy from

Review copy from

When Alice Munro’s previous original collection appeared (The View From Castle Rock, reviewed here), there was speculation that the book would be the last new work from Canada’s literary icon, now in her late 70s — even the dust cover of this new volume acknowledges she was “flirting with the idea of retirement”. She has abandoned that idea, at least for one more book, and readers are better off for it.

For other Canadian authors, the news that Munro would have a new book out this fall was anything but good — she would move to the front of the queue for all of Canada’s 2009 literary awards. Munro, ever the decent person, has taken care of that last concern however, at least as far as the Giller Prize is concerned. A two-time Giller winner, she qualified for submission automatically but she has asked that her novel not be considered “to make room for younger authors” (that quote from a story written by Douglas Gibson, her publisher of 30 years and himself an icon in Canadian fiction history). Whatever you might think of her writing, this is a writer who exemplifies class from top to bottom.

And then there is her sense of self-deprecating humor. I had spotted this reference in “Fiction”, only to find that McClelland and Stewart in the Canadian edition chose to highlight it on the back cover:

A collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.

You don’t have to be an avid participant in book forums or a reader of reviews to know that many readers wish that Alice Munro wrote more novels, because they get more attention and win more prizes, although Munro did win this year’s Man Booker International Prize. This paragraph would seem to indicate that she is fully aware of what she does well and is fully comfortable with it. Me too.

There are 10 stories in this collection and nine of them (the title story is the exception and I promise I will get to it) represent an overview of vintage Munro work. Many are set in “Munro” country (rural Ontario west of London); some on the West Coast, where she spends half the year. The central characters range from the young to those emerging from youth, the middle-aged, or those approaching old-age — Munro has a way of using, rather than portraying, age to develop her point. Other typical characteristics that are at play in this collection:

1. Each of these stories carries the complexity that would make it not just a good novella, but a novel. One of the things that Alice Munro is best at is compressing the elements of a good novel into 30 pages of tightly-written prose.
2. A dark side looms in every story — in fact, much of what Munro is about is peeling back the layers of the onion to expose the dark centre that is her central premise.
3. The best stories also feature another common Munro characteristic, one that she shares with authors like Ian MacEwan at his best. While 80 per cent of the story is told in scrupulous realistic fashion, there is the other 20 per cent — other-worldly, absurd, surrealistic. It is almost as if the author says “trust me and accept these unbelievable oddities — I’ll deliver before the story is done.” She almost always does.

Let me focus on one story, “Wenlock Edge”, in some detail to draw out some of Munro’s strengths. The title comes from an A.E. Housman poem; the central character is a young woman who is starting university, studying English and Philosophy, in London, Ontario:

My mother had a bachelor cousin who used to visit us on the farm once a summer. He brought along his mother, Aunt Nell Botts. His name was Ernie Botts. He was a tall, florid man with a good-natured expression, a big square face, and fair curly hair springing straight up from his forehead. His hands, his fingernails, were as clean as soap, and his hips were a little plump. My name for him — when he was not around — was Earnest Bottom. I had a mean tongue.

But I believe I meant no harm. Hardly any harm. After Aunt Nell Botts died he did not come anymore but sent a Christmas card.

That innocent, but foreboding, introduction continues as the heroine starts university — Ernie takes her to dinner Sunday evenings at the Old Chelsea (they don’t serve alcohol on Sundays), where he has roast beef and she indulges in vol au vent or duck a l’orange, whatever is most expensive. He is young enough that she hopes people will think he is her boyfriend not her father, although “I was pretty sure his idea of serious reading would be the Condensed Books of the Reader’s Digest”. (Does that reference ever bring back memories for an aging generation of North American readers, including this one — another Munro speciality.)

The plot acquires tension when Nina moves in as the central character’s roommate. Nina is older (22), an unwed mother and, perhaps most important, possessed of what we would now call a “sugar daddy”, one Mr. Purvis, who not only supports her but also keeps her under observation. My apologies for the length of the following quote but it illustrates the way that Munro peels off onion skins (to explain, Mrs. Winner is the tail that Purvis hires to keep Nina under surveillance):

Just to give Mrs. Winner some practice, as Nina said, we left the house one evening and took a bus to the city library. From the bus window we watched the long black car having to slow and dawdle at every bus stop, then speed up and stay with us. We had to walk a block to the library, and Mrs. Winner passed us and parked beyond the front entrance, and watched us — we believed — in her rear-view mirror.

I wanted to see if I could check out a copy of The Scarlet Letter which was required for one of my courses. I could not afford to buy one, and the copies from the college library were all out. Also I had an idea of getting a book out for Nina — the sort of book that showed simplified charts of history.

Nina had bought the textbooks for the courses she was auditing. She had bought textbooks and pens — the best fountain pens of that time — in matching colours. Red for Middle-American Pre-Colombian Civilizations, blue for the Romantic Poets, green for Victorian and Georgian English Novelists, yellow for Fairy Tales from Lang to Anderson. She went to every lecture, sitting in the back row because she thought that was the proper place for her. She spoke as if she enjoyed walking through the Arts building with the throng of other students, finding her seat, opening her textbook at the page specified, taking out her pen. But her notebooks remained empty.

Nina may not know her university or her history, but she knows her life skills. As the rest of “Wenlock Edge” unfolds, our heroine slides deeper and deeper into an experience that she doesn’t really understand. The story is a prime example of Munro at her best. (Like many of the other stories in this book, it is available at the New Yorker website — here — I have not tried to trace them all, but if any single one interests you it is worth a search. Here's a link to what a search of the New Yorker for ‘Alice Munro’ produces.)

Just a hint at a few other wonderful examples from this book (and these aren’t really spoilers but it is almost impossible to describe a Munro story without giving something away):

— “Fiction” — a hippie-like living arrangement in British Columbia produces a marriage breakdown and evokes a flood of memories many years later when a short story collection appears.
— “Free Radicals” — the death of a husband provokes reminiscent thoughts, which are interrupted by a home invasion, that ends up heightening the memories (I warned you about Munro and the surreal).
— “Some Women” — in some ways, a Munro speciality, as an aging woman remembers a summer of her childhood and her first job, “sitting” a dying cancer patient who himself is the centre of a tug-of-war between his wife, his mother and a masseuse. Munro at her traditional best, this one.
— “Face” –what if you were born with a hideous birthmark on half your face — and the person who liked you best wanted to imitate it?

And so we come to the title story, “Too Much Happiness”, which is not a typical Munro story by any means. In her Acknowledgements, she says:

I discovered Sophia Kovalevsky while searching for something else in the Britannica one day. The combination of novelist and mathematician immediately caught my interest, and I began to read everything about her I could find.

Let’s set aside the charming notion that anyone, let alone Alice Munro, still seriously consults Britannica. One of the best things about her is that she continually reminds us of our past and it is little, offhand references like this (in the Acknowledgements, of all places) that explode those time grenades.

If Fyodor Dostoevsky was a feminist, this is a story he would have written (he is in the story). Sophia is a mathematician/novelist who has managed to get out of Russia to pursue her studies through a “White Marriage”. In true Russian fashion, the story moves back and forth through various time frames, always focused on Sophia’s struggle to realize her talents and find a life — those two objectives are obviously in conflict. It is not a typical Munro story but she does bring her typical talents to the table. We have a couple of husbands, conflict with authorities, conflict with her inner self. If in fact this is the last story that she will publish (I highly doubt that), it indicates that right until the end Alice Munro was pushing the envelope, and with considerable success. If you don’t know Munro, don’t start with this story — if you know her and like her as I do, it is a most interesting achievement.

And as much as you might like those New Yorker versions of her stories, please buy this book. Alice Munro is not perfect, but she is as close to it as any author writing today.

Me Cheeta, by James Lever

August 24, 2009

Okay, the 2009 Man Booker jury got me on this one. I had actually heard of the book when the longlist was announced. Will Rycroft at Just William’s Luck had given it a generally positive review back in January — then again, Will knows and writes about film (which is what this satire is about) and he did playfully list the author as Cheeta. And I also recalled that a few months later the London Review of Books had a surprisingly upbeat take on it and Me Cheeta hardly seems like their kind of book. A quick internet scan on announcement day popped up the cover pictured here, featuring the eye-hiding ape and a collage of stars from the 30s and 40s — about as non-Booker as you can get and confirming my first impression that this was hardly a worthy choice.

Offsetting all this, however, was a disarming Guardian interview with author James Lever (aka Cheeta) that included the following quote:

“I hope Cheeta’s an OK book, but in my opinion a good book comes out once every few years. I’m bloody not calling my book a good book. It’s all right, you know.”

He goes on to say that if this book does win the Booker he is definitely hoping he gets the Nobel Prize for his next. With a sense of humor like that, it is hard to slag the guy. And since I did promise to try to read all 13 longlisted books, it hardly seemed right to ignore one on the assumption that it wasn’t worth the list because it was too easy to read.

Me Cheeta is sub-titled The Autobiography and it is written by Cheeta (officially Jiggs but U. S. immigration at Ellis Island always gets the name wrong; also often wrongly spelled Cheta or Chita in almost every published review due to the incompetent studio PR department) whose claim to fame, at least in his own eyes, was that he was Johnny Weissmuller’s vital co-star in 10 Tarzan movies between 1934 and 1947. While it is a satire on both Hollywood and the celebrity autobiography, the novel has a tender underbelly — Lever has a lot of love for both the subjects which he mocks even if he is aware of their failings.

He is also remarkably effective in setting the stage for his story. The first 90 pages are devoted to recounting Cheeta’s youth in the jungle, his capture, his trip to America and his first experience of New York (with obligatory references to King Kong). Long before the ape author gets to Hollywood, the human author has firmly established his intention to treat him and his story as compassionately as possible. The lengthy set-up also allows Lever to introduce a number of other conceits, such as Cheeta’s belief that he has been saved from sure death and destruction by humans who are intent on giving him the best life possible — as opposed to the idea that he has been introduced to animal abuse and slavery.

Warm-up done, by far the best part of the book is the second section, where Cheeta’s career serves mainly as an excuse to take dead aim at Hollywood and the inflated egos that rule it:

In all there were seven main Dream Factories, run by seven alpha males: Mayer, Warner, Goldwyn, Cohn, Zukor, Zanuck and Laemmle. These alphas were the kings of the town, but there were a number of other kings: a King of Hollywood (Gable), a King of the Silents (Fairbanks), a King of the Jungle (Johnny), and a Queen of Hollywood (Myrna Loy), a Queen of Warner’s (Kay Francis), a Queen of the World (Dietrich) and a Dragon Queen (Joan Crawford). There was also a Baron, a Duke, a First Lady of Hollywood, and rarer creatures — an Iron Butterfly, a Platinum Blonde, a Profane Angel, an Old Stoneface, a Love Goddess, a Great Profile, a Sweater Girl, an Oomph Girl, a Girl-with-the-wink.

Many of those named — and many others — are skewered in the pages that follow. I’m not even going to try to produce examples (Will’s review does and he knows the territory better than me) although Cheeta does have a particular hate for Mickey Rooney and Esther Williams. In true autobiography style, Me Cheeta features a 10-page, two-column, small-type index that dutifully catalogues all of the references.

While all this is happening (and even for a non-movie fan like myself it has its share of laughs), a sub-theme is developing — Cheeta’s unrequited love for Johnny. It starts with an aversion to his female co-stars, especially Maureen O’Sullivan, whom the ape feels are competing with him for Johnny’s attention. And it extends eventually to Johnny’s wives (he had six). And in its own way, it is a touching and convincing part of the story.

The problem with all this is that Hollywood is pretty thin so the satire starts to wear and get rather repetitive. And the Cheeta-in-love-with-Johnny story line has the same weakness. Amusement turns to ennui turns to annoyance — and with half the book still to go, it is not cheerful to think what will come next.

Worse yet, Cheeta’s film career lasted only until 1947 and the “autobiography” is written in 2009 and so there are 62 years to fill in. (If you didn’t know, Cheeta is for real and is also an artist — a charming touch to the “autobiography” are two sections of photos). A couple of decades of that he spent in a touring animal sideshow (“stage work” he calls it); for the last few decades he has llived at what he calls The Sanctuary, known to the rest of the world as No Reel Apes, where sales of his art are the main source of revenue. Still worse, Lever starts to take the whole gag seriously and the latter part of the book comes dangerously close to being a dreadful polemic on how humanity treats animals and the planet in general. Cheeta believing his press clippings is one thing, but those themes just don’t stand up to the quality of the better parts of the book.

There is a part of me that wants to crap on the jury for denying a “real” author a place on the longlist by including this book — and I am going to resist that. It is definitely unconventional and parts of it are quite good, a cheerful romp. And Lever’s self-effacing attitude is testimony enough that such criticism would be unduly churlish. With 13 choices to make, I’ll allow the jury a fun one. Both barrels will be loaded, however, if they move this mildly entertaining diversion to the shortlist.

A final note. Both Me Cheeta and Hillary Mantel’s 650-page Tudor doorstopper Wolf Hall are published by Fourth Estate, which surely gives that publisher ownership of the poles of this year’s Booker choices. I’m 200 pages into Wolf Hall as I write this — is it possible that it is a massive satire and I have been missing the point completely so far?

2009 Giller Prize Shadow Jury

August 21, 2009

scotiabank_giller_logoThis year marks the 16th anniversary of the Giller Prize, arguably Canada’s best-known competition for fiction work. Perhaps less famously, this year also marks the 15th anniversary of the Giller Prize Shadow Jury, which now has a home on this site — and like the Real Giller an international component, with New Jersey-based, Idaho-born Shadow jury member Trevor Berrett at theMookse and theGripes. Allow me some explanation and then I’ll plunge on.

It was 15 years ago, one week before the announcement of the second Giller Prize winner, that Ken McGoogan (then book editor of the Calgary Herald, now an established author and critic), Robert Hilles (Calgary poet and novelist) and KfC (then publisher of the Herald) ran into each other in the newsroom lobby of the Herald. Ken had just spent some time with Mordecai Richler, Robert with Jane Urquhart, this blogger with David Staines — as it happened, those three were the jury for year two of the Giller. So, in a 10-minute conversation, we invented the Shadow Giller. Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance won it, in a two to one vote (McGoogan, always outside the mainstream, opted for Barbara Gowdy’s Mr. Sandman). A few days later, the Real Giller jury accepted our decision and named A Fine Balance that year’s winner.

doris_gillerThe Booker prize had been going for a few decades at that point, accompanied by an annual controversy over its choices which continues to this day. Since the Giller was a new phenomenon, the Shadow Giller aimed to subvert some of that controversy. We recognized that it was unfair to start criticizing after the winner was selected — criticism was only fair if you declared your own choice in advance. We also promised that, should funds permit, if the Shadow Jury selection was not that of the Real Jury we would pay twice the Real prize amount to the author. Alas, funds have never permitted and we owe a few authors $50,000 but if I ever win the lottery, some authors will be getting a cheque. The Shadow Jury has declared a winner almost every year since. This is the first time it will ever have a home (this blog) where readers will be encouraged to submit their comments and choices.

Giller initiator and sponsor Jack Rabinovitch who established the prize in memory of his wife, Doris, (a well-known book reviewer and editor pictured above) has been a welcome supporter of the Shadow Jury almost from the start. While he recognizes we are in no way connected with the Real Giller (other than riding its coattails), more than once he has acknowledged the Shadow Jury in his speech at the annual awards dinner. Never once has he suggested that we are failing our mandate in our inability to make good on our promise to double his prize. Thanks, Jack.

Last year, the Real Giller went international and included Irish author Colm Toibin on its three-person jury, an innovation that the Shadow Giller saluted and echoed by adding the very perceptive “bookermt” from the United Kingdom to its jury (he is a regular contributor to forums on the Man Booker website if you want to check him out). We do owe Anthony De Sa $50,000 from last year as our choice was his Barnacle Love in a close battle with Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce, the eventual Real Giller choice.

The Real Giller has a step up on us this year, since only one of the jurors (Alistair MacLeod) is Canadian. The other two — British novelist and biographer Victoria Glendenning and American novelist Russell Banks — do make this the most international jury of all literary prizes, even if only Canadian novelists are eligible. Alas, since two of our veteran jury members are Canadians and won’t be stepping aside, we can’t keep up on that front this year.

The Shadow Giller Jury members are:

— Alison Gzowski, former producer of CBC Radio’s Talking Books
— Trevor Berrett, blogger at theMookse and theGripes, based in New Jersey
— KfC, former newspaper publisher, now host at KevinfromCanada and a Shadow Jury member since day one.

The timetable for this year’s Real Giller is longlist announcement Sept. 21; shortlist Oct. 6; winner Nov. 10. The Shadow Giller Jury has never attempted to produce a longlist — too many books are published too late in the season in Canada and we don’t all have access to ARCs — but we do usually provide some suggestions (watch this space for that). We do attempt to read all the shortlist and promise that our winner will be named in advance of the Real Giller dinner. You will find those shortlist books reviewed either here or at Trevor’s site or both — with appropriate links so you can see both opinions. Alison doesn’t blog, but promises comments on both sites.

I’m hoping to revisit some of the early Giller winners with reviews before this year’s longlist is announced. Specifically, the first winner — M G Vassanji’s The Book of Secrets (1994), Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version (1997) and Richard Wright’s Clara Callan (2001). Trevor has reviewed Alias Grace (1996) so you can check out his style. I keep rereading A Fine Balance (1995) but this is not a year for it — for a non-Canadian view, Londoner William Rycroft at Just William\'s Luck offers a recent enthusiastic perspective. A full list of previous winners and shortlists can be found at the Giller Prize website.

That gets you up to date on Shadow Giller history. Since it is still some weeks until longlist, I’ll hold off on offering any recommendations now — please don’t hesitate to make suggestions in comments. I’ll post an update on some other possibities next week and I promise that sometime around Labor Day I’ll post some thoughts on contenders (yes, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and maybe even Anne Michaels look obvious — offbeat thoughts and first novel suggestions are particularly welcome in comments).

(EDIT: LATE NEWS UPDATE, Aug. 22 — The 2009 Giller Prize got much more competitive today when Giller Prize officials confirmed that Alice Munro has asked that her new book, Too Much Happiness, not be submitted for this year’s prize to make room for younger writers. It is a very gracious gesture from a two-time Giller winner who would have been the overwhelming favorite. Her book is out Aug. 25 — I hope to review it on this site next week.)

And if you are wondering, yes there will be a world-famous KFC contest.

Please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts. Many prizes have a forum component but the Giller does not — the Shadow Giller is happy to provide it.

The Shadow Giller Jury rules. For now.

How to Paint a Dead Man, by Sarah Hall

August 18, 2009

Let me confess to a personal conflict of interest concerning this book before I begin the review. Art-collecting joins reading as one of my passions (hence the use of detail from an early Lawren Harris abstract as the header for this blog). I have a serious soft spot for works of fiction which feature artists and their work as central themes — if I can expand the definition of “art” to include “architecture”, that would help explain why The Glass Room is still at the top of my 2009 Booker list. And I knew before I started Sarah Hall’s Booker long-listed novel that it was about an artist, so I approached it with both anticipation and goodwill.

In fact, How to Paint a Dead Man is about four artists, their stories told separately in alternating chapters and distinct voices. The chronology, while not linear in the book, spans a half-century; the range of age of the four as their stories are told is about the same. In addition to all four being artists (still-life, landscape, early impressionism and photography would be their respective styles), the stories are tenuously linked through correspondence, instruction and family relation. Perhaps more important, they are also linked by an overwhelming sense of impending or realized loss. For close to 80 per cent of this novel, I thought that Hall did an admirable job of both constructing these narrative streams and, in her own way, holding them together. She very effectively establishes and maintains a tension faced by individuals who devote their lives to creating works of art but now face an inescapable loss.

Translated from the Bottle Journals. My favorite of the four story lines, an elderly Italian painter who knows his own life is approaching its end contemplates his past and tries to make the best of his last days. It is the 1960s, he is a commercial success — he is the still-life artist and all his recent work has consisted of groupings of ancient bottles. That wasn’t always the case, as he remembers creating art as a younger man during the Mussolini era and the war years:

And finding the most unusual strong-boned girl to make love to and use as a model — if she had distinguished flesh between her hip and navel, if her eyes were like marble and her hair auburn, if she would wear it down across her breasts or up off her neck, if she sets jealousy among the young men like a songbird among cats, if she brought her temper or her sexuality to the canvas. Her heels in the summer storms made careful steps across the cobbled stones of each courtyard she visited. She was immortalised by whichever artist she came to with her modern love.

We were all emaciated and our hearts and livers were inflamed. We measured our passions like weights on empty scales. And the only cure, for conventionalists and Futurists alike, was the fresh colour squeezed on to the palate. And then another, compatible, deposited by its side.

The artist’s journal does explore some of the trauma of those Fascist years. In its present tense, it also explores the dilemma that, despite his commercial success, neither the artist nor the critics can explain what it is he actually does. A one-way correspondence with a young British artist, Peter, (one-way because Peter’s letters have no return address) comes as close as anything to doing that and the Italian artist eagerly awaits the arrival of those letters.

The Fool on the Hill. This is the story of that Peter, set about 40 years later, he too now an international success — and equally famous as an offbeat international character — for his semi-abstract landscape work. A child of the Sixties, he left Britain for the U.S., found his art but not his life there and returned to Cumbria where this story is set. Despite his continuing fondness for alcohol and wandering, he has a devoted (second) wife and twin children, both artists in their own way. Again, much of his story comes in the form of reminiscence after a sketching trip into a ravine turns into a disaster. Like the Italian artist, his impending loss may mean the end of his life.

The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni. Annette is an adolescent Italian girl whose sight is fading — total blindness is only a matter of time. Her family grows flowers, which she sells in the marketplace; her divine vision is that the Bestia is pursuing her. Offsetting that is her artwork at school, which has attracted the attention of the established painter who teaches the class one day a week:

He told Annette he liked her paintings of the flowers she had brought from Castrabecco (her home) best of all. He told her the flowers in her paintings contained exactly the purple substance of the flowers on the desk in front of her. He said he could even detect the fragrance of the paintings from the other side of the room. ‘Such a remarkable waft of begonias,’ he would say, ‘I felt we must have been overtaken by them while my back was turned talking to Sandro. Let us open the window and see if your paintings can entice the butterflies.’

For anyone who has seen Monet’s Water Lilies, painted as his blindness became complete, Annette’s experience cannot help but spark memories.

The Mirror Crisis. Susan is Peter’s daughter, a photographer who has also attracted significant critical attention, although even she wonders if her parentage isn’t the main reason for the attention. Her twin, Danny, has just been killed in an accident, provoking her identity crisis. While Hall does keep this narrative going, it is the weakest stream of the book — we learn little about her photography and much of this story heads off into territory that is not even echoed in the other parts of the book.

As stated earlier, for 80 per cent of the book the author — at least for this reader — nurtured and balanced these stories in a most satisfying way. Alas, in the final 20 per cent, it all falls apart. The creative tension established in the first part of the book doesn’t so much dwindle as it is abandoned. While the two mature artist sections maintain some momentum, both Annette’s and Susan’s wander into unsatisfying and distracting conclusions that bear no relation to the rest of the book. A resolution that would have kept the streams together and perhaps even resolved the creative tension (allowed the written pictures to set, as it were) was entirely possible, but not realized.

I confessed my personal conflict of interest in this book at the start. I am fairly sure that I will be able to forget that last 20 per cent and remember the real strengths of this book, and they were considerable. Having said that, I have to admit that readers who say the ending ruined the novel for them will get no argument from me. It is frustrating that a novel that could have been so, so good ends up falling short of the mark.

The Quickening Maze, by Adam Foulds

August 15, 2009

Reading The Quickening Maze was one of the more interesting challenges of my Booker experience, 2009. On my first effort, I threw down the book in confused disgust after 30 pages, left a grumpy comment on the Man Booker forum and then gave myself a very stern lecture about being fair to the author. My second try was much more successful — while it took more than half of the length of The Quickening Maze to get into the rhythm of Foulds’ book, once that was accomplished it was a much more rewarding reading experience.

Foulds’ last publication was a book-length narrative poem, The Broken Word, so would-be readers of this novel should consider themselves forewarned. Two Canadian poet novelists figured in this year’s Booker longlist speculation — Anne Michaels’ The Winter Vault and Patrick Lane’s Red Dog, Red Dog — although neither made the longlist. While many readers liked those books (particularly the Lane), others found there was too much poet and not enough novelist in both books. The same criticism applies to this book. Of the seven Booker longlist titles I have read so far, it is the most innovative in form. Unfortunately, I don’t think the innovative form succeeds.

The Quickening Maze is set in Epping Forest, just outside London, around 1840. Dr. Matthew Allen, a former bankrupt with wide-ranging interests, has established the High Beach Private Asylum there for treating the mentally disturbed (and “idiots”, a jarring reminder that Foulds does not spare us). One of his patients is the peasant poet, John Clare. Another, recently arrived, is Septimus Tennyson, brother to Alfred who has also taken up residence nearby — Alfred’s melancholy is not so serious as to require that he be a patient, but it is close.

That is only a start on the author’s panoply of plot streams. We also spend a lot of time with Dr. Allen’s teenage daughter, Hannah, who first has a crush on Tennyson; then a dalliance with Charles Seymour, a completely sane heir of noble birth sent by his family to the institution so he won’t elope with his poverty-stricken lover; and finally ends up engaged to a successful manufacturer, Thomas Rawnsley.

Rawnsley is Allen’s advisor on the doctor’s latest project, invention of the Machine, a gadget that will trace hand-done wood carvings mechanically, bringing carved furniture within the economic reach of many more people (and well-deserved wealth to Allen, he believes).

That’s a lot of plot(s), made even more difficult to access by Foulds’ poetic language:

He’d been sent out to pick firewood from the forest, sticks and timbers wrenched loose in the storm. Light met him as he stepped outside, the living day met him with its details, the scuffling blackbird that had its nest in their apple tree.

Walking towards the wood, the heath, beckoning away. Undulations of yellow gorse rasped softly in the breeze. It stretched off into unknown solitudes.

Foulds develops each of these stories over seven seasons — since there is not a lot of action, most of that development tends to be introspective. For the most part, the novel is structured in short segments, visiting each plot line in turn, which often introduces another distraction. It is to the author’s credit that, at least for this reader, by the mid-point of the 260-page book he did establish a rhythm that started to carry the rest of the book.

The individual’s stories are connected, not just by location but also by a growing similarity. Each of the author’s central characters (and there is also a large supporting cast that I have not mentioned) is living in a world of impending, self-induced tragedy. Some may be institutionalized as deranged, others are still in the “real” world but all are headed toward similar fates. It is that sense of “common future”, dismal as it might be, that eventually brings the book together.

The Quickening Maze is not a book for everyone’s taste. I had to work a lot harder as a reader than I did with either Lane or Michaels to cope with the poet-writing-a-novel factor — and I know a number of readers who set both of those books aside as unreadable. On the other hand, I suspect readers who take to poetic language more easily than I do will find this to be a more readily accessible book than I did.

And while The Quickening Maze would not have made my personal Booker longlist, I am happy to see it on the official list. This year’s Booker dozen seems to have put a premium on books that are pretty conventional. One of the expectations that I have of the Prize is that at least a couple of selections will bring attention to authors who have taken some risk with their work and deserve wider exposure. As frustrating as reading The Quickening Maze was at times, it was a worthwhile experience. Readers who are willing to take a chance should give the book a try — I suspect Foulds is a writer who will be heard from in the future.

That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo

August 12, 2009

Review copy provided by Random House

Review copy provided by

Richard Russo, one of my favorite American writers, runs into my version of the worst possible author’s dilemma in his new novel, That Old Cape Magic — the first 70 pages are so good, there is absolutely no way the rest of the book can stand up to them. In those often hilarilous opening pages, we meet Jack Griffin but, even more importantly, we meet his childhood memories of his parents, William and Mary (as you will see, no prize for catching the academic reference) and what it was like growing up in the strange environments that they called home.

William and Mary did their undergraduate degrees in English literature at Cornell, moved on to grad work at Yale and expected Ivy League appointments to follow. Instead, a slump in the academic marketplace meant they ended up in the Mid-fucking-west at an Indiana state university:

Betrayed. That was how they felt. Why go to Cornell, to Yale, if Indiana was your reward? But they’d had little choice but to hunker down and make the best of their wretched timing, so they dove into teaching and research and committee work, hoping to bolster their vitae so that when the academic winds changed they’d be ready. They feared Princeton and Dartmouth ships had probably sailed for good, but that still left Swarthmores and Vassars as safe if not terribly exciting havens. This much, at least, was surely their due. And before going up for promotion and tenure (or “promotion and tether”, in their parlance in the Mid-fucking-west) they’d each had opportunities — she at Amherst, he at Bowdoin — but never together. So they stayed put in their jobs and their marriage, each terrified, Griffin now suspected, that the other, unshackled, would succeed and escape to the kind of academic post (an endowed chair!) that would complete the misery of the one left behind.

They respond with a series of affairs — William’s of a serial variety with students, Mary mainly keeping up. Griffin always thought they had stayed together for his sake — the family –, but his mother, in her cups at his wedding reception, assures him that was not the case:

“Good heavens, no, it wasn’t you. What kept us together was ‘That Old Cape Magic’. Remember how we used to sing it every year on the Sagamore?” She then turned to Bartleby (her second husband, a silent philosopher). “One glorious month, each summer,” she explained. “Sun. Sand. Water. Gin. Followed by eleven months of misery.” Then back to Griffin. “But that’s about par for most marriages, I think you’ll find.”

What a wonderful wedding reception exchange. These Griffins are something else.

I have only been to Cape Cod twice but it is small enough that those visits produce enduring memories — and Russo’s prose brings them back in spades. Even as a youth, he understands that the Cape holiday is a reflection of the economics of the previous academic year (“They never freeeze salaries two years in a row.”). In good years, William and Mary rent a cottage for a month in Chatham (at the elbow of the Cape) in August; in bad, it is a shack on an inland pond for two weeks in June. There is a constant every year, however. The first thing his parents do after crossing the Sagamore bridge is to pick up two copies of the Cape Cod real estate guide (they sign them to make sure each knows whose copy is whose) and within 24 hours every property falls into one of two categories — Can’t Afford It or Wouldn’t Have It As A Gift. You only have to go to Cape Cod once to appreciate how true that is (yes, on only two visits, I have done this).

That’s enough for those first 70 pages. I can’t recall reading anything as laugh-out-loud funny in recent memory. And while the next 190 aren’t nearly as good, alas, they are still fine.

When we meet Griffin he is arriving on the Cape alone for the wedding of his daughter’s friend — his wife, Joy, is folllowing one day later, the result of a marital spat where they both stupidly dug in their heels (none of us married people have ever done that). In his trunk, Griffin has his father’s ashes. William’s body was found in the passenger seat of his car in a parking lot on the Mass Pike. Griffin assumed he was on his way to the Cape (perhaps with a student who abandoned the body?), so scattering the ashes there seems appropriate. He is a prisoner of his parents, even in his mid-fifties.

Griffin and Joy have their own Cape memories. They honeymooned at Truro (even though his wife would have preferred coastal Maine) where they framed the Great Truro Accord. The Accord said that while they would make their money in California, where Joy went to school (no grad work, however) and Griffin is a screenwriter, they would eventually move to the east Coast, ideally the Cape but Maine would be fine. Thirty-four years later (the present time of this book) Griffin is teaching screenwriting at a college in Maine, Joy is associate dean of admissions at the same college. The tensions in their marriage are about to reach a breaking point.

That Old Cape Magic comes in two parts. A year later, Griffin and Joy are back in the East, this time in Maine for the marriage of their own daughter. They are separated, not so much deliberately but by default. This time each has brought a new date. Griffin now has his mother’s ashes as well as his father’s (one in the left trunk wheel well, the other in the right) and he intends to head to Cape Cod to finally scatter them both. Before dying, his mother firmly stated that her divorced husband should be spread on the bay side, reflecting his quietness, while hers should be scattered on the more active Atlantic coast. Together, in a way, but separate.

Russo’s humor is dark, but never unfriendly. If the first part of this book was not so good, the rest would verge on brilliant — a few days after completing it, I’m happy to say that latter part is getting better in memory. It suffered in the reading only because of what preceded it.

I can’t deny that my own love of Cape Cod, from very limited exposure, infected my positive reaction to this book. Russo’s previous work (he won the Pulitzer for Empire Falls and Bridge of Sighs is an excellent novel) has tended to focus on the decline of industrial upstate New York and the coast of Maine — this one does have a much more playful touch. I do think that there is a very good argument that he is the heir to Fitzgerald, Cheever and Updike in the way that he captures life in the northeast United States. The Kennedy’s still have their compound there (Eunice died in Hyannis hospital the day after I finished this book) and the Bushes still summer in Maine. Just as Fitzgerald, Cheever and Updike captured the importance of this part of the world in their era, Russo makes his mark in the present one.

Although, the next time I read That Old Cape Magic (and I will), I’m starting at page 70 and saving the first 69 for last. Not my advice for your first read, but definitely worth considering for your second. This is a wonderful book.

I have read a lot of books already this year — That Old Cape Magic is not the best “literary” book, but it is high on the shortlist of most enjoyable reads — and unlikely to be replaced.

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

August 11, 2009

Review copy from <a href:"">McClelland & Stewart</a>

Review copy supplied by

I have had a soft spot for the work of Sarah Waters for a number of years. She is an author who specializes in history and mystery — two characteristics that are relatively low on my normal reading priorities. On the other hand, “literary” tends to creep in fairly often as an adjective of her work, with some legitimacy I would say. To that I would add, from a purely selfish point of view, “enjoyable” and “escapist” — when I am in the right frame of mind, Waters is an author that I turn to with some confidence.

I’ve had a copy of The Little Stranger on the shelf for some months. Having enjoyed her two most recent works (Fingersmith and The Night Watch, both of which attracted Booker attention), I’d earmarked it for a read on the mini-vacation to Lake Louise that we had scheduled for this past week. Waters did not disappoint. The Little Stranger was a worthwhile holiday read — on the other hand, I am scratching my head about the Booker longlisting of this particular book.

For me, the “star” of The Little Stranger is Hundreds Hall, described by the book’s narrator in its opening:

I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old. It was the summer after the war, and the Ayreses still had most of their money then, were still big people in the district. The event was an Empire Day fete: I stood with a line of other village children making a Boy Scout salute while Mrs Ayres and the Colonel went past us, handing out commemorative medals; afterwards we sat to teas with our parents at long tables on what I suppose was the south lawn….

I recall most vividly the house itself, which struck me as an absolute mansion. I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain — like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.

There were no trips inside, of course. The doors and French windows stood open, but each had a rope or ribbon tied across it; the lavatories set aisde for our use were the grooms’ and the gardeners’, in the stable block.

For those of us in the Old Dominions, there can be no better introduction. A manor house in implicit post-war decline; an early indication of class conflict that is undergoing change. We soon discover that the narrator, Dr. Faraday, has never lost touch with his memorieis of the Hall and, indeed, his involvement is about to increase. Thirty years later, he is called to the Hall when his partner is busy with an emergency case — he first notices its decline (“My heart began to sink almost the moment I let myself into the park”), but we can sense immediately that Hundreds Hall will soon become an obsession.

The publishers of The Little Stranger are marketing it as a ghost story and, on one level, that is completely realistic. It is also potentially a story of phantasms, the ability of people to mentally create their own hell. And it is equally possible that it may be a story of individuals who allow their obsession with a place and their place in that place to descend into an evil that defies description.

Hundreds Hall has three residents — Mrs Ayres, her son Roddie (both physically and mentally damaged from his RAF experience in the recent war) and spinster daughter Caroline. An adolescent servant, Betty, seems to be around when many of the “ghostly” incidents take place and may or may not be involved. Dr. Faraday ends up treating them all, but it is no spoiler to say that along the way he becomes every bit as damaged as his patients. The decline of the Hall looms over them all; for everyone but the doctor that decline will prove fatal.

Strange things begin to happen. Burn marks appear on walls and noises are heard — the prospect of a ghost (another daughter died in early childhood) is the most obvious explanation. Rod is the first to fall prey and Dr. Faraday packs him off to a clinic for the mentally disabled, but that doesn’t stop the strange happenings, indeed they escalate.

A reviewer could go on at length detailing those strange things but I am going to forego that. Waters is an effective storyteller and, while the narrative occasionally lags, she does keep the story going. What this reader — and those who have been debating this book on various forums — finds most interesting is asking the question “what really happened at Hundreds Hall”?

In her two most recent novels, Waters has constructed involved plots which she sums up in a very tidy “reveal” which makes logical sense at the end of the book. She doesn’t do that in The Little Stranger — I can only conclude that her ambiguity is deliberate and that readers should accept that and work with it. For me, that makes the book much more than your ordinary mystery.

If you can stretch your credulity to assume there really is a ghost, you get one set of circumstances. It infects every resident and Dr. Faraday and sends them all on a path of destruction. An interesting option.

Then again, maybe they all just believe in a ghost who doesn’t exist and the phantasm is the infection that sends them on a path to ruin. The result is an equally interesting story.

Or perhaps all those things are the result of deliberate or subconscious behavior by Caroline and/or Dr. Faraday or even the young Betty. There is no doubt that the most “literary” characterstic of the book is Waters’ masterful achievement of turning the doctor into someone whom most readers will truly despise as the novel unfolds. Probably the most fascinating option, if only because it is closest to reality.

Once I had finished the book, I found the most value in being able to hold all those possibilities (and some others) open and looking back at what I had read from each of those perspectives. Having said that, I do acknowledge that not all readers are comfortable with that approach — they would like a resolution and deciding which of the possibilities is the “real” one has much more appeal than keeping all the options open. Certainly there has been a lot of comment elsewhere (see the Man Booker forum thread on the book) to indicate that this is a worthwhile approach for many readers.

The Little Stranger fulfilled for me both the entertainment and escapist expectations that I brought to the book. Alas, I think the author became so involved in keeping all those options open that, for me at least, this is not a “Booker” book. It was an enjoyable diversion and I would not discourage anyone from reading the book, but it lacks the depth and insight that I expect in the year’s best novel.

The Lesson of the Master, by Henry James

August 8, 2009

Purchased at

Purchased at

One of the challenges that we North American readers who follow the Booker Prize face every year is the phenomenon that I like to think of as “reader interruptus”. Now that we know what the longlist is, we would love to read it. And, if we lived in London or Glasgow or Belfast, we could head down the street to our favorite bookshop and come home with a relatively complete inventory, and wait for the late release titles to be available.

On the other side of the Pond, we face a different challenge. Available titles tend to be few (I think only four of 13 this year, but I stand to be corrected). So we need to order the rest from the UK — not a major problem, but this is where the “interruptus” factor comes in. As good as any supplier may be, postal or courier services now have control of the books and who knows when the customs service decides that a package should sit on a shelf for a few weeks before being forwarded.

After you have gone through this process for a few years, a reader (at least this one) builds up a few relevant titles to fill in this period. One of the most attractive (not just in the Hesperus Press edition I read) but in content concept was Henry James’ novella, The Lesson of the Master, a work of which I knew a little bit, but not much.

Like much of James, the plot summary is minimal. The narrator, a young author of promise named Paul Overt, has the chance to meet and, perhaps, form a useful friendship with an established lion of the literary establishment, Henry St George. Henry is the Master, who will teach him a lesson.

Without being too much of a Booker fetishist, this premise had relevance when I looked at this year’s publication schedule. It features an unusually large number of works from previous winners and established names — Atwood and Banville, previous winners, are already sitting on the sidelines; Coetzee and Trevor are on the longlist and still a month away from publication; Mantel, Waters, Byatt and Toibin have produced volumes that some rave about but which other readers say are well short of their best. At the other end of the spectrum, the Booker dozen also features three first novels and a handful from other previously published authors who are not yet “names”.

So there we have the dialectic: Masters and aspirants; established and developing talents; stars rising and stars (perhaps) falling. And the implied chance for one generation to pass the creative torch to the next. In James’ novella, the young Overt approaches St George and suggests he can’t wait for the next work from the Master because it is going to be “surprisingly better”. St George wants to disabuse him:

“Look at me well, take my lesson to heart — for it is a lesson. Let that good come of it at least that you shudder from your pitiful impression, and that this may help to keep you straight in the future. Don’t become in your old age what I have in mine — the depressing, the deplorable illustration of the worship of false gods.”

“What do you mean by your old age?” the young man asked.

“It has made me old. But I like your youth.”

St George has compromised. His wife has taken over his business affairs, his children are in the best schools (with appropriate excessive bills) and his art is now a testimony to the worship of false gods:

“The idols of the market; money and luxury and ‘the world’; placing one’s children and dressing one’s wife; everything that drives one to the short and easy way. Ah the vile things they make one do.”

You don’t have to know a lot about Henry James to know that relationships (especially with women) were a bit of a challenge for him. And (not unlike another writing genius, Dostoevsky) while he needed the money that writing generated, he hated that dependency. As a final bit of seasoning for this work, as Colm Toibin notes in his introduction to this novella, it was written in 1888 which, in commercial terms, was Henry James’ best year.

Overt has another issue besides his writing and possible future success — he has fallen in love with the beautiful and intelligent Marian Fancourt, who has not only read his latest novel but has recommended it to St George. She has put in place all the elements that will allow him to benefit from the attention of the Master. And perhaps prove him wrong about the damaging artistic influence of a wife.

The Lesson of the Master may have been written more than a century ago but (particularly when book prize season arrives) the relationship between the established and still publishing author and the eager newcomer remain a part of the agenda. For example, why have Anne Enright and Joseph O’Neill put blurbs on Ed O’Loughlin’s first novel, Not Untrue & Not Unkind, and how much influence did this have on Booker judges? Are some of the Masters who published books this year now well past their prime? What future looms for the up and comers?

It is no spoiler to say that James being James, those who have power will abuse that power to the disadvantage of those who don’t, even in a novella. It is one of the things that he does best and, it must be said, that after completing this excellent short work there is a fair bit of thought that can be devoted to just what lesson the Master chose to impart to his pupil. While in no way one of the Master’s best works, it certainly holds up to the very high standard that he sets himself. And did meet the challenge of offering some very worthwhile impressions — albeit more than 100 years old — for this interesting time in the reading year. Highly recommended.

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