The unfilmable brilliance of Moon Tiger

Penelope Lively’s novel defeated even Harold Pinter’s attempts to write a screenplay, and it’s not just the narrator’s voice that a camera couldn’t capture

When Michael Ondaatje won the Golden Booker prize last week he gave credit for the novel’s popularity to Anthony Minghella, suggesting that the film director’s adaptation of The English Patient had “something to do with the result of this vote”. He was being modest; The English Patient is a superb book and stands alone. Even so, it’s fun to speculate about what might have happened if an equally impressive film had been made of Moon Tiger.

Indeed, I’ve sometimes wondered why such a film has not appeared. One of the many pleasures of reading Moon Tiger comes from the variously gorgeous and unsettling images it embeds in your brain. Some of the descriptions of desert war wouldn’t look out of place in The English ...

Not the Booker prize 2018: nominate your favourite book of the year

The literary award decided by Guardian readers is celebrating its 10th birthday – and now it’s down to you to choose the contenders

The Not the Booker prize is back. Again! When we started back in 2009, the world was a different place – one Gordon Brown was prime minister and a TV host called Donald Trump had just endorsed Hillary Clinton to be president of the US.

Over the last 10 years we’ve done some fine work – or, I should say, you’ve done some fine work. It’s your nominations, suggestions and votes that have made this prize over the past decade. We’ve had some fiery and important discussions about the nature of art and prizes and judgments. We’ve also been able to bring attention to some excellent books – bask in the glow of our past winners:

Continue reading...

Reading group: Help choose a Booker prize winner to read in July

The Golden Man Booker prize judges are making their choice – but we want your ‘gold’. The author will win our attention for a month. Please vote!

This July is a bumper Man Booker month. As well as the announcement of the 2018 longlist, we also have the results of the Golden Booker vote to look forward to, with members of the public picking their favourite winner from a six-book shortlist spanning the last 50 years. So we thought we’d join in, by asking you to nominate your own favourite winner from the last half-century to be this month’s reading group selection.

I have to admit I initially felt some “franchise fatigue” when the Golden Booker was announced. It perhaps says as much about my relationship with time as it does about the Booker, but it doesn’t seem all that long since the Lost Booker (won by ...

Class, sex and war: how Rebecca West dismantled Edwardian ideals

The Return of the Soldier begins in genteel keeping with its era, but proceeds to splinter under the weight of trauma it depicts

The Return of the Soldier sounds like a novel at odds with its society. Rebecca West’s ideas about the hell of war and the iniquities of the class system, combined with her progressive sexual politics, set the then 24-year-old against the Edwardian establishment when it was first published in 1918. But you wouldn’t guess West was going to unleash a modernist firestorm from the first few quiet and genteel pages. There’s an emotional wrench on the very first page when we realise that the setting is the nursery of a dead child – but otherwise the writing is slow, calm and ornate.

Take this early description of Baldry Court, the house to which the titular soldier, Chris Baldry, must soon return:

Continue reading...

The Return of the Soldier: an incendiary, formidable debut

Rebecca West’s novel, published when she was just 24, took a maverick line on everything from sexual politics to class and the first world war

“I’ve aroused hostility in an extraordinary lot of people,” Rebecca West told the Paris Review in 1981. “I’ve never known why. I don’t think I’m formidable.”

West was speaking towards the end of a long, productive life. She had written troubling accounts of the Nuremberg trials, spoken up about repression under communist regimes (and had done the same for fascist ones in the decades before the second world war) and taken to the streets with suffragettes (later falling out with many of their leaders). She had set down hundreds of thousands of sparkling words in novels, non-fiction books, reviews and journalism. And throughout it all she had demonstrated an enviable ability to set fire to everything.

Continue reading...

Reading group: Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier is June’s book

Her private life is these days better known than her novels, but the centenary of her debut is a good time to revisit a bold and brave writer

This June marks 100 years since Rebecca West’s first novel The Return of the Soldier was published – which is all the excuse we need to take a look at this fascinating book and its remarkable author.

When the novel was published, West was just 26 but had already made a name for herself. Or, at least, borrowed one. The author was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield in 1892, but took her new name from the heroine of an Ibsen play, Rosmersholm. She would later claim that this decision wasn’t made for “any profound reason” – although it’s hard not to see a link between in the two women’s rebellious free thinking.

Continue reading...

Djuna Barnes’s writing is exhilarating – but steeped in the worst of its era

Nightwood is an intensely imagined record of marginalised lives, but it is also marked with repellent prejudice

“Do you know what a Tuppenny Upright might be?” asks Dr Matthew Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O’Connor towards the end of Nightwood. He doesn’t wait for an answer: a Tuppenny’ Upright, we immediately learn (even if we don’t want to), is “an old-time girl” who plies her trade on London Bridge and gets her name because “for tuppence, an upright is all anyone can expect”. He plunges on:

“They used to walk along slowly, all ruffles and rags, with big terror hats on them, a pin struck over the eye and slap up through the crown, half their shadows on the ground and the other half crawling along the wall beside them; ladies of the haute sewer taking their last stroll, sauntering on their last Rotten Row, going slowly along in the dark, holding up their ...

Djuna Barnes’s writing is exhilarating – but steeped in the worst of its era

Nightwood is an intensely imagined record of marginalised lives, but it is also marked with repellent prejudice

“Do you know what a Tuppenny Upright might be?” asks Dr Matthew Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O’Connor towards the end of Nightwood. He doesn’t wait for an answer: a Tuppenny’ Upright, we immediately learn (even if we don’t want to), is “an old-time girl” who plies her trade on London Bridge and gets her name because “for tuppence, an upright is all anyone can expect”. He plunges on:

“They used to walk along slowly, all ruffles and rags, with big terror hats on them, a pin struck over the eye and slap up through the crown, half their shadows on the ground and the other half crawling along the wall beside them; ladies of the haute sewer taking their last stroll, sauntering on their last Rotten Row, going slowly along in the dark, holding up their ...

Djuna Barnes’s writing is exhilarating – but steeped in the worst of its era

Nightwood is an intensely imagined record of marginalised lives, but it is also marked with repellent prejudice

“Do you know what a Tuppenny Upright might be?” asks Dr Matthew Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O’Connor towards the end of Nightwood. He doesn’t wait for an answer: a Tuppenny’ Upright, we immediately learn (even if we don’t want to), is “an old-time girl” who plies her trade on London Bridge and gets her name because “for tuppence, an upright is all anyone can expect”. He plunges on:

“They used to walk along slowly, all ruffles and rags, with big terror hats on them, a pin struck over the eye and slap up through the crown, half their shadows on the ground and the other half crawling along the wall beside them; ladies of the haute sewer taking their last stroll, sauntering on their last Rotten Row, going slowly along in the dark, holding up their ...

Nightwood: a ‘wonderful book’ – or ‘woven in conceit’ to torment readers?

Opinions have divided starkly on May’s reading group – but does Djuna Barnes’s novel ever settle anywhere between exhilaration and baffling tedium?

Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood is one of the most divisive books we have tackled on the reading group. Just consider this quick selection of responses sent in over the last week:

“A really wonderful book, and I’m overjoyed to see it came out of the hat.”

“I still think Nightwood is an overestimated text, woven in conceit and clad with self-indulgence.”

Continue reading...

Reading group: Nightwood by Djuna Barnes is our book for May

Our modernist choice comes garlanded with praise from Dylan Thomas, TS Eliot and Jeanette Winterson – who promises that it will leave you ‘pearl-lined’

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes has come out of the hat and will be this month’s choice on the reading group.

This extraordinary novel was first published in 1936. Its story of expats, drifters, troubled souls, pain and loss in Paris struck a chord in that turbulent year of the Nazi Olympics and the outbreak of the Spanish civil war. But actually, Nightwood was set in the 1920s and (true to an ongoing and noble tradition of modernist novels) the book had been circulating in publishing houses for several years before Faber & Faber picked it up. It is, as Jeanette Winterson wrote in her 2006 introduction to the book, both of its moment and something apart: “Nightwood has not survived as a slice of history, ...

Reading group: which modernist book should we read this month?

From James Joyce to HG Wells, the efforts of 20th-century writers to find fresh forms for new times have not grown old. Please share your innovative choices

This month on the reading group we’re going to make it new. In May, it’s 75 years since the first collected edition of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets was published in the US, which seems like a good prompt to put modernism in the spotlight.

The temptation here is to squeeze out a joke about time present and time past (and time future contained in time past), but I shan’t open that door. Except to say that a literary form that was so interested in structure and setting the past into a new context is an excellent candidate for investigation here.

Continue reading...

From a fortune cookie to a Pulitzer: the story behind William Kennedy’s Ironweed

Ironweed’s hero navigates the Great Depression in a drunken haze, but his journey is lit by glowing writing about love, friendship and redemption

When the Paris Review interviewed William Kennedy in July 1984, he had just installed a new swimming pool outside his house. Six months earlier, he’d opened a fortune cookie that said he was going to have a lucky week. He’d assumed it was because “I was getting reviewed in about five different major places” – but that wasn’t the half of it. A man (called, pleasingly, Dr Hope) called Kennedy and told him he’d won a MacArthur Fellowship – then $264,000 (these days it is a hefty $625,000). That same year, Kennedy would win the Pulitzer prize for Ironweed, sold the film rights (as well as truck-loads of copies) and received almost universally glowing reviews around the world.

Things were suddenly going well for Kennedy, but ...

Reading group: Ironweed by William Kennedy is our underappreciated book for April

After a Pulitzer prize win and a film adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson in the 80s, Kennedy’s novel about a haunted man deserves wider recognition

After asking you to nominate books you felt were underappreciated, Ironweed by William Kennedy has come out of the hat to be our Reading Group book for April.

A year after it was published in 1983, Ironweed won the Pulitzer prize for fiction and was even made into a film starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, in 1987. But I think it’s reasonable to say that deserves a little more attention today. I have to admit to near total ignorance of the novel. It has barely been mentioned in the Guardian’s book pages in the last five years, and it has yet to appear on the excellent Backlisted Podcast.

Continue reading...

Reading group: which underappreciated book should we read in April?

Do you have a favourite read that is tragically underrated? Is there an up-and-coming author who deserves the spotlight? Convince us and we’ll read it together this month

This month on the reading group we want to shine the spotlight on a writer you feel deserves more attention. At the end of last year we had you nominate the overlooked gems of 2017, and that felt like a tremendous success. Not least because we ended up reading the wonderful (and recently award-winning) Attrib by Eley Williams.

Now we want to extend that opportunity again and hunt for the writers who perhaps not enough people have read, or who just merit an extra bit of attention. The remit is as broad as you want to make it. If you feel that not enough people nowadays are enjoying Lucretius’s thoughts on Epicurean philosophy, sock us a nomination for De Rerum Natura. ...

Orhan Pamuk’s Snow: a book about ‘other’ people – and therefore us

Whether you read it after 9/11 or Trump’s election, Pamuk’s 2004 novel seems endlessly timely. How did he do it?

“It comes as a surprise that political prescience should be yet another of the many gifts of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk,” wrote Stephen O’Shea when he reviewed Snow in the Independent in May 2004. Months later, Margaret Atwood also described the novel as “eerily prescient” in the New York Times, specifically the novel’s handling of fundamentalism, as it was written before 9/11.

It’s easy to make a case for this reading: set in a city where Islamic radicals are encouraging women to wear headscarves, where fundamentalists make dire threats against the secular state, murder in the name of religion and reel off anti-European rhetoric. Viewed through the prism of 11 September 2001, Snow does seem allegorical.

Continue reading...

Anger at a ‘liberal elite’ and an author in exile: Orhan Pamuk’s Snow is eerily prescient

The future haunts this 2004 novel, told by a mysterious and playful narrator called Orhan

Snow opens with a man riding a bus to a city called Kars in a snowstorm. We are given a few quick details about the bus and the weather, are told “our traveller” is wearing a “thick charcoal coat” – and then, only three paragraphs in, the narrative is interrupted. “We should note straight away,” we are told, “that this soft, downy beauty of a coat would cause him shame and disquiet during the days he was to spend in Kars …”

As the snow falls slowly and silently outside the bus window, we watch the traveller slip into a reverie and then sleep. This “lull” allows the narrator to step in again “to whisper a few autobiographical details” about the sleeping man, Ka. “I don’t wish to deceive you,” the narrator says. “I’m an ...

Reading group: Snow by Orhan Pamuk is March’s book

Declared essential by Margaret Atwood, this atmospheric novel translated from Turkish has emerged as this month’s choice

Orhan Pamuk’s Snow has emerged as our choice of translated novel to read this month. Since most of us in the UK have recently experienced a great deal of the white stuff, this novel sounds like an apt choice. As the Guardian’s 2004 review explains:

Orhan Pamuk’s new novel is set in the early 1990s in Kars, a remote and dilapidated city in eastern Anatolia famed less for its mournful relics of Armenian civilisation and Russian imperial rule than for its spectacularly awful weather. Snow, “kar” in Turkish, falls incessantly on the treeless plains and the castle, river and boulevards of Kars, which the local scholars say takes its name from “karsu” (snow-water).

Continue reading...

A Far Cry from Kensington is the Muriel Spark novel to fall in love with

Although astringent in places, this portrait of publishers and poseurs is also marvellously warm-hearted

After some epic comment threads last week, I’m won over: you’ve convinced me that Memento Mori is a fascinating and impressive book. But it took a while to get to this understanding, and I still feel more admiration than affection for this sharp novel and its harsh wit.

I have no such hesitation when it comes to A Far Cry from Kensington. I love Spark’s evocation of 1950s London and the postwar publishing industry. When I finished the last page, I actually said out loud: “That was just great.” It was, as Claire Tomalin proclaims on the cover of my old Penguin edition, “pure delight”.

Continue reading...

Memento Mori is brilliantly sharp, but it is it too cruel?

Muriel Spark’s tale of decrepit characters being rudely reminded of their mortality has been branded ‘gerontophobic’. But it is wickedly entertaining

In the aftermath of a military triumph, victorious generals of the Roman republic would celebrate in style. Heading a parade of his army, a train of captives and accumulated booty, the general wore a crown of laurel and a gold-embroidered toga, an outfit to show his regal, near-divine status. But even in this moment of near-apotheosis, the general was repeatedly brought back down to earth, for travelling beside him in the chariot was a companion whose job was to whisper at regular intervals: “Remember, you must die.”

In Memento Mori, Muriel Spark imagines a crueller version of this possibly apocryphal bit of history: a series of anonymous phone calls to variously decrepit and decaying characters, reminding them they are going to die. The narrative follows them as they ...