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Living up to Lucy

Living up to Lucy

Lucy Hughes-Hallett, chair of the International Booker Prize judges, whose deliberations will come to a head on 2 June, when the winner of this year’s award is announced, recently gave a pithy summary of what she dreams of in a novel. “What I want from fiction is to be surprised and moved. I want beautiful prose, exciting ideas, and to be led down new intellectual pathways. I want to be engaged emotionally. To be amused and entertained, or deeply upset, and perhaps both at once.” A pretty daunting list of attributes for a single book and, regardless of who wins, a reflection of just how good the six books on the IBP shortlist are.

 

Congratulations to the Jordanian poet and novelist Jalal Barjas who has just won the 14th International Prize for Arabic Fiction – the award initially mentored by the Booker Prizes to spread the reach of Arabic literature. His winning novel, Notebooks of the Bookseller, recounts the story of Ibrahim, a schizophrenic bookseller and omnivorous reader, who commits a series of crimes, from burglary and theft to murder when he loses his shop. The twist is that he takes on the names of literary characters for his criminal enterprises. Not wanting to spoil things but there is redemption too. Barjas was longlisted for the prize in 2019 but this time the $50,000 prize and the commitment to translate the novel into English, and therefore reach an international audience, are his. The win means that he might have to take some time out from his day job to meet his new audiences. This though could have repercussions; Barjas is an aeronautical engineer.

 

David Storey, Booker Prize winner in 1976 with Saville, was also a distinguished artist, playwright and rugby league player. His many strings, however, were no guarantee of financial comfort or reputational longevity. In A Stinging Delight, his new memoir – posthumous, Storey died in 2017 – he reveals poignantly how low he got. His early work, This Sporting Life, Flight into Camden and Radcliffe, had led to him being called “the leading novelist of his generation” but by 1966 “We no longer had a car. We had four children. Food began to be rationed. Stews succeeded stews: vegetables procurable from the gutters of the Inverness Street market, bones from the butcher, a move ahead of the dogs. We were once more on the breadline, the ‘leading novelist of his generation’ leading his family nowhere.” It was an old and abandoned play, To Die with the Philistines, which he disinterred and re-wrote as The Restoration of Arnold Middleton, that turned his fortunes round when it transferred to the Royal Court theatre in London, then the hippest of hip joints in town. Saville emerged only after several other stage successes. Never was a Booker Prize more hard won.

 

Another novelist/playwright and a date for the diary. The stage version of the final book in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy now has a release venue and date. The Mirror and the Light will premiere at the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End on 23 September with the opening night, once the critics have had their sneak peeks, set for 6 October. If the reception of the previous two plays is anything to go by, it would be best to get in early. This play has the added twist that Mantel wrote it in collaboration with her leading actor ­– not Thomas Cromwell but Ben Miles.

 

Salman Rushdie, who has a new book of non-fiction essays just out, Languages of Truth, is yet another Booker Prize winner fascinated by the stage. Having caught Covid, he has used his recuperation period to write a play: it is about Helen of Troy and, he says, “It’s written in verse, and she’s interesting because all we really know about her is that she ran off with Paris. But who is she? Why does she do what she does? How does she feel about the consequences of her actions?” No news, however, about when audiences will be able to see if he has come up with some answers, or even if it will make it into production, but, as the author of Midnight’s Children says, “I am stupidly optimistic – it got me through those bad years.”