I stayed in Edinburgh during the middle weekend. There were Booker prize winners, Orange prize winners, Whitbread prize winners, Costa prize winners, James Tait Black prize and Saltire prize winners to see. Why waste time driving up and down the M8? Selected highlights follow.
The day began with Booker winning A S Byatt‘s first appearance ever at Edinburgh. It ended with her lifting the 2010 James Tait Black Prize for The Children’s Song. She came over as warm and likeable – I’d previously thought she’d be quite intimidating. She answered all questions – even the controversial one about the Orange prize – truthfully, emphasising multiple times that her Quaker upbringing had taught her that is the only way to be. It became clear that this is what causes the storms to swirl around her – it’s not that she’s seeking to be argumentative . She’s just saying it the way she sees it and apart from the Orange being, in her view, a sexist prize, that does not help the cause of intelligent fiction written by women. One comment from the audience brought appreciative applause from the rest. “This is my one chance to say thank you for Possession”, he said, “It has enriched my life”. I second that – love Possession so much that I had to own a special copy – the beautiful Folio Society edition, published last year – and a memento of the moment she signed it. Surprisingly Byatt had to fight her publishers – they wanted to cut out the Victorian poetry and prose. The issue left her in tears many times. Fortunately the author prevailed and now regards the novel as “a wicked triumph”.
Janice Galloway was hot. Really. So hot that she invited the audience to throw ice cubes down her cleavage …. So much for dry as dust authorly stereotypes. She then went on to discuss the pigeon- holing of themes in Scottish fiction. She has many times been asked why she chose to write about a dead German – her Saltire winning Clara. Why not? She does not like her Collected Stories described as stories from Scotland. The roots are there, but the reach is much wider and then she proved it with two readings. The first, not for those with a phobia for dentists and tooth extractions, and the second an hiliarious but all too honest account of female self-delusions with regard to romantic love.
Whitbread prize winning Alasdair Gray was the local attraction , alongside Igor Štiks from Bosnia and Michal Witkowski from Poland, at the event celebrating the publication of the Dalkey Archive anthology European fiction 2010. Stuart Kelly, the chair, revealed that in the UK only 2% of published work are translated fiction. The figure is 33% in France. He lamented this parochial attitude and his delight at this anthology and plans for another in 2011. All three read their pieces. Most memorable was Igor Štiks’s description of a Bosnian market where the worth of great works of literature and paintings was now measured in sacks of rice or bottles of oil. There really was only one question to ask at this event. The festival had opened with Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas criticising the writing in this book as “dry” and “academic in a cheap shitey way”. (My Spy in Edinburgh claims that this comment was taken out of context but let’s go with it.) How do you answer that? asked Kelly. Both Witkowski and Stiks pointed to historical factors. “There is a difference betwen ex-communist and Western countries”, said Štiks. “We have just begun to ironise our past.” Witkowski talked of the perception in Poland that Western Europe is asleep and that inspiration is being drawn from the East, particularly from the writings of Viktor Pelevin.
The day ended in the Spiegeltent. Another new feature at this year’s festival is a daily (or rather eveningly) Unbound story-telling event in a caberet setting. It’s free, too. On Friday it was hosted by Edinburgh-based publisher, Canongate and it was mobbed. Dan Rhodes read selections from his Anthropology . I loved the way he did this. He asked the audience to name their favourite character from Friends and then read a story beginning with that character’s name. Janice Galloway read a couple more from her Collected Stories. If she was hot at her morning’s session, the stories she read in the evening were positively roasting. Naughty girl! Go talk to her, said Stuart, from Booklit. No, said Lizzy, already beginning to feel like a Galloway groupie with no inclination to add stalker to the list.
When asked, Andrea Levy picked up the Orange prize controversy where A S Byatt left off – from the opposite side of the argument naturally. However, she started her session by thanking the sell-out audience. When she started writing she said, she used to hope for rain. That way, some people would come in looking for shelter. No excuses like that today, the sun was still shining!
She spoke eloquently about the genesis of her Booker-longlisted novel, The Long Song, and about the characters within it. She refused to condemn the whites, not even the nasty Scottish plantation overseer. They are people of their time. We wouldn’t like them – not even the most enlightened. We understood as she had previously (and bravely) quoted the following words of David Hume, the great Scottish 18th century philospher:
I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites (Of National Characteristics)
As for her reading, well. July comes alive, jumps off the page and into your face through Levy’s authentic Caribbean accent, inherited from her mother. Reminder to self: Get hold of a copy of the audio book now – Levy herself narrates.
I find it unfathomable that David Mitchell hasn’t won any of the awards listed at the top of this page. But he did win The Richard and Judy Book of the Year with Cloud Atlas. Which proves that sometimes, the British public not only know better than eminent judging panels but also that they appreciate challenging fiction.
Mitchell read from two sections of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet– and continued to edit the text as he went. He revealed that the novel has been germinating since 1994 on a backpacking trip and that he struggled to find the correct form for it. The trick of historical fiction, he said, is smuggling research into the novel. First you need to identify the differences in time and culture and then portray those differences as something that the characters take for granted. He talked of discombobulation – a technique from film making, which allows the reader to fill in the blanks and saves the author from writing sentences – which he needed to use because the first draft was well over 600 pages long. When asked – by someone who loved the novel by the way – about the clunky title and surprisingly orthodox structure – his answer was priceless. He had trouble with the title. He wanted it to contain something Japanese and something Dutch. ” Thousand Autumns” is a melancholy epithet from classical Japanese poetry. The structure is based on the principle of narrative heads – a metal rod transmitting the thoughts of each narrator- you see their thoughts, and only theirs, but through the third person. 3 sections, 13 chapters each, beginning with a narrator who is not central to the action, each ending with an execution. One main narrator in section 1, two in section 2, three in section 3. The increasing of narrators accelerating the pace of the novel. Just as I was thinking, so now I know why the book didn’t feel as long as it is, Mitchell puts his hands on his hips and says “So fancier than you though, eh?”. Cue rapturous applause …
and more thought about that odd section of 1st person narrative at the beginning of section 3. At the book signing, Mitchell told me that that section was written rather late as he couldn’t find any research material on the life of a Japanese slave. When he found it, he wrote the section in first person (because it was easier) and simply didn’t get the time to redraft it in third. Even literary superstars have to work to deadlines …