Monday, June 29, 2009

In praise of prizes

You might remember that in January I published a post (Local stays lekker), confessing that two of my favourite books of last year happened to be South African, nothing to do with patriotism, just pure reading pleasure. So I was thrilled earlier this month when Anne Landsman and Michiel Heyns won two of the top literary awards in the country, the M Net Prize and the Herman Charles Bosman Prize, for The Rowing Lesson and Bodies Politic respectively.

Congratulations to two novelists who really deserve recognition - quite apart from the fact that I count them among my own favourites.

As all readers know, literary awards can be a frustrating business. Sometimes you hate the book being crowned, sometimes you can't understand why a wonderful book has been overlooked. Awards are the fruit of so much more than literary merit, depending on the personal tastes and moods of the judges, on politics and publishers' promotion, on timeliness and luck and sometimes even on the looks or age of the writer.

Which is why the French Prix de l'Inapercu, also recently awarded, is such a great idea. It could be translated as Prize of the Unnoticed - and it does exactly that. It notices the unnoticed, awards a deserving book that somehow got lost among the stacks of books published each year, suffering the sad fate of being ignored by critics as well as buyers. This year the winner is Dominique Conil's En espérant la guerre (Hoping for War), published by Actes Sud, which now gets a second chance to be seen in book shops, talked about on radio, reviewed by magazines - and, of course, discovered by readers.

I wonder if other countries have similar second-chance awards? Any means of informing discerning readers of good writers they might otherwise never discover, gets an enthusiastic shout of approval from me. As it is, I live in dread that somewhere out there is a really GREAT contemporary author whom I might not get to know before I die. You know what I mean?

Until about two years ago, for instance, I'd never come across the name - let alone read the all too rare novels - of Marilynne Robinson, who recently won the prestigeous British Orange Prize. My ignorance might be excused by the fact that this American author published only two novels in a quarter of a century - Housekeeping in 1980 and Gilead in 2004, the first nominated for and the second winning the Pulitzer Prize - not what you would call a prolific output. Fortunately for all her fans she seems to be entering a more productive phase. Home, the novel awarded the Orange Prize, was published a mere four years after Gilead.

I haven't read Home yet, but Housekeeping was such a delightful (albeit belated) discovery that I can't wait to renew the acquaintance. When it comes to really good writing, it is always a case of rather late than never. Or as we say in Afrikaans: Agteros kom ook in die kraal. Even a lagging ox eventually gets to the kraal of literary joy.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Blessed by books

Now that the year is nearing its halfway mark, I can confidently claim that 2009 is going to be a
grand cru. I'm talking books, not wines, in case you're confused.

Because readers, like wine tasters, know that the harvest differs from year to year, in quality and in quantity. Often I read for weeks, sometimes even months, without coming across a really great book. Oh, I find pleasure, of course, I always find pleasure in reading, but I yearn for something more. I want a book that grips me and shakes me, a book that thrills me and fills me with awe and admiration.

And then there are years, like this blessed one, when each month is illuminated by a brilliant book. The kind of book that stands out from the crowd, or jumps off the shelf, for the rest of the year. Maybe even for many years to come.

The thrill started in January, when I finally tackled Don DeLillo's Falling Man which I'd been threatening to read ever since its publication in 2007. It is the most magnificent writing about 'Nine Eleven' and the attacks on the Twin Towers that I've ever encountered, and it convinced me (as if I needed any convincing) that DeLillo is an awesome author. I wanted to fall down at his feet and worship him after some pages, for what he does with language and style and human relationships. I know this sounds over the top, but we all have our weaknesses, and DeLillo is one of mine.

Then, in February, I was blessed by another beautiful book: Anne Enright's The Gathering, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2007, a lyrical novel about a family gathering. The nine surviving siblings of the Hegarty clan get together in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother Liam... Dark and delightful from the first to the last page.

So far so good, I said to myself, like a falling man (with apologies to DeLillo) who still has a long way to go before he hits the ground, but surely this good luck can't last. Well, it did last, into March, when I read Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, another outstanding novel published in 2007. (Talking of grand crus, what a grand year 2007 was for readers.) On Chesil Beach is a devastating study of a single young couple on a single night in the summer of 1962; 'a short, sharp shock of a story', as it was called in The Observer, proving once again that power has nothing to do with size or length.

And still my luck didn't run out. In April, while on vacation in South Africa, I read Toni Morrison's latest masterpiece, A Mercy, which I praised in my previous posting (Of mothers and race). And in May I read another novel I probably should have read three years ago. Kiran Desai's exquisitely titled The Inheritance of Loss won the Man Booker Prize in 2006, which makes it the 'oldest' of the five memorable novels I've encountered in the first five months of 2009. One of those marvellous stories about India that I just can't resist, as I confessed in another earlier posting (Hate and hurt in Mumbai, November 2008), it deals with an uprising in the Himalayas region in 1986, and demonstrates in a quite unforgettable way how big political dramas can affect the small personal lives of ordinary people.

So far so good, I say again, still falling. I can't wait to see what the rest of the literary year holds in store for me.