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A last poem for Sir Vidia

A last poem for Sir Vidia


The Man Booker world has lost one of its grandest figures. V.S. Naipaul, who won the prize with In a Free State in 1971, its third year, died this week aged 85. It is fitting therefore that one of his last public appearances was at the reception hosted by the Duchess of Cornwall at Buckingham Palace to honour 50 years of the prize. Naipaul was one of the many former winners present and took centre spot in the winners' line up for the photographs. He was not always a popular figure – his critiques of Africa, Islam, and the legacy of colonialism were not designed to win him friends, and they didn't – but he was always an admired one. As another Man Booker winner, Salman Rushdie, said: “We disagreed all our lives, about politics, about literature, and I feel as sad as if I just lost a beloved older brother. RIP Vidia.” His friend the editor of the Mail on Sunday Geordie Greig was with him at the end and revealed that he read to him a favourite poem, Tennyson's Crossing the Bar. “He drifted off and it was peaceful and very sad but what a life, what an achievement, what a legacy.” Part of that legacy is perhaps something all writers should share. When asked about criticism of his work, Naipaul said: “When I read those things, I am immensely amused. They don’t wound me at all.”


Naipaul did not just write books but was the subject of books by others too. Patrick French's authorised biography The World is What it Is was brutally candid; Paul Theroux – with whom Naipaul had a famous falling out – wrote Sir Vidia's Shadow (not a favourable portrait); while the figure of Mamoon in Hanif Kureshi's roman a clef The Last Word is clearly based on Naipaul. The image all these books portray of the man are not necessarily of an admirable character but the fact that they were written at all shows that he was unignorable.


Proof of the Man Booker effect in action: Nick Drnaso's longlisted comic book Sabrina has sold out. Waterstone's and Foyles are searching for copies, Amazon also ran out. Waterstone's said the book was the second best-selling (behind Michael Ondaatje's Warlight) of the longlisted books but it “would be our first if we could get hold of more stock. It’s been quite remarkable to see how people have rushed out to get their hands on copies.” According to Granta, the book's publisher, sales had more than doubled since the announcement, with two reprints so far. Drnaso himself seems to be the least excited person around. It felt “like this very abstract, far-away thing”, he said of learning the news of his longlisting.


Belinda Bauer, longlisted for her crime novel Snap, had the opposite reaction and happily admits to being chuffed to bits. “If its tokenism, I don’t care,” she says, “because it does so much not only for crime writers but for readers in general, because now hopefully some of them will be open to reading a different kind of book.” As she points out, “almost every book in history has a crime element to it”. Here motivation is the same as for most other novelists; it's all about the characters not the crime: “If you don’t love the characters, then who cares who did it, or if they got caught?”


Olga Tokarczuk's Man Booker International Prize-winning Flights has just been published in America, where it is garnering the same sort of rave reviews and feature articles it received over here or, as the New York Times couldn't resist putting it: “Olga Tokarczuk’s Book ‘Flights’ Is Taking Off”. As the book's translator Jennifer Crofts said recently: “A lot of Flights is about forging human connections and considering the other. So I think it happened to hit in the UK at a good moment right after Brexit, and I think probably that the reception in the US is going to be similar.” Tokarczuk herself was more explicit and spoke in terms of the Trump border wall: “Twelve years ago there was no mention of the idea of walls or borders, which were originally adopted by totalitarian systems,” she said. “Back then I must admit that I was sure that we had put totalitarianism behind us.”