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Unsworth’s English patience

Unsworth’s English patience

Back in 1992, the Booker Prize was split between two winners, Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth. The dual win was felt to be so unsatisfactory that the prize changed its rules and stated that henceforth there could only be one winner – a stricture that held firm until the 2019 judges saw fit to ignore it. Of the 1992 winners, The English Patient went on to conquer the world, courtesy of the lushly romantic 1996 film version that won nine Oscars and innumerable other gongs. For some unfathomable reason, the other winner, Sacred Hunger, didn’t make the transition from page to screen and remained simply a novel of the highest excellence. Now, however, Unsworth’s novel has perhaps found its cultural moment and is finally being adapted for a television series. It is perfect fare for today; a story of greed that describes the relationship between a wealthy merchant’s son and a physician on board an 18th-century slaving ship marked by mutiny, death and inhumanity. Details are sketchy but Smokestack Films have bought the rights to the book. The shame is that Unsworth, who died back in 2012, won’t get to see his marvellous book’s final triumph.

Rick Gekoski, Booker Prize judge in 2005, author and rare-book dealer, has a new memoir, Guarded by Dragons, coming out this month. In a recent interview he recounted a horror story centred on nine first editions of James Joyce’s Ulysses that he was taking to clients in America. The books were then worth €250,000 and at the airport check-in desk he was told they would have to fly in the hold. His request to buy a seat for them – a first class seat no less – was refused, so the bag the books were in was smothered with “Fragile” stickers and put with the other cargo. Needless to say, on arrival, the baggage carousel at La Guardia Airport in New York turned and turned but no bag of books appeared: “I knew it wouldn’t,” said Gekoski. “I knew it. And it didn’t.” After an agonising wait, the bag was eventually found sitting alone by a runway, where the baggage handlers had forgotten about it. Gekoski eventually got his books back but lost several years of his life in the process.

David Diop, winner of this year’s International Booker Prize with At Night All Blood is Black, spoke recently about how difficult he had found it when researching the book to find letters from African soldiers in the First World War – the very stuff of his novel – that recounted first-hand the experiences and thoughts of those young men. “There are letters, of course, but they are impersonal, administrative letters,” he said in a recent interview. “You have to remember that letters were monitored to keep up the morale of the troops and the country. It’s also possible there was a form of self-censorship among the African riflemen.” So, in the novel he was forced to invent his own uncensored version. Such was his success that readers in France would arrive at signings carrying letters and photographs from their great-grandfathers with the wish that they had asked their relatives about their experiences when they had had the chance ­– the very material he had wanted at the beginning but then found he didn’t need.

For slow writers, Ali Smith, a four-time Booker Prize nominee, is both an inspiration and an obstacle. In her quartet of novels taking the name of each season she has shown that contemporary events such as Brexit and the quickly changing mores of the 2010s and 2020s offer material fit for fiction. What’s more, she has shown that it is possible to write quickly without sacrificing quality – so tardy novelists have no excuse. Autumn was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and Smith’s concluding seasonal volume, Summer, which deals with such topics as refugees and the pandemic, has just been awarded the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. The novel is not about politics per se but shows the truth of the adage that the political is personal and what happens in government affects us all. Smith has also just appeared on Start the Week with Andrew Marr on Radio Four to discuss her book and its inspirations and the programme can be found here.