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The ageless Intizar Hussain

The ageless Intizar Hussain

As the longlist date for the Man Booker International Prize approaches (10 March) it is a good moment to remember Intizar Hussain, one of the writers selected as finalists for the 2013 prize. Hussain, who has just died in Lahore, was born in India but lived for most of his life in Pakistan. Quite how long that life was Husain himself claimed not to know. He was in his nineties for sure but, as he said in an interview, he might have been born in ‘1922, or 1923 or perhaps 1925’. What is not in doubt though is that he was one of the greatest writers in Urdu. Hussain’s fictions looked at the present time through mythology, surrealism and the folklore of India, Persia and Arabia. Living through Partition, he was at the heart of turbulent times but unlike many others of his generation, Hussain’s outlook, said one commentator, ‘was basically human and philosophical, always leaning towards enlightenment’. While those who appreciated him gather their thoughts, here is an opportunity to read his own affecting reminiscences of encountering his Indian contemporary U.R. Ananthamurthy at the 2013 Man Booker International prize.

The furore over the all-white Oscars calls to mind the regular claims that the British book world is too male. While the statistics hardly support the claim those who believe that women writers face a tougher task than their male peers should be heartened by Frances Hardinge’s success in picking up the Costa Prize. She joins the Man Booker favourite Ali Smith (winner of the Baileys Prize for women’s fiction), Claudia Rankine (the Forward poetry prize), Sarah Howe (TS Eliot poetry prize) in dominating book awards in 2015. Of course the pick of the prizes, the Man Booker, was won by a man – Marlon James. James though clearly understands the mood of the times and did his bit for diversity by being openly gay.

The double Man Booker winner Hilary Mantel herself recently discussed the topic of women writers in a piece praising the novels of Elizabeth Jane Howard. Howard’s fiction, she said, did not have the profile it should and ‘the real reason the books are underestimated – let’s be blunt – is that they are by a woman. Until very recently there was a category of books ‘by women, for women’. This category was unofficial, because indefensible.’ Howard was not alone in suffering this neglect, the 1984 Man Booker winner Anita Brookner was another. Her ‘critical fortunes show that it is possible to win a major prize, be widely read and still be undervalued,’ said Mantel. As for Howard, ‘For all her late success, and perhaps because of it, Howard’s work is misperceived. Her virtues are immaculate construction, impeccable observation, persuasive but inexorable technique. They may not make a noise in the world, but every writer can learn from them.’

Julian Barnes, Man Booker winner in 2011, has been praising a hero of his own – Dmitri Shostakovich, the subject of his new novel, The Noise of Time. The composer, never far from Stalin’s malign eye, is Barnes’s hero despite being a ‘coward’, or rather a man who ‘often considered himself a coward. Or rather, was placed in a position in which it was impossible not to be a coward. You or I would have been cowards in his position,’ says Barnes, ‘and had we decided to be the opposite of a coward – a hero – we would have been extremely foolish.’ Shostakovich’s greatest achievement was not so much his music, thinks Barnes, as staying alive.