At the announcement of the shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize on Thursday, the prize's director, Fiammetta Rocco, summed up its raison d'être perfectly: ‘If you believe that what unites us is stronger than what divides us, then this is the prize for you.’ It seemed to those gathered in the elegant surroundings of the Orangery at Kensington Palace a nice way of cutting through the flummery and chaff to state why books – and this prize – matter.
The Man Booker International Prize has revealed the shortlist of six books in contention for the 2016 Prize, celebrating the finest in global fiction.
Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous Italian (probably) author of The Story of the Lost Child, is one of the novelists in contention for the Man Booker International Prize – at least for now: the shortlist is announced next week, 14th April. Whether she makes the cut or not Ms/Mrs/Mr Ferrante has something else to look forward to. Her sequence of four novels is being turned into a 32-part television series in Italy. Pity though the poor scriptwriter, Francesco Piccolo. Even for such an epic task Ferrante will not reveal herself and work with him directly. All communication will be by email. According to her agent: ‘She will not literally write the script but she will read – I believe – everything. Every single draft, every single scene. She will go through it and by email she will express her thoughts, suggestions, advice. She is not the kind of person who says: ‘I wrote it, now you go do the rest.’’ This bizarre way of working – they have telephones in Italy after all – might well turn Piccolo's hair grey. As one bigwig at the TV production company put it rather drily: ‘It will not be very easy, probably.’
So, with the Man Booker International Prize fast approaching (the shortlist is announced on 14 April), what stage have the judges of the Man Booker itself reached? One of their number, Jon Day, admitted in a recent article that he is now at the 2ft 8in stage – that is the height of his daughter and also of the 29 novels he's read so far, with, gulp, approximately another 11 feet still to go (last year's judges hit the 150 novels mark). Despite the workload ahead, Day, an academic at King's College, London, nevertheless confessed that ‘As I read I’m struck by a strange form of sadness: even reading at this rate – getting through maybe three hundred books per year – I’d only be able to read 15,000 novels in the rest of my lifetime. That’s less than a tenth of the total number of books published in the UK in an average year.’ What lessens his twinge of melancholy though is the prospect that among this year's Man Booker tranche will be the book or books that does what Nabokov described: the novel that twitches ‘the seat of artistic delight’ that sits ‘between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.’
Anita Brookner, who died this week, was famously restrained when discussing her work. She did though once give an insight into the character of Edith Hope, the protagonist of her 1984 Booker Prize (as it then was) winner. In the novel Edith, in self-imposed exile in a Swiss hotel, has the choice of two suitors. As Brookner told an interviewer for The Paris Review, Edith ‘nearly marries; she balks at the last minute and decides to stay in a hopeless relationship with a married man’. It was a choice that Brookner seemed to hold against her own creation. ‘As I wrote it I felt very sorry for her and at the same time very angry: She should have married one of them – they were interchangeable anyway – and at least gained some worldly success, some social respectability. I have a good mind to let her do it in some other novel and see how she will cope!’