It’s been an incredibly busy month for Southbank Centre’s Literature team, with the Man Booker 50 and Africa Utopia festivals both taking place, and the announcement of our line-up for this year’s London Literature Festival. Yet, even with all this going on, they’ve still managed to make the time for a book or four, and here they offer a snapshot at what it is they’ve been reading
Two novels blew me away this month — Normal People by Sally Rooney and Washington Black by Esi Edugyan, both of which have been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize.
Rooney’s debut Conversations with Friends introduced a talent finely tuned to the tumult of contemporary life, charting the decline and fall of an affair with melancholic wit and startling vision. In her second novel Rooney’s gifts have found fuller expression, as the tightly plotted intricacies of her debut are replaced with a sidelong structure that follows the faltering course of a relationship across many years. Connell and Marianne meet at the tail end of school in a small Irish town and find themselves repeatedly colliding with one another at university in Dublin and beyond, while trying to establish their own paths. Their relationship adopts many guises from headlong desire to studied indifference.
Hovering above both Connell and Marianne is a lingering question of how to enter the realm populated by so-called normal people, with their relationship itself offering a refuge and a means of escape from those warping pressures, while threatening at times to consume them entirely. As Rooney at one point writes from Connell’s perspective: ‘Being alone with her is like opening a door away from normal life and then closing it behind him.’ In capturing the ways desire and the quest for selfhood are inextricably entwined, Rooney has created a work of universal power for our self-conscious times in a sensibility unmistakably her own.
From an all-consuming relationship in rural Ireland to a story of a flight from slavery that crosses continents, Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black couldn’t be more different but is equally assured. It tells the story of an eleven year-old field slave, Washington Black, who is thrust into the role of personal servant to an eccentric plantation owner, Christopher 'Titch' Wilde. A man whose abolitionist ideals deviate considerably from his chosen profession, Titch is also a naturalist, explorer, scientist, inventor whose dreams of perfecting an aerial machine confound those around him.
When Washington finds himself in mortal danger, with the promise of his freedom revoked, he and Titch embark on an unlikely escape mission, an odyssey that will take him from the Canadian Arctic to the muddy streets of London. Deftly turning inside out one of the darkest chapters of the past, Esi Edugyan creates an irrepressibly innovative novel and gripping saga with profound relevance to the present.
The shortlist for the 2018 Man Booker Prize is announced on 21 September, and you can meet the selected authors and hear readings from their shortlisted works, here at Southbank Centre on Sunday 14 October.
I’ve just read Amy Key’s second poetry collection, Isn’t Forever (Bloodaxe Books) and it’s such a brilliant book. The poems are laid-bare in their vulnerability and Key says of the collection that it contains an exploration of, as well as a battle with, selfhood. Who will bear witness to us having existed if we don’t leave a physical legacy behind?
The poems explore ideas of being alone and the expectations placed upon women in particular; and also look at the cyclical nature of shame and self-reproach with stanzas such as: ‘If you need me I am / rethreading the pearls / of my reproach’. Writers from the past visit throughout - Anne Sexton, Sappho; and there is also a poem called How to Be Sexy, referencing Helen Gurley Brown, author of Sex and the Single Girl (1962), a collage poem of bizarre and hilarious advice for women on how to attract men: ‘Being able to sit very still is sexy. Sphinxes knew/ what they were doing’.
Another recent collection that sees the ghosts of poets revisit the writer is Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin (Penguin). The collection is made up of sonnets, with this classic and time-honoured form fitting with the weight of history the book bears. The poet identifies as a Time Lord, navigating past and present America and its impact on African Americans: 'I carry money bearing/ The face of my assassins' (Sonnet 40)
The poems keep circling back to the Mr Trumpet character - no prizes for guessing who this refers to - and explore what it means to be a man in America today where the lines of acceptable behaviour have not only been blurred but razed to the ground. And there is a grappling with America’s desire to enact huge acts of remembrance around Civil Rights leaders at the same time as #BlackLivesMatter is still an essential cry. History, in this sense, is upside down.
Both collections touch on the idea of what went before and what we will leave behind: ‘I mean to leave / A record of my raptures’. (American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin, Sonnet 6)
In a month with two festivals, our Mandela exhibition launch - complete with Royal visit - and the announcement of London Literature Festival, the books I’ve been reading have provided a welcome change of pace.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, tells the story of 36 year old Keiko, a woman who states ‘I pulled off being a ‘person’ but is only interested in doing so as far as it enables her to continue being ‘a useful tool’ in the convenience store she has worked in for the past 18 years. Although Keiko’s particular circumstance is very distinct, there is also a familiarity to be found in her experience of the world. From code-switching and self-censoring for the sake of ‘being a person’, to her descriptions of how others’ speech and personality traits filter into us via a sort of social osmosis, Convenience Store Woman explores the pressures and methods of social convention and conformity.
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori, the off-beat and, at times, laugh out loud prose serves well in mirroring the constructed and slightly strange nature of supermarkets - a surface reading of which makes for a light and comedic story which shifts and transforms, when thought about closely, into something more poignant and tinged with sadness and hope.
Speaking of shifts and transformations, reading both Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary and 300 Arguments felt like meditations into the shifting nature of our desires and compulsions. Ongoingness is essentially a rumination on diary keeping - Manguso herself having kept a diary of almost a million words - in her own words ‘It’s a vice’, although the conciseness of Manguso’s writing does not betray this.
Moving from writing as a way to record the fullness of life, and a fear of forgetting, to finding enjoyment in purely continuing, Ongoingness has a kinship with 300 Arguments beyond their epigrammatic styles. Being a collection of aphorisms, 300 Arguments finds its shape not in individual vignettes but in their cumulative effect. In much the same way that attempting to record the fullness of life in a diary leads to inevitable disappointment, 300 Arguments seems to propose that desire and longing themselves lead to inevitable disappointment. This is not because of an inability or failure to achieve one’s desires but rather that it is the pleasure of longing and desire themselves which we crave, not their objects.
In such a whirlwind month for the literature team, I’ve found myself left with a number of books half read. However, two in particular have stood out - Patrick Chamoiseau’s The Old Slave and the Mastiff (Dialogue Books) and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury).
The Old Slave and the Mastiff by Patrick Chamoiseau - translated from the French by Linda Coverdale - is the story of a slave who escapes from his plantation in Martinique and journeys through the forest towards freedom, all the while pursued by the Master of the plantation and his monstrous dog. The plot is simple and the story is written extremely poetically. The old man’s flight into the ‘Great Woods’, his deep immersion into nature, and his subsequent rejuvenation, deeply explores ideas of autonomy and freedom. I really enjoyed how local Martinique culture and folklore was woven throughout the story, and how Chamoiseau’s use of language allows the protagonist to reclaim his story. Definitely a book I would recommend to anyone who is interested in reading about slavery, but is wary of stories that propagate the traditional slave narrative.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders was one I had been meaning to read for a while, and happily Man Booker 50 fever provided a great excuse. Saunders has woven a weirdly magical tale from the snippet of truth that President Lincoln visited his dead son at night when he was interred in Oak Hill Cemetery. The book is comprised of a mad mix of dialogue from the spirits in the cemetery, combined with quotations from newspapers, journals and letters (real or imagined, I’m not sure) so the whole thing reads like a strange play.
I was surprised by how well this worked to create a full, funny, and at points grotesque, tale. However, although his grief was extremely poignant, Lincoln himself felt slightly sidelined by the rest of the cast. I wasn’t particularly invested in most of the characters, and I’m not sure what the take home points from the book are. It was entertaining, but not a story that will stay with me.
London Literature Festival takes place at Southbank Centre 18-28 October with a packed programme of talks, conversations, live readings and more from award-winning literary greats, iconic artists, international writers and emerging talent.