Jake’s Thing – Kingsley Amis – 1978 Booker Prize Shortlist

People’s behaviour changes, “Society” changes, but not feelings. And while we’re on “society” let me remind you of something you said to me in that terrible pub, something about repressive attitudes making me feel sexually unrelaxed. Repressive? In 1977? I was doing fine when things really were repressive, if they ever were, it’s only since they’ve become, oh, permissive that I’ve had trouble.

From what I’ve read of Kingsley Amis’s work, an underlying theme of things being better in the past emerges. ‘Ending Up’ featuring five aged characters all lamenting earlier days, and now ‘Jake’s Thing’ where we have the main protagonist, Jake, an Oxford professor, searching for the cause of his sexual inactivity, it is not erectile dysfunction, it is a lack of interest in sex.

Besides the plot being oh so tedious, a stuffy old professor can’t sexually function anymore, the character of Jake is utterly deplorable. He may represent a 1970’s attitude, and, yes, the novel is forty-three years old, however I couldn’t help but feel as though this popular literature of the Boomer generation has something to do with their current attitudes. Jake seen as a comic hero, when basically he is a misogynistic, racist, narcissistic, stuck-up arsehole.

Here are a few excerpts from the first chapter:

[At the bus stop] No sooner had one black, brown or yellow person, or group of such, been set down on the pavement than Americans, Germans, Spaniards were taken up and vice versa.

[At the doctor] Rosenberg. Presumably he’s some sort of –

[Leaving the doctor] The receptionist, a girl of twenty or twenty-five, was in attendance. Jake noticed that her breasts were either remarkably large or got up to seem so by a professional.

[Coming home] The near end of the latter consisted of two longish brick terraces put up a hundred years before to house the workers of some vanished local industry and these days much in demand among recently married couples, pairs of homosexuals and older persons whose children had left or never existed.

This is the FIRST CHAPTER, and there are twenty-eight of them, all containing something along the lines of descriptions of women for their physical appearance, some interaction with a homosexual colleague, masturbation over pornographic magazines, “therapy” to help Jake’s problem (his wife attends therapy too, she needs to lose weight – to help Jake’s problem). This is a relentless barrage of old attitudes, passed off as satire.

We have a whole chapter debating the possibility of females being admitted into the Oxford College.

‘And the desirability of admitting them to this college,’ added the Master.
This time the two sighed noisily and flapped their hands, and Jake wondered what stopped them from seeing that, for good or ill, this was the most interesting matter ever likely to come their way, short of death.
‘As you know, it’s on tomorrow’s agenda,’ said the Master when he and Jake had moved off.

Jake is asked to provide the case “for” females being admitted into the College, why not have a misogynistic, narcissist prepare the case “for”? Massively hungover Jake presents a somewhat feeble argument, and then eventually shows his true colours:

No doubt they do think, the youngsters, it’d be more fun to be under the same roof, but who cares what they think? All very well for the women no doubt, it’s the men who are going to be the losers – oh, it’ll, it’ll happen alright, no holding it up now. When the first glow has faded and it’s quite normal to have girls in the same building and on the same staircase and across the landing, they’ll start realizing that that’s exactly what they’ve got, girls everywhere and not a common-room, not a club, not a pub where they can get away from them. And the same thing’s going to happen to us which is much more important. Roger’s absolutely right, all this will go and there will be women everywhere, chattering, gossiping, telling you what they did today and what their daughter did yesterday and what their friend did last week and what somebody they heard about did last month and horrified if a chap brings up a topic or an argument. They don’t mean what they say, they don’t use language for discourse but for extending their personality, they take all disagreement as opposition, yes they do, even the brightest of them, and that’s the end of the search for truth which is what the whole thing’s supposed to be about. So let’s pass a motion suggesting they bugger off back to Somerville, LMH, St Hugh’s and St Hilda’s where they began and stay there. It won’t make any bloody difference but at least we’ll have told ‘em what we think of ‘em.’

To have an unlikeable main protagonist, is not an easy ask, and yes, Kingsley Amis is using satire to drag out the ugly qualities of certain belief’s however it is the small references to “blacks” at the shops or bus stop, the anti-Semite ideals based purely on somebody’s name, the underlying story that women exist for Jake’s sexual pleasure (and by the way, he’s a straight up missionary position, nothing more, in fact even pictures put him off) where my issues with this novel occur. For Amis to write such content there has to be at least a hint of belief in these values in his own personal armory.

Given both ‘Ending Up’ and ‘Jake’s Thing’ (and the first half of ‘The Old Devils’) all deal with characters lamenting a better time, and yes Margaret Thatcher was about to come into power so maybe earlier times were a better place. It is the use of sexism, racism, homophobia etc. where I find his works a difficult read. Iris Murdoch’s ‘The Sea, the Sea’ won the Booker Prize the year this was shortlisted, another work dealing with male egotism and self-absorption – 1978, what a year!!!

Ending Up – Kingsley Amis – 1974 Booker Prize Shortlist

Sample menu Vu De Monde

Moonlight Kiss Oysters w. Native Citrus
Macadamia Tofu w. Kelp & Caviar
Heirloom Tomatoes & Mirabelle plum
Western Australian Marron “Curry”
Lemon Verbena & Wood Sorrel
Lamb Rib – Lamb Tea
Lamb Saddle & Wild Garlic
Trolley of Australian Cheese
Cantaloupe & Green Ants
Chocolate Soufflé w. Billy Tea Ice-Cream
Mum’s Gumnuts
Rivermint Kangaroo
Saltbush “Caramello” Koala


When it comes dinner time you have many choices, you can go for the full-blown degustation menu (with matching wines of course) of Vue De Monde in Melbourne, or you can go for lighter fare, maybe a salad with some added protein. Then there is everything in between.

Similarly, when choosing your next novel to read, you can pick up ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ or the latest best seller.

Kingsley Amis’ ‘Ending Up’ I liken to a light salad, with five pieces of tofu for the protein intake, you know the thing, something quite bland, each piece almost indistinguishable from another, excepting the amount of chilli that managed to stick whilst it was in the frying pan.

Your light salad, the backdrop, is ageing, have a mouthful of general dismay of getting older and being abandoned, now a nibble on something a little more substantial, a character.

Your five pieces of tofu are each of the characters in this novella.

In summary ‘Ending Up’ is about five old people all living together in a dilapidated house, Tuppenny-hapenny Cottage. Let’s explore our tofu:

Adeala – Bernard’s sister, runs the household and does the shopping in town. Never married, explained as being too ugly, never had any real friends, excluding Marigold at school. Spends her time waiting on everybody and not complaining about it.

Marigold – speaks as though she is making baby talk with everybody, believes she is “above” all other people in the house, has grandchildren who come to visit, manipulates Adela, is starting to show first signs of amnesia (Alzheimer’s?)

George – bedridden after having a stroke before the novella begins, his sister had married Bernard. Can’t remember nouns so babbles

Bernard – homosexual ex-Army but had a marriage of convenience, rumoured to have a child that nobody has met, hates everyone in the house and plays nasty juvenile practical jokes on them (generally involving urine or laxatives), plays up the fact that he has a bad leg to get out of any household chore.

Shorty – Bernard’s ex-lover from the Army, does the odd jobs around the house and drinks a great deal, always putting on funny voices or signing songs

That’s it – a novella that details the interactions between this unlikeable bunch and the children and grandchildren that come to visit. Have another lettuce leaf (another bitter remark about getting old, or a reflection from one of the visitors “hope we don’t end up like that” kind of thing).

Here is a superficial farce that does the job of satiating your hunger, one that offends with its misogyny, homophobia, racism (more of that when I review another Kingsley Amis work in the coming days) and one that has little spine or oomph. No wood sorrel or rivermint kangaroo here.

I was going to compare this to a complex work, such as William Gaddis’ ‘The Recognitions’, a masterwork of many layers, a complex painting that becomes more radiant the more you look at it, with this book being a cheap water colour with a wash background (again ageing) but that would be crediting it with some level of art. Basically it is a bland salad, totally forgettable. How on earth did it make the 1974 Booker Prize Shortlist? Probably the same reason the 2019 award was jointly awarded to Margaret Atwood for ‘The Testaments’.

Anthills of the Savannah – Chinua Achebe – 1987 Booker Prize Shortlist

“Why? I hear you ask. Very well . . . This is why . . . Because storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit – in state, in church or mosque, in party congress, in the university of wherever. That’s why.”

Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe was a lauded storyteller, to list his achievements would take pages, although a winner of the Booker International Prize in 2007, when the award was presented bi-annually for a body of work, he never won the Booker Prize (for a single novel), only being shortlisted once, in 1987, for ‘Anthills of the Savannah’ (the winner that years was Penelope Lively for ‘Moon Tiger’).

The novel ‘Anthills of the Savannah’ takes place in an imaginary West African country, Kangan, where an officer “Sam” and known as “His Excellency”, has taken power following a military coup. IT is mainly through the eyes of Sam’s fellow friends Chris Oriko, the government’s Commissioner for Information and Ikem Osodi, a newspaper editor critical of the regime, as well as Beatrice Okoh, an official in the Ministry of Finance and girlfriend of Chris, that this novel of unstable and corrupt Government unfolds. The history of colonial interference and ruling, as well as the associated racist practices always simmering in the background:

You see, they are not in the least like ourselves. They don’t need and can’t use the luxuries that you and I must have. They have the animal capacity to endure the pain of, shall we say, domestication. The very words the white master had said in his time about the black race as a whole. Now we say them about the poor.

This is a novel that alternates the point of view and narration, giving voice to the many players. The main theme being the African political agenda, characters with English university educations, returning and taking power etc. these elements are all “givens”. However, it is not these themes of Chinua Achebe’s novel that I want to explore today, as they’ve been written about, studied, debated many times before.

It its through the strength of Chinua Achebe’s characters that this novel comes alive, how we sympathise with one faction and abhor another, how we question one but give ourselves over to blind obedience of another. The nuances that Chinua Achebe builds throughout his work.

Sam, the dictator, as narrated by Ikem:

To say that Sam was never very bright is not to suggest that he was a dunce at any time in the past or that he is one now. His major flaw was that all he ever wanted was to do what was expected of him especially by the English whom he admired sometimes to the point of foolishness. When our headmaster, John Williams, told him that the army was the career for gentlemen he immediately abandoned thoughts of becoming a doctor and became a soldier. I am sure the only reason he didn’t marry the English girl MM found for him in Surrey was the shattering example of Chris and his American wife Louise whom he married, if you please, not in New York with might have made a certain sense but in London. I suppose it is not impossible for two strangers to fabricate and affinity of sorts from being exiled to the same desert island even from opposite ends of the earth.

Chris, as relayed in an awkward cabinet meeting where Sam is intimidating Chris:

“He doesn’t need a word from you. Remember, he owns all the words in this country – newspapers, radio and television stations…” “The Honorable Commissioner for Words”

Beatrice, as told in a chapter using traditional stories about the Pillar of Water:

Beatrice Nwanyibuife did not know these traditions and legends of her people because they played little part in her upbringing. She was born as we have seen in a world apart; was baptized and sent to schools which made much about the English and the Jews and the Hindu and practically everybody else but hardly put a word in for her forebears and the divinities with whom they had evolved. So she came to barely knowing who she was. Barely, we say though, because she did carry a vague sense more acute at certain critical moments than others of being two different people. Her father had deplored the soldier-girl who fell out of trees. Chris saw the quiet demure damsel whose still waters nonetheless could conceal deep overpowering eddies of passion that always almost sucked him into fatal depths. Perhaps Ikem alone came close to sensing the village priestess who will prophesy when her divinity rides her abandoning if need be her soup-pot on the fire, but returning again when the god departs to the domesticity of kitchen or the bargaining market-stool behind her little display of peppers and dry fish and green vegetables. He knew it better than Beatrice herself.
But knowing or not knowing does not save us from being known and even recruited and put to work. For, as a newly-minted proverb among her people has it, baptism (translated in their language a Water of God) is no antidote against possession by Agwu the capricious god of diviners and artists.

Ikem, the writer, sees the Nation’s issues with clarity:

The prime failure of this government began also to take on a clearer meaning for him. It can’t be the massive corruption though its scale and pervasiveness are truly intolerable; it isn’t the subservience to foreign manipulation, degrading as it is; it isn’t even this second-class, hand-me-down capitalism, ludicrous and doomed; nor is it the damnable shooting of striking railway-workers and demonstrating students and the destruction and banning thereafter of independent unions and cooperatives. It is the failure of our rulers to re-establish vital inner links with the poor and dispossessed of this country, with the bruised heart that throbs painfully at the core of the nation’s being.

A novel filled with wonderful metaphors, proverbs, and stories of the oppressed, even though told through the eyes of the well-to-do. This is a great example of the wonders the Booker Prize used to bring to our tables in the 1970-1980’s, only four years after this novel made the Booker shortlists, fellow Nigerian Ben Okri took home the prize for his novel ‘The Famished Road’, another work that I intend to revisit in the coming months (don’t hold me to it!!!)

King Goshawk and the Birds – Eimar O’Duffy

Sometimes I read simply for pleasure, when I read this novel I had no intention of writing anything about it, but when I went to log my reading on that Bezos review site I found that only FIVE people had entered a rating, I was stunned as this is an outstanding work. I then thought I better jot down some thoughts as it may lead to a few more people reading the book. Please note – I didn’t take notes throughout my reading so this is a quick look, recalling, off the top of my head, passages that have stuck with me.

I’ve consulted the Ricorso Irish writers database to ensure that Eimar O’Duffy actually existed. Why? His novel ‘King Goshawk and the Birds’, “republished” by Dalkey Archive in 2017, states that the book was “originally published in 1926”, set in the future the depictions of a Capitalist society gone rife, and especially the references to war, were too close to current truth that I felt there was no way this work could have been published before World War II.

‘King Goshawk and the Birds’ is the first novel in a trilogy, a Menippean satire, the next two volumes being ‘The Spacious Adventures of the Man in the Street’ (1928) and ‘Asses in Clover’ (1933), the second was due to be published by Dalkey in 2018, however I’m not sure it has actually made it to the printers and the third volume is available through Veritas Books.

Veritas Books has a precis of ‘King Goshawk and the Birds’ as an introduction to their edition of the third volume.

‘King Goshawk and the Birds’ is set in a future world devastated by ‘progress’ and ruled by King Capitalists. King Goshawk, the supreme King Capitalist, decides to buy up all the flowers and birds, placing them in the theme parks for which an entrance fee is charged. Enraged at this desecration of nature and human rights, an ancient Dublin philosopher calls the mythical Cuchulain back to earth. He sires a son, Cuanduine, whose task is to right the wrongs perpetrated by the capitalists.

Here is the opening summary of Cuchulain from the Myths and Legends Encyclopedia;

Cuchulain, one of the greatest heroes of Irish mythology and legend, was a warrior in the service of Conchobhar, king of Ulster. Best known for his single-handed defense of Ulster, Cuchulain is said to have lived in the first century B . C ., and tales about him and other heroes began to be written down in the A . D . 700S. Cuchulain’s adventures were recorded in a series of tales known as the Ulster Cycle.

So we have a setting, referencing Irish mythical characters, however it is not in the straight narrative flow where the riches of this novel lie. This is a deeply black satirical work, scathing of capitalism, and the rolling over of the working classes, the antipathy of any character other than the Philosopher, and the defeatist attitudes of all. It covers the media, manipulative journalists, the arts, cheap literature, the church, parliaments, millionaires clubs and a whole lot more.

Using a range of techniques, you don’t know what the next chapter will bring. For example one chapter is the newspaper that Cuanduine  is holding, being new to Earth he doesn’t understand what a newspaper is, the Philosopher explains; “It is written down the news of all the things that happened yesterday in the world; and to-morrow I shall get another which will relate all that happened to-day.” “But how, asked Cuanduine , “can the truth be ascertained in so short a time?” “I did not say that it told the truth,” replied the Philosopher. “I only said it told the news.” Here are a couple of examples from that newspaper:

BRITISH LABOUR TROUBLE
A general strike is threatened in British coal mines as a result of the proposed cut of two shillings per week in wages. The Coal Trust have issues a statement that it will be impossible to work the mines at a profit unless the cut is accepted.

HOUSES TO LET
A five-roomed house to let. South Suburbs.
Moderate rent. No children.
Cosy house. Two bedrooms, sitting-room, kitchen, bath.
£150 and taxes. No dogs. No children.
Delightful house. Five miles from city. Six bed., four reception rooms. Billiard room, conservatory, stables, garage, kennels, garden and kitchen garden. No children.
Fine house, beautifully situated in own ground ten miles from city. Children objected.
Gate lodge to let. Five rooms. No dogs, no poultry, no children. Suit married couple.
Perfect house. Situated on own grounds. Beautiful scenery. Healthy climate. Five bedrooms, four reception. Day and night nursery. School-room. Large Bower garden. Playing field, with goal-posts., etc. Tennis-court. Suit married couple. No children.
Pigstye to let. 10s weekly. Suit large family.
Victorian mansion. Beyond repair. Situated in formerly fashionable quarter in heart of city. Reasonable rent. No objection to dogs, cats, poultry, canaries, tortoises, goldfish, axolotls, or even children.

There is a later part of the novel where two rival newspapers battle to provide coverage of Cuanduine’s tour of England:

One half of the Press of England was in those days owned by Lord Mammoth, and the other half by Lord Cumbersome. These two potentates had bought up all their smaller rivals, and would have bought up each other if they could: for though both were staunch upholders of the principles of competitive civilization, they knew better than to allow any competition against themselves if they could help it.

Cuanduine, being a descendent of a mythical legend, is far from educated in matters of etiquette and courts numerous women at the same time. One incident about his transgressions is presented as a play “A Comedy of Loves”.

By having a mythical descendant, Eimar O’Duffy is able to use the innocent and incorruptible eyes to put a mirror on society, a base society, one that has allowed all of the world’s birds and flowers to be plundered for capitalist gain. A message of almost 100 years ago about nature being usurped for wealth creation by just a few.

We have countries in dispute over minor differences, unable to come to terms over a minor clause in a ceasefire agreement, even the League of Nations is inept. We have corrupt Governments, gated estates housing millionaires, hardly an altruistic inhabitant. The world of the Cuanduine trilogy is dark, very dark.

Laugh out loud bleak, this is an outstanding novel of its time, there are hints that O’Duffy had read James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (the chapter that is a play?), however its scathing and quite extraordinary crystal ball gazing is a pleasure to read. Pity not a lot has changed in 95 years.

Lisbon. What the tourist should see – Fernando Pessoa

Fat Car
2006
Erwin Wurm

Born in 1954, Bruck an der Mur, Austria; lives and works in Vienna, Austria

Porsche Carrera chassis, body and interior, with polystyrene and fiberglass

Many of you may know the “Fat Car” an artwork exhibited in the Museum of Old and New Art (more commonly known as “MONA”) in Tasmania. If you don’t know it the accompanying artwork summary, above,, without a picture, means little.

A month or so ago I had a look at J.-K. Huysmans’ ‘The Cathedral’ (translated by Brendan King), a novel that follows the life of Huymans’ alter-ego Durtal and is set in Chartres where he details the Chartres Cathedral in excruciating detail. Here’s a description of a pair of statues (and there are thousands):

Saint Vincent, in his long gown, was bowing his head contritely. He was tortured in a wholly culinary way, thought Durtal, because according to Voragine’s legend they scraped his body so furiously with sharp brass rakes that his guts fell out . . . Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris, was thrown as food to the lions, who wouldn’t go near him, then beheaded at Montmartre . . . he wasn’t humble and plaintive, like his neighbour, the Spanish deacon, but upright and imperious, his hand raised, more perhaps to admonish the faithful than to bless them…

Huysmans novel was his best seller, allowing him to retire from his day job completely and to concentrate on his religious calling and writing full time. Nowadays you can call up images of the relevant sections of the church on your device and read Huysmans’ descriptions alongside a picture, when published you would have had to travel to the Chartres Cathedral to observe the artworks, statues, stained glass windows, architecture in question.

When reading Huysmans I thought it may be a good idea to put his book side by side with Fernando Pessoa’s ‘Lisbon. What the tourist should see’, another “tour guide” written by a well know writer. How wrong could I be? Have you ever tried reviewing a handbook?

I’ve always found the awakening of a city, whether wreathed in mists or not, more moving than sunrise in the country. There is a stronger sense of rebirth, more to look forward to; instead of merely illuminating the fields, the silhouettes of trees and the open palms of leaves with first dark then liquid light and finally with pure luminous gold, the sun multiplies its every effect in windows, on walls, on roof […] – so many windows, so many different walls, so many varied rooftops – a splendid morning, diverse among all those diverse realities. Seeing dawn in the countryside does me good, seeing dawn in the city affects me for both good and ill and therefore does me even more good. For the greater hope it brings me contains, as does all hope, the far-off, nostalgic aftertaste of unreality Dawn in the countryside just exists, dawn in the city overflows with promise. One makes you live, the other makes you think. And, along with all the other great unfortunates, I’ve always believed it better to think than to live.

  • Fernando Pessoa ‘The Book of Disquiet’ [no 318] (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)

For the uninitiated, Fernando Pessoa’s ‘The Book of Disquiet’, first published in 1982, is a fragmentary modernist work, pieced together from thousands of pages, scraps and notes, left behind by Pessoa after his death in 1935. In places it celebrates Lisbon, Pessoa’s city, however it is more a haunting autobiography (imagined). If you would like a better homage to Pessoa’s Lisbon then his book ‘Lisbon. What the tourist should see’ is the tonic.

This is one obscure title, written by Pessoa, in English sometime, in the 1920s. Never published, the manuscript was found amongst his papers long after his death. Shearsman Books first published this obscure title in 2008.

It starts off promisingly, a setting from Pessoa’s pen, an imagined arrival at the port:

Over seven hills, which are as many points of observation whence the most magnificent panoramas may be enjoyed, the vast irregular and many-coloured mass of houses that constitute Lisbon is scattered.
For the traveller who comes in from the sea, Lisbon, even from afar, rises like a fair vision in a dream, clear cut against a bright blue sky which the sun gladdens with its gold, And the domes, the monuments, the old castles jut up above the mass of houses, like far-off heralds of this delightful seat, of this blessed region.
The tourist’s wonder begins when the ship approaches the bar, and, after passing the Bugio lighthouse – that little guardian-tower at the mouth of the river, built three centuries ago on the plan of Friar Jo
ão Turriano – the castled Tower of Belém appears, a magnificent specimen of sixteenth century military architecture, in the romantic-gothic-moorish style. As the ship moves forward, the river grows more narrow, soon to widen again, forming one of the largest natural harbours in the world, with ample anchorage for the greatest of fleets. Then, on the left, the masses of houses cluster brightly over the hills. That is Lisbon.

We are then guided through a landing, disembarking, Customs, then:

We shall now ask the tourist to come with us. We will act as his cicerone and go over the capital with him, pointing out the monuments, the gardens, the more remarkable buildings, the museums – all that is in any way worth seeing in this marvellous Lisbon. After his baggage has been handed to a trustworthy porter, who will deliver it at the hotel if the tourist is staying awhile, let him take his place with us in a motor-car and go on towards the centre of the city. On the way we will be showing him everything that is worth seeing.

From here the book becomes tedious in the extreme, unless you are actually holding it, have a chaperone and a trustworthy driver of your motor-car and can observe all of the features that Pessoa points out.

As an example, I thought I would choose the section about the library, readers of literature are always excited by stories of libraries:

The National Library (Biblioteca Nacional) is on the second floor. It was founded in 1796 with the name of Real Biblioteca Pública da Corte (Royal Court Public Library), being made up with the books that formed the library of the Board of Censors, that is to say, the booked that had belonged to the Jesuits and to the Royal Academy of History. The library has been successively added to by purchase and gift. The library has 11 rooms and 14 passages, on two floors, and contains 360,000 volumes. At the entrance stands the statue of Queen Maria I, by Machado de Castro, and the busts of Castilho (by Jose Simões de Almeida) and of Dom António da Costa. The coloured glazed-tiles (azulejos) of the sixteenth century are worth seeing; the formerly belonged to the Senhora da Vida chapel, in St. Andrew’s Church, now no longer in existence.

The tiles may be glazed, so were my eyes.

A book I will keep, in the lost hope that one day I will travel to Lisbon and I can walk in Pessoa’s footsteps and have him narrate the experience, however as a literary text it falls flat.

The book contains some very interesting maps taken from the 1920 French edition of the Baedeker guide to Spain and Portugal and there are plenty of photographs, all from pre-war postcard, dating from roughly 1920 up until the late 1930’s. As a curio yes, as a book you read from cover to cover??? A bit like my reading of ‘The Book of Disquiet’, one I dabble in.

Booker Prize Longlist 2021

I know you all love a list, and this blog did start to track the Booker Prize (and due to various reasons morphed into something completely different). So today, here are the longlisted titles for the 2021 Booker Prize.

‘A Passage North’ by Anuk Arudpragasam

‘Second Place’ by Rachel Cusk

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut

‘The Sweetness of Water’ by Nathan Harris

‘Klara and the Sun’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

‘An Island’ by Karen Jennings

‘A Town Called Solace’ by Mary Lawson

‘No One is Talking About This’ by Patricia Lockwood

‘The Fortune Men’ by Nadifa Mohamed

‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers

‘China Room’ by Sunjeev Sahota

‘Great Circle’ by Maggie Shipstead

‘Light Perpetual’ by Francis Spufford

The thirteen longlisted titles come from 158 submissions. The award is open to novels, written in English, published in the UK or Ireland between 1 October 2020 and 30 September 2021, which means there are still titles unavailable to the reading public.

The shortlist will be announced on 14 September, before the winner is announced on 3 November.

Not too sure I’ll get to any of these myself (although a couple of titles have appealed for a little while so never say never – hint, one of them I’ve used as the header photo).

Happy reading list lovers.

handiwork – Sara Buame

Writer and visual artist Sara Baume’s latest book ‘handiwork’ is her non-fiction debut and has been shortlisted for this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize, along with another work from Tramp Press, Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s wonderful ‘A Ghost in the Throat’.

Sara Baume won the 2014 Davy Byrnes Short Story Award for ‘SoleSearcher1’, and went on to receive the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, the Rooney Prize for Literature and an Irish Book Award for Best Newcomer in 2015. Her debut novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, the Warwick Prize for Writing, the Desmond Elliott Prize for New Fiction and the International Dublin Literary Award. It was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, and won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.

‘handiwork’ is a short contemplative work that compares the flights of migratory birds to the art of creation, both writing and sculpture, as well as her daily artistic practices:

I HAVE ALWAYS FELT a terrible responsibility for time.

The impotent urgency manifests at minimum as an internalised twitch, at maximum as the murmuring of a voice in my head, arguing that the solid form at hand is not symmetrical enough – the wrong angle, the wrong shape, the wrong stroke – causing me to carve it smaller and smaller in the name of an inconceivable perfection – to carve it away completely, back into plaster dust.

The nemesis voice never acquiesces to flow; it is always reasoning and glancing ahead into the coming weather. You could stop now, the voice murmurs, or you could get ahead for tomorrow. And then, tomorrow – you could stop now, it will murmur, or you could get ahead for tomorrow….

Like the migrant birds who, one year, find they have to go a little farther than the year before – for a superior food source, a safer resting spot, because the weather is peculiar.

And then, again, the year after, a little farther still…

This book is a collection of short pieces, with space for you to pause and contemplate each little thought. Some pages containing a single sentence.

‘INDEED, VERY FEW PEOPLE are aware’, José Saramago writes in The Cave, ‘that in each of our fingers, located somewhere between the first phalange, the mesophalange and the metaphalange, there is a tiny brain.’

Broken into fourteen sections, each introduced with an image of a single model bird from a series built by Sara Baume in the spring of 2019 and photographed in the autumn. Each made from plaster that has been carved, painted and mounted onto a length of timber dowel, and studded with a pair of glass beads. The creation of these birds, the moulding, the carving, the painting becomes the contemplation, as is the writing of this book, of exploring what it is to create. Meta-non-fiction? Auto-non-fiction?

Facts about migratory birds interject and then play with the text, the writer’s journey.

WHEN WE FIRST MOVED into this house, I assigned myself a room where I would write. I carried in a desk and tucked the swivel chair beneath it and raised a bastion of books around it. As for the other stations, they have never been formally designated. Instead, they have asserted themselves gradually, as if the walls and floors and furniture are somehow sympathetic to my preoccupations and repetitions and observances; as if this house has diligently ordered itself around my daily practices, my daily handiwork.

However, not simply a book about writing and creating, this is also an homage to the writer’s father, a man who created working equipment from scraps, a handyman, and her grandfather who diligently made wooden models, carts that she never thought much of until much later in life. As Sara Baume creates her bird sculptures she dwells on her relationship with her father, his dedication of a work area for her once she had completed her studies, and ultimately these contemplations become her writing, our reading. An acknowledgment of grieving:

He died of a cancer conjured from the fine traces of toxins that accumulated in his lungs over the course of decades; which emanated from his daily bashing, clanging, whirring and grinding, and hovered in the air of his sheds – the unwanted produce of his progress, ungraspable yet ubiquitous as the sky in a model railway.

A short but deep book, one that radiates joy as the writer’s keen observances and her connection to nature exude the poetic, the artistic and the melancholic. Another wonderful book from the small independent publisher Tramp Press, it is a joy to read these quality works from female Irish writers.

Indelicacy – Amina Cain

Portraiture, the art of depicting a person. With the advent of photography, the need to accurately record a sitter’s likeness gave way to more expressive forms, a raft of dimensions, for example psychological and emotional could be explored. Interestingly when you look at “people’s choice” award winners in National Portrait Prizes there is still a tendency to lean towards the more conservative “likeness” style works, with the expressionistic, or subtle nuances of other works being overlooked. Many times, I have seen people look at portraits in galleries, glance at the face and move on. However, if you stop, pause, and look deeply the more you may learn, it is not just the face, where is the subject looking, what are they observing, what are they wearing, clothing, jewelry, setting, tone, colour, furniture, the placement of the hands, are they holding something? There are a myriad of clues, hints that can give you a more in depth view of the sitter and the artist.

Amina Cain’s short novel ‘Indelicacy’ is primarily a portrait of the writer protagonist Vitória, but it is also a portrait that contains three other women, her hired help Solange, and her two friends Dana and Antionette.

Vitória works as a cleaner at a gallery, but she dreams of becoming a writer, she writes of the paintings she views whilst working, “The people in the painting are huddled together as if for protection, as if freezing cold.” This is a work that contains ekphrastic elements, Vitória reflects on the art works and creates an imaginative narrative, an amplification of the artwork’s meaning.

However. it is not only the artworks that she contemplates, a ultimately, writes about, it is also her own life, and that of her friends, her surroundings.

…the winter dragged itself though its January, its February, its March, with its dirty snow and frozen mud. I felt I was dragging myself through as well. I hated March more than any other month, with its promises of warmth that never came.
My writing was not unlike that. I would write, then read out loud what I had written and realise I was not any closer to a book than I had ever been. I began to hate writing, though I also still loved it.
I thought if I spent time in the country every day I would be able to write. Walk in the morning, write in the afternoon, walk again in the evening, then write again. Late at night, read, Then write again. Sleep.
One day I looked for a while at a small painting and saw something in it. A man and a boy in muted suits doing their engraving work, the background behind them completely dark. We are not meant to see anything beyond this task, their concentration on it. Yet we want to know, it is only a scrap. What is in the darkness?
This was my slogging through. Until spring came.

Eventually Vitória finds a wealthy husband, her dreams of being able to write become a reality. Now the mistress of the household she has hired help, people to clean up after her, and an uneasy relationship with Solange begins. Whilst cleaning her best friend was Antionette, with whom she loses touch, and once she has plenty of spare time she meets another friend Dana at dance classes. The female bonds are strong, and the portraits of these diverse women are slowly painted, layer by layer.

This work is even constructed like a painting, there is enough detail for you to picture the people, but the backgrounds are dark, the foregrounds light, the story very much implied in many places, you the viewer (or reader) has to create the depth in the narrative. Stop, pause, observe, why are the dishes on the table, why are the walls bare?

From then on, Dana asked to read from my notebook from time to time and then she would talk with me about what she’d read. ‘A humble sense of purpose,’ she said once, ‘and of fascination. You are fascinated by everything around you.’ On a few occasions I did let her take my notebook home, when I thought I wouldn’t need it, that it might be good for me to be without it for a while. If I found I wanted to write, I opened up the same book I had written in already and wrote there again. I had already defaced it, and I was starting to feel as if I were having a conversation with it.

A novel about writing, about female bonds and about life’s purpose, a wanderer who allows the day to day pass her by, simply observing and writing.

Astute readers would note the four character’s names, Vitória from Clarice Lispector’s ‘The Apple in the Dark’, Solange from Jean Ginet’s ‘The Maids’, Antionette from Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, and Dana from ‘Kindred’ by Octavia Butler. These four works are credited in the acknowledgements and the short precise sentences did remind me of Jean Rhys’ works, with the darkness of Lispector. Passages from those works appear in the novel.

A novel that feels gothic in places, or from a Brother’s Grimm tale in others, for example her meeting her future husband and her marriage are mentioned in passing, it is peripheral to the portrait, the husband merely a player. As in the quote above “what is in the darkness?”, this novel  has many dark corner’s on the canvas, things happen there but they are not for our eyes, Amina Cain drawing our attention to people in the portrait, Vitória, Antionette, Solange and Dana.

An interesting title, as the work itself feels delicate, it also has very different covers for the US and UK editions. The FSG cover for the United State’s market a glaring “wallpaper” style design, an abstract portrait? The UK cover a dark portrait by Gerard ter Borch (1617-81) titled ‘Margaretha van Haexbergen’. Visually I prefer the US cover, however based on content the UK seems to match better.

Short, precise and intriguing an ekphrastic novel constructed like a painting, a worthy contender for the 2021 Rathbone’s Folio Prize, for which it is shortlisted, worth hunting down.

Men and Apparitions – Lynne Tillman

Ezekiel Stark, a skeptic in his field, was promising. He studied small groups or areas of cultural concerns – family photographs, the basis of images, men. His dissertation pubbed by a university press, his gig in acadoomia was upped to associate professor. He walked the halls of academe, walked the line, talked the talk, and went by the book. He was a good enough colleague, if sometimes too aggressive when he thought he was right. He always seemed preoccupied. Sometimes he partied. Sometimes he was a hermit. He did his version of field work. He wrote papers, articles, books, he made a splash, and then he floated.

Late in the “novel” ‘Men and Apparitions’ the protagonist, who has been writing fragments, short experiences and expositions, writes three third person sketches of himself, one is above and the other two contain spoilers so I’ll not present them here. Here’s my attempt at Ezekiel Stark’s story:

Ezekiel Stark, a boring, mundane academic, who takes anti-depressants, and excrutiatingly mansplains page after page after page on the totally disinteresting subject of ethnography [the scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures], more specifically the study of old family photos. He is a narcissistic, misogynistic, bore of a human. He never parties, he just whines about the fact that his best friend ran off with his wife and talks about his fractured relationship with his mother, his father, his elder brother (who is more successful than him), his younger sister (who chose from an early age to remain silent), his aunt, his ancestors and any other relative he can blame for his shitty position. Ezekiel wonders if it was the rise of feminism in the 60’s/70’s that has brought on this crap life and writes a field study “Men in Quotes” which appears at the end of this book. It is no wonder Ezekiel is single, who could be enamored to such a self-centered bore of a human?

‘Men and Apparitions’ is close to four-hundred pages in length, with ‘The Spectator’ describing it as “mansplaining littered with tedious verbal tics, which is oddly compelling to read”, which is a perfect description. Unlike ethnography “photographs can create images, but they are not images per se, they are things, a physical object”, this novel is a slow feeding of images, semi-stories, a peeling back of layers, slowly (very slowly) the picture comes into focus.

Some have said that our being absorbed in images is the sine qua non for our inevitable self- and other-destruction. Some have said that narcissism, shown by our avidity for images, turned us inward, into inner-bounded psyches, away from the natural order and from a necessary empathy, both underlying our immense species failure and so on. Interiority – an illusion as great as Narcissus found the river/mirror to be.
Narcissism is part of the natural order.

These “chapters”, they read more like diary entries but are not marked as such, are random, disconnected mind explosions of Ezekiel. However, they do reveal learnings, about our protagonist, ourselves and our place in the world:

It was late for the morning, and I lay in bed like a drugged person, and that’s when the idea aced me. It flashed. It hit me, I’d look after the lost, care for the unwanted. Image detritus. I’d turn into a finder of the unwanted. Homeless photographs, the exilic.
I hunted the streets, sidewalks, under tables in restaurants (in winter, found gloves everywhere); the floors in clubs and bars; now in digital time, there’s way less. What people throw out tells an untold story. (I’m not a garbologist). There’s still purging among over inflated consumers of tech. Get rid of stuff and buy the new, so material shows up, photos left in a book, books tossed out everywhere; I’ve found thumb drives too. Meanwhile, garbage trucks drop cartons and garbage collectors run wild in the streets. The streets overflow with rejection.

Silence is also a theme throughout, the silence of his little sister who refuses to speak, his wife (“the silence grew”), his aunt who ignores him, his strange belief that he can make himself invisible, like Mr. Percy a praying mantis he used to visit in the yard when he was a child, the animosity between him and his older brother, the silence between them:

Little Sister prepared me for the silence required in thinking, writing, reading. I don’t blame her for what happened between me and Maggie [his wife]. Silence became an intangible obstacle. She has to deal with it, hers, all the time. Don’t know how she does it.

Always the academic, our protagonist quotes others’ texts throughout, here Clifford Geertz a famous ethnographer, talking about anthropologists and photographs:

They marginalize what is central. What is needed, or anyway must serve, is tableaus, anecdotes, parables, tales: mini-narratives with the narrator in them.

Here’s our novel, a series of tableaus, anecdotes, parables, tales and mini-narratives with the narrator in them. An ethnographer creating a cultural artefact that he can then digest, explore, study.

Fifty pages into this book I was willing to hurl it against the wall, the voice didn’t sound like any male I’d ever come across, the “just kidding” and “ only joking” at the end of lines, the tedious academic style, however I became slightly intrigued by this most annoying and unreliable narrator, and within another fifty pages I was strangely curious as to his fate.

At 397 pages this is overly long and I found the closing field study “Men in Quotes” completely off putting, an imaginary set of responses, by nameless “new men” subjects, to questions about the impact of feminism on their lives. Again, I do not know a single male (and I’ve known plenty) who would answer these questions in that manner. Interestingly in the acknowledgements Lynne Tillman thanks “all of the men who responded so generously and intelligently to Zeke’s questions”, so if they are actual responses then the circles that the author moves in are far far removed from the circles I move in. Not every man I know answers with academic twaddle!!!

Initially this began as a “did not finish”, slowly grew to a “I wonder what will happen next” and petered out to a “I’ve only 100 pages to go may as well finish it” book. I can imagine others liking it, just like I can imagine that I’ve completely missed the point, however I can’t see it making the shortlist of the Republic of Consciousness Prize – the reason I read it, it’s on the longlist. Next up my sixth title from the longlist, ‘Lote’ by Shola von Reinhold.

The Appointment – Katharina Volckmer

Have you ever looked in the mirror and not liked what is reflected back at you? ‘The Appointment (Or, The Story of a Cock)’ by Katharina Volckmer is one unsettling work about a person who is uncomfortable with everything about their life. Our single unemployed female, German narrator, is unhappy about being unemployed, being female, being German, being single, she is unsettled about everything in her past and her present. Can a change settle these old debts and secure a better future?

Written as a single 96-page monologue, our German narrator is being examined by Dr Seligman and during this examination, whilst he’s down there, between her thighs, she unburdens intimate and perverse details of her life.

Your assistant told me that you are very thorough and that this will take a while, especially the photos, so I don’t want you to worry, because I still think the reasons for my discharge from work were misconstrued and it’s unfair to say that I have anger issues. I was angry that day, of course – it was before I had started taking my hormones – but to get suspended like that when they have no idea what it’s like for people like me. And I don’t think that threatening to staple a co-worker’s ear to their desk whilst waving a stapler around can really count as violence. Not with those staplers, anyway. I doubt they have every tried to staple through human flesh and into a solid desk with one of those stiff little plastic things. I was probably more at risk of losing my eyesight from an errant staple, but of course that didn’t matter to them. And you don’t need to think that they had ever provided us with safety glasses, heaven knows how many casualties will be caused by all that cheap stationery. But now I don’t feel sorry anymore; let them all be poisoned from chewing on those horrible pens that turn all handwriting into a lament. Because the worst thing was not losing my job – in the city you starve either way – but that they made me see a therapist called Jason, for otherwise they would have pressed charges. Can you imagine being serious with a therapist called Jason, Dr Seligman?

The monologue lurches from the highly amusing and razor-sharp observations to perverse and outrageous, “but I thought that it would wind him [Jason] up if I told him about my sexual fixation with our dear Führer”. The topics intentionally provoking, asking readers to contemplate subjects that are considered taboo. The guilt of being born German:

I mean, I know that as Germans we can never get away from our past and simply start growing happy flowers in our front garden – our outlook will always be something that has been raked to death and closely resembles concrete.

The guilt of not being happy with her own body, the rants about sexuality, binary tags, just as disturbing. Within a paragraph you can go from laugh out loud to a grimace.

A difficult work to review without giving away spoilers, or moving to over reaction to taboo subjects, it’s not just the Hitler references, although they have seemed to get their fair share of coverage, there is also robotic sex toys, quick oral sex in public toilets, a fluid relationship with a married man where our narrator is just used for her body, a dissection of the nuclear family.

At times disturbing, and at other times simply a person bringing up their deepest anxieties and fears. I have an impression that the monologue is being conducted under the influence of an anesthetic, an unburdening of everything that brought her to Dr Seligman’s in the first place.

God, of course, was a man too. A father who could see everything, from whom you couldn’t even hide in the toilet, and who was always angry. He probably had a penis the size of a cigarette. The kind of man who shoots lions and overtakes women in the swimming pool. It’s of course much easier to be religious when you are a man, and yet I could never understand why a single woman ever went to church, or any of the other temples, Dr Seligman, because no religion I have ever come across had anything nice to say about women. I could never understand why my mother believed in Jesus and had a secret altar will all sorts of glittering memorabilia tucked away in the corner of her bedroom. Why would she worship where they teach nothing but shame and fear, where they came up with all that crap about holy mothers and whores, where they were scared of vaginas. Because that’s really what it is all about, isn’t it? Apart from trying to find a way not to die, to carry on living somewhere in the clouds with all the people you never liked in the first place, it is a way of trying to keep the difference between people with and without cocks alive. And they talk of penis envy, but look at the lengths people have gone to to cripple and defeat vaginas, to tell women that pleasure is not for them, that there is such a thing as being good. I mean, how many women have covered pages and pages of books about cocks and they way men are supposed to dress and think and dream? How they are supposed to be some sort of fuckable mother figure with clean fingernails and plenty of tissues in their handbag. I never understood how God, who couldn’t give birth, is supposed to be the source of all life – how a man could be our creator. Unless, of course, it was what we would call arschgeburt in German, something that your ass gave birth to. Maybe that’s what this world is, Dr Seligman: something that came out of a holy man’s ass, the leftovers of broken stars and an imploding universe.

A work that challenges your notions on just about every subject you could think of, a work that provokes and prods you, a work that questions the norms and pushes at the boundaries to see how far they can be stretched before they break. But this is also an important work in that it addresses subjects that people do not want to confront, German identity, non-binary identities, sexual perversions… Katharina Volckmer has arrived with a very noisy debut.