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A portrait speaks

A portrait speaks

At a recent event at Launde Abbey in Rutland, 2009 & 2012 winner Dame Hilary Mantel discussed her central character, Thomas Cromwell, with the great statesman’s biographer, Diarmaid MacCulloch. The surroundings were appropriate since Cromwell was a frequent visitor to the Abbey. While talking about the difference between fiction and biography and how they seek in different ways to capture the man, Mantel suggested that Cromwell had issued her with a challenge. She spoke about Holbein’s portrait of him: “That massive hulking presence in the dark wool and furs. It’s closed, it seems to repel the light, it’s as if he were bodily present but mentally somewhere else,” she said. “So, where was he? And where was he when he was being painted? Where did his thoughts wander?” It was this that set her off on her 13-year and three-book quest: “There Cromwell sits and defies you: ‘Make something of me.’ But it was the deficiency of the portrait that pushed me on. I thought, ‘I’ll try and find him.’ And few would doubt that she has. The last volume of Mantel’s trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, is due to be published in March 2020


The announcement of The Booker Prize longlist has led, as it always does, to leap in sales for the chosen authors. So far, the longlisted titles have sold a combined 4,740 copies (according to Nielsen BookScan) which represents a more than healthy 198 per cent improvement on the week before the announcement. It is Oyinkan Braithwaite’s sort-of thriller My Sister, the Serial Killer that has been leading the field so far, with 929 hardback copies sold (a 99 per cent jump on the pre-announcement week). However, Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive has seen the most startling rise; up 852 per cent from 21 copies in the week before the announcement to 200 afterwards. The fabled “Booker bounce” continues to be seriously springy.


The Public Lending Rights scheme, administered by the British Library, has just revealed the most borrowed authors in the nation’s libraries from 1 July 2017 to 30 June 2018. The lists are dominated, as usual, by thriller writers and children’s authors – James Patterson sits at No 1, Daisy Meadows and Julia Donaldson at numbers 2 and 3. To use the time-hallowed distinction, literary authors don’t get a look in. However, when it comes to who is most popular in the different regions, things change slightly. Scotland, for example, had a penchant for home-grown authors such as Ian Rankin, Judy Murray and Alex Ferguson. London on the other hand had a craving for Booker heroines Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale was at No 4) and Zadie Smith (Swing Time was No 8). It would be dangerous to draw conclusions from such differences. At least in public.


David Grossman’s 2017 International Prize-winning novel, A Horse Walks Into a Bar, which tells the story of a stand-up comedian with a chilling past grappling with conflicts both internal and national during a performance, has been optioned for a feature film. The novel was first published in Hebrew in 2014, and when translated by Jessica Cohen, went on to scoop the Man Booker International Prize. It is easy to see why the filmmakers think it will make a good movie: it has numerous cinematic ingredients, from black comedy and human struggle to the ongoing travails of modern Israel - plenty for filmmakers and filmgoers to get their teeth into. What is curious though is that the company that has bought the rights, Village Roadshow Pictures – not an Israeli company but an Australian-American one – is best known for rather more full-on and mainstream films. Its roster includes Ocean’s 8, the new Batman spin-off Joker, and Sherlock Holmes 3. So not so elementary...