By Roger Tagholm
The “weigh-in” at the Man Booker was fun this year. Essentially, you had Hana Yanagihara, author of A Little Life (Picador), squaring up to Bill Clegg, author of Did You Ever Have a Family (Cape). Trivial aside: did this title ever have a question mark? Should it have a question mark?). Yanagihara went first. “In my novel, the characters suffer tremendous sexual abuse.” “Bah, phooey,” replied Clegg. “In mine, most of them are burnt to death — before it even starts!” It was like a Man Booker “grim off.”
I enjoyed the Clegg, particularly the descriptions of New York second homers arriving at the quiet Connecticut town “texting and calling from trains and cars with their demands — driveways to be plowed, wood to stack, lawns to mow…” and its ultimate message that recovery and resolution is possible after great tragedy.
Anyone in publishing should read James Salter’s All That Is (Picador). It’s fun trying to spot the amalgams of publishing figures we all know – the great Jewish publishers, the Paul Hamlyns and the Alfred Knopfs. It was also good to read a traditional novel of someone’s entire adult life, from the Second World War to the Nineties.
There’s a little too much science in Andy Weir’s The Martian (Del Rey), but I kept turning the pages. This novel was originally self-published, which just demonstrates how important this sector has become (as if we needed reminding).
The Robert Benchley collection The Benchley Roundup (University of Chicago Press) is something to which I return often for a little pick-me-up. His piece “Why we laugh – or do we?” has long been a favorite. He notes that “every joke must be in a language that we can understand and spoken (or written) so clearly that we can hear it (or see it). Otherwise we have this:” and what follows is a blank rectangle marked “Fig 1,” captioned: “Joke which we cannot hear, see or understand the words of.” This is simply so silly, so absurd that I love it.
Damn. It’s all been American so far. Let’s finish with a Brit, albeit one who ended up in the States. I have been dipping into WH Auden’s Collected Poems (Faber) and trying to learn his lovely “Look stranger” off by heart. I’ve photocopied the page and sometimes take it with me when I walk the dog on the Common where “the leaping light for your delight” does discover (these pieces always have something a little pretentious in them – this paragraph is it).
It stirs long ago memories of studying the poem at school and my English teacher pointing out how the shape of the verses on the page resembled the lines that receding waves leave on wet sand. It was a Stoner moment, one of those occasions when a layer is peeled back and new understanding pours in. For which, Miss Bridle, wherever you are, many thanks.