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Howard Jacobson ages gracefully

Howard Jacobson ages gracefully

The writing malarkey still has surprises for even the most experienced of practitioners. While pondering his latest novel, Live a Little, about love in old age, the 2010 Man Booker winner Howard Jacobson found something unexpected happening. His central character, 90-year-old Beryl Dusinbery, emerged “fully-formed”. “She truly sprang like this,” he says. “And the minute she did, I thought, I can hear this person, I can see this person.” What’s more, says the author of 15 previous novels, “That’s never happened to me before. I didn’t have to excavate for her, I didn’t have to work at her. . . I knew what she was going to say. I thought, I’ll give her her head.” Jacobson, aged 76, seems comfortable about writing about much older people because he finds them “impressive”. He started the book with the idea of “doing something about what it was like to be a geezer my age. And then I thought, no, this is naff, every novelist when he turns 65 wants to do the old age novel, the incontinence. . . I thought, no, it’s funny, but the jokes come too easily.” So he upped the age-level and now, he says, “I don’t intend writing about anybody young ever again.”

 

Budleigh Salterton in Devon is a delightful, if unassuming, place. However, in terms of literary punching weight it is no Cheltenham, Hay or Edinburgh (even though it can beat them all when it comes to beaches). Yet its literary festival, which runs 18-22 September, appears to have unexpected pulling power. Robert Harris, Kirsty Wark, Dr David Nott, Adam Kay and Christina Lamb are among the celebrated authors who will be putting in an appearance. One wonders if a phone call from the festival president helped sway them. She just happens to be the two-time Man Booker winner and all-round literary heroine Dame Hilary Mantel - just a thought.

 

Guy Gunaratne, Man Booker longlisted last year for his debut novel, In Our Mad and Furious City, has just won the International Dylan Thomas Prize for writers under 40. The son of Sri Lankan parents, he grew up in Neasden in north London and his book, revolving around the killing of Trooper Lee Rigby by a radicalised Muslim, is full of London patois. The success of his book has forced him to learn a new language himself: “Publishing is pretty middle class,” he says, “and I’ve had to accommodate. In London, you learn to code-switch quite well and I’ve always thought of that as a superpower in a way. You’re able to express yourself with different vocabulary in different situations, not through any pretence but because the way you express yourself matters, and your social condition is inherited through your inheritance of dialect.” So when talking books he speaks one way and when talking to friends he speaks another and both are equally authentic.

 

The Desmond Elliott Prize for first novels – won this year by Claire Adam for Golden Child – raised the subject of one-hit wonders (not that Adam is likely to be one). The name of Keri Hulme inevitably came up. Her debut, The Bone People, was published in 1985 and won the Booker Prize. There is still no sign though of her second novel, Bait, ironically a meditation on death. Hulme puts the 34-year (and counting) gap on struggling to choose between three endings – and a smorgasbord of other things. “Bless my publishers, they’ve been amazingly generous – I do feel derelict in my obligations,” she says. “I’ve learned something not to do ever again, and that is sign contracts before you’re absolutely sure something is finished.” It might be worth asking her publishers what they have learned from the experience.

 

Anna Burns, reigning Man Booker champion, continues to hoover up the gongs. The latest award to take its place on her bowing mantelpiece is the inaugural Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. Perhaps she can use some of the £3,000 prize money to reinforce that in-danger-of-collapsing mantelpiece.