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Mantel's facts about fiction

Mantel's facts about fiction

'Post truth’ is one of the buzzphrases of our strange, strange times and it is, of course, a familiar concept for novelists: the art of fiction has always had a knotty relationship with truth. Few writers understand this better than the two-time Man Booker winner Hilary Mantel. Truth, she said recently, is a useful tool in that in her writing ‘I try to follow the curve of real events, to shape my fiction around history, not history around my fiction.’ But it should also be treated with caution since in her field, historical fiction, the ‘truth’ has already been interpreted by others down the years: ‘novels that feature real people are studies in reputation, as much as stories in themselves. You live with the non-detachable shadow of all those other interpretations.’ The role of facts – the names, dates, places of a long-gone life like that of her hero Thomas Cromwell – is for her paramount: ‘The facts have preference, and imagination is an aid to understanding them.’ In current politics, on both sides of the Atlantic, never has this seemed more true.


One of this year's Man Booker judges, the artist Tom Phillips, turns 80 this year – in September, a month before the announcement of the prize winner. To mark the occasion, a new version of Irma, Phillips's ‘chance opera’ (open to various possibilities and presentations), is being prepared for performance in the South London Gallery, the place where Phillips first exhibited as an art student in the 1960s. An experimental work, Irma defies description, though the gallery outlines it thus: ‘In one hour it explores the opera’s search for an unobtainable beauty through exquisite video projection, a virtuoso piano quartet and a cast of singers in costumes inspired by Phillips’ artworks and his collection of postcards held at the Bodleian Libraries.’ Irma is based on the artist's Victorian novel artwork A Humument, painted on to the pages of a novel he bought for thruppence on Peckham Rye in 1966. There you go, clear as mud.


The Man Booker Prize gets around a bit. This week it has been at the Cannes Film Festival courtesy of Patrick deWitt's 2011 shortlisted novel The Sisters Brothers. The film of the book has been creating a buzz at the festival. Although still in production the movie is already featuring in “films to watch out for” lists, partly due to the pedigree of the director, Jacques Audiard, who won the Palme d'Or for Dheepan, partly due to the cast (Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed), but mostly of course due to the strength of deWitt's story set in the Gold Rush of the 1850s.


It has been a barely-believable 15 years since Yann Martel won the Man Booker with Life of Pi. The ensuing years have seen enormous sales and a successful film but now, to mark the book's birthday, it is getting a new lease of life. The actor, comic and writer Sanjeev Bhaskar is to narrate an audiobook version. This is the 10th incarnation of the book served up by the publishers Canongate and one can see why: the novel is the best-selling Man Booker prize winner with 14 million copies bought worldwide (three million of those in the UK alone) and it has been translated into 38 languages. Not bad for a fable of a boy in a boat with a tiger.