You are here

Simon Mawer and rewriting history

Simon Mawer and rewriting history

Simon Mawer may not have won the 2009 Man Booker Prize with his shortlisted The Glass Room but he has just picked up the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction with his latest novel, Tightrope. The book recounts the immediate post-war adventures of Marian Soutro, the heroine of his previous book The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, as she negotiates freedom from Ravensbruck concentration camp and the start of the Cold War. The pair of spy novels are obviously works of historical fiction, as was The Glass Room and indeed an earlier book, Mendel’s Dwarf. Nevertheless, on pocketing the £25,000 prize money Mawer claimed that he doesn’t consider himself to be ‘a historical novelist at all’. It’s all a matter of definitions and importantly the judges reckon he is. Mawer does believe though that the past is vital: ‘I think our collective past should be important to everyone: if we don’t comprehend where we’ve come from, then we won’t have any idea where we are going.’ Coincidentally, one of the Walter Scott judges was Jim Naughtie, who chaired the 2009 Man Booker Prize panel that awarded top dog status to Hilary Mantel. The same Mantel is also a former winner of the Scott Prize with the same book, Wolf Hall, that pipped Mawer to the Man Booker Prize post.

Zadie Smith’s 2012 novel NW is following the footsteps of White Teeth and heading for the small screen. The adaptation is by Rachel Bennette, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Phoebe Fox will play the central characters, friends Natalie and Leah, and shooting has just started. Oddly the book that earned Smith a 2002 Man Booker Prize longlisting, The Autograph Man, has yet to be filmed. The television version of NW is being co-produced by BBC2 and Mammoth, the company behind Poldark. It seems unlikely though that there will be much in the way of semi-naked scything going on since NW is about a pair of north west London girls whose lives take them in different directions. Scythes, bodice ripping and shipwrecks are in short supply in most London postal codes and apparently the NW ones in particular.

Deborah Smith, translator of Han Kang’s Man Booker International triumphing The Vegetarian, has been talking about what winning means to her. Her reaction on hearing the chair of judges Boyd Tonkin announce the result was to well up. ‘It wasn’t at the thought of being able to replace my fold-up furniture. It was because translators are the friendliest, most non-competitive, mutually-encouraging group of people you will ever have the pleasure to meet. Publishing is an industry, but translation is a community; nobody’s in it for the money, largely because there usually isn’t any.’ The £25,000 the winning Man Booker International Prize translator is given being a very notable exception. What her fellow translators had done, Smith said, was to fight ‘long and hard for literary translation to be considered a creative act in its own right, as opposed to a rather dull, workmanlike process of substituting equivalents’.

You can’t say that some commentators are afraid to put their money where their mouth is. With about a month to go until the announcement of the Man Booker Prize longlist (27th July), one bibliophile, who blogs under the name ‘lonesomereader’ – real name Erik Carl Anderson – has come up with a possible list. Lonesomereader cheerfully admits that he hasn’t yet read some of the books he has ‘nominated’, including Man Booker Prize heroine Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower and Annie Proulx’s latest, Barkskins. Some other authors with previous Man Booker Prize form who are on the list are Julian Barnes (Man Booker Prize winner in 2011), Rose Tremain (1995 shortlistee and a Man Booker Prize judge in 2000), and Deborah Levy (Man Booker Prize shortlisted in 2012). We’ll see how much of a Nostradamus Lonesomereader is in a month but until then, we salute you.

Deborah Levy is, it seems, a huge David Bowie fan-girl as well as a prize-winning writer. She’s not just any old Ziggy-ette though but knows her man through and through. She is due to give evidence of her well-spent/misspent youth at an event with the music journo Paul Morley in London in September – ‘How David Bowie changed the world’. Levy (and Bowie) aficionados can buy tickets here.