I am the book murderer

We should never bisect the things we love. Friends, nations, puppies. I would argue an exception for pizza. But over the last 24 hours I have found that almost everyone on the internet agrees we should not chop books in half, even if they are very long.

It started when my colleague saw half a paperback on my desk and called me a “book murderer”. I had been enjoying it so much at home that I found the end of a 16-page section, chopped off the remaining pages, bound the unread half in some cardboard to prevent the pages getting too dog-eared, and brought them to work in my pocket. I thought my colleague was overreacting, but when I posted a picture of my latest victims on Twitter, it started trending next to Jess Phillips – who had real news to share. People were replying in other languages, copying in the International Criminal Court, the FBI and the Metropolitan police. Others suggested chopping me in half.

 

First published in the Guardian.

Whining into the void

This year, Faber is reissuing five novels by Thomas Bernhard, who rose to fame as a thorn in the side of the Austrian establishment, though he comes down to us as “Austria’s finest postwar writer”, in the words of Gabriel Josipovici. The first two of these reissues, Concrete (1982) and Extinction (1986), were released in March, with beautiful abstract watercolour covers by Leanne Shapton. The latter, with its exponential curve, looks as if it might represent a Malthusian catastrophe, or perhaps, with its meaty pinkness shading into green, a sliver of prosciutto on the turn; the former is a diffusion of blue paint, its almost iridescent quality promising something rather more colourful than concrete.

The two books come with afterwords by Geoff Dyer and Michael Hofmann respectively, as well as starry-eyed endorsements including the New York Times’s claim that Bernhard’s novels are “the most significant literary achievement since WWII”. And yet even his fans are quick to issue caveats. John Updike commented on the “hostility” of Bernhard’s walls of unparagraphed text; Dyer calls his work “fundamentally unapproachable” but finds that readers nonetheless end up dragged out to sea in “the implacable riptide of Bernhardian woe”. Hofmann writes that you can’t really prepare for “Bernhard’s machined vehemence, though once you’ve read one, you perhaps start to crave the bitter taste and the savage not-quite-humour”.

It is impossible to understand the Bernhardian landscape without knowing something of his life. Born in Amsterdam to a single mother, he was moved at a young age to Salzburg, where he was placed in a Nazi home for boys. After the war, the home rebranded itself as a Roman Catholic institution. “Fundamentally”, Bernhard writes in his memoir, Gathering Evidence, “there was no difference between the National Socialist System and the Catholic system. Everything simply had a different veneer and a different name, but in the end the effect was the same.” He had ambitions to be a singer, but he caught a lung infection while unloading potatoes from a cart in the snow at the age of seventeen, and never fully recovered.

And so Bernhard’s narrators are about as happy-go-lucky as Arthur Schopenhauer; indeed, a character from his second novel, Gargoyles, actually eats pages from The World as Will and Representation. They excoriate Austria for its collaborationism and refuse to take part in society. They also declare that they must be heard even when they aren’t sure what to say. They find themselves lost in the petty shallows of everyday consciousness. They are the nephews of Franz Kafka and Knut Hamsun, the grandchildren of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, with whom there are many parallels. Liberated from work by an inheritance, the archetypal Bernhardian narrator makes an art of his own idleness; rather than draw one sure line, he sketches over the same point repeatedly; he turns out aphorisms as provocations; he blames others for his own inability to foster relationships.

Concrete, the shorter and earlier of the two novels reissued this spring, charts the narrator Rudolf’s procrastinations as he prepares to begin writing a book about “Mendelssohn Bartholdy”. Almost everyone remarks on the musicality of Bernhard’s style: he deals in the subtle weaving of phrases and motifs and repetitions (though it’s worth saying that there’s little to be gained by studying his superstructures). Never, for example, do we hear the German composer referred to as “Felix Mendelssohn”, nor as “Mendelssohn” – only ever “Mendelssohn Bartholdy”. The phrase, repeated over and over, begins to take on the power of an incantation.

Paralysed by his aspirations and the weight of his research, Rudolf vituperates his sister for preventing him from beginning, but, having decided to get away from the family home to write in Mallorca, realizes that he can’t write there, either. The most fruitful of these procrastinations turns out to be Concrete itself. It is a novel of yearning, of distraction, of falling short. We learn that Rudolf is stuck after ten years on the first sentence, just like Joseph Grand in Albert Camus’s novel The Plague – and little wonder, since the first sentence of Rudolf’s notes is a twelve-line knot of clauses and qualifications.

If the Rudolf of the earlier novel sometimes has a fogeyish bluster, Franz Josef Murau, the narrator of Bernhard’s last novel, Extinction, is a pure-bred misanthrope. Condescending, supercilious, misogynistic, hypocritical, this Ancient Mariner won’t let you go until he has told you everything he can’t stand about his childhood. He berates Austria for its enthusiastic embrace of Nazism and Catholicism, but he sees no problem with living in Rome; he says he is an intellectual but all he does is bitch and gossip. He detests the tasteless, the depraved, the petit-bourgeois, architects, builders, doctors, the obese, animals and writers, especially those who write what he calls “binder literature”: the literature of bureaucrats.

The novel begins with a telegram informing Murau of the death of his parents and brother, leaving him, the prodigal son, as heir of the family estate at Wolfsegg. In the book’s extended metaphor, Wolfsegg is Austria; Murau’s childhood playroom there, the site of his fondest memories, was squatted by Nazis during the war; and the estate’s huntsmen stand in for the country’s military. For half the novel, Murau sits looking at three photographs – of his parents, of his sisters, and of his brother – turning over the reasons why he dislikes them. In the second half, he goes back to Wolfsegg to dislike the surviving sisters in person and to take possession of the estate.

Murau is not likeable; he’s barely bearable. There is something adolescent about his invocation of the intelligentsia (Wolfsegg doesn’t just have a library, it has five) and his name-dropping of famous hotels. The biggest problem is his relative lack of irony compared to a narrator like Rudolf, whose bile is offset by his sheepish awareness of his own weakness and anxiety, his concession that his sister wants what is best for him, his occasional admission of fault. Rudolf is his own worst enemy, where Murau is simply cruel and unreasonable. George Steiner wrote that “too often, notably in his later writings, Bernhard succumbed to a monotone of hate”, and Extinction has all the tonal variation of a fridge. Or to put it more politely, this may not be entry-level Bernhard.

That said, there is something strikingly modern, even prescient, about the targets of Bernhard’s trollish excess. Take Rudolf’s excoriation of dogs and dog owners in Concrete, for instance: “I’ve always hated dogs. . . . Those with the very basest of souls keep dogs, allowing themselves to be tyrannized and finally ruined by their dogs. . . . The masses are in favour of dogs because in their heart of hearts they are not prepared to incur the strenuous effort of being alone with themselves, an effort which in fact calls for greatness of soul”. Or Murau’s apoplexy over photography: “Everybody wants to appear happy, never unhappy, to project a falsified image, never a true image of the unhappy person he is. . . . It never strikes them how appallingly they compromise themselves”. He later clarifies that since the invention of photography “the mental condition of the human race has been in permanent decline”. It seems fair to assume that he would have judged the Europe of 2019 extremely cursed.

I suspect much else is forgiven if you find him funny. Dyer claims Bernhard has written “the funniest passage in the whole of literature”, though perhaps Murau has taught him to exaggerate (“I’ve cultivated the art of exaggeration to such a pitch that I can call myself the greatest exponent of the art that I know of”). The humour of distortion to absurdity or grotesque is funny if you don’t secretly suspect that he means it. But as Bernhard put it in an interview in 1981, “I need not invent anything. Reality is far worse”. By his last novel, Bernhard appears animated by the sincere belief that there is no future, and the world he paints is fundamentally hostile and degenerate. “The only advice I can offer to any thinking person is to kill himself before the millennium. . . . That’s my genuine conviction”, offers Murau towards the end of Extinction. Thomas Bernhard died by assisted suicide in 1989, after years of deteriorating health; the rest of us had the stupidity to outlive him.

 

This review was first published in the Autumn 2019 issue of the Brixton Review of Books. You can get four issues for £10 here.

How to win at literature

On the evening of 5th July 2018, carefully selected guests filtered into Buckingham Palace for dinner with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. You might say that the invitation list had started to be compiled fifty years previously. There were ten authors present, oddly biased towards the first half of the alphabet: Julian Barnes, Paul Beatty, Peter Carey, Eleanor Catton, Kiran Desai, David Grossman, Alan Hollinghurst, Howard Jacobson, Marlon James, V.S. Naipaul and Ben Okri. These gathered men, and two women, had won at literature.

The impending death of literature has been proclaimed so many times now that it might be best to refrain from further comment until the head is fully severed from the shoulders. The truth is that what we now call ‘literary fiction’ – a publishers’ term almost unrecognised until the 1970s – was always a pretty tough sell. As Tom Maschler put it in 1971, when he was director of Jonathan Cape: ‘Given the relative lack of interest in serious books among the British reading public (and alas, also among many booksellers) we depend on at least one or two bestsellers a year to subsidise out programme as a whole.’ He wasn’t lying. Then Cape chairman Michael Howard admitted that, at the time of Ian Fleming’s death in 1964, sales of the Bond books ‘accounted for a proportion of Cape’s income which corresponded closely to the total profit’. They were worried, too, about ‘the future of the dwindling band of private companies in the face of takeovers by large commercial corporations and American interests, and the powerful agglomerations of competing groups’.

One idea they had was to find a sympathetic company to band together with, and eventually in 1969, after two years discussion, they would go into partnership with Chatto & Windus (which had itself merged Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1945). As Chatto poet Jennifer Couroucli put it,

Chatto’s is merging with Jonathan Cape –

Better to marry than burn, 

Better to wed than give in to rape

By a tempting Big Business concern.

But Tom Maschler had one other idea to shore up business. He wanted to found a literary prize on the model of France’s Prix Goncourt, a prize of prizes that would help propel sales for the kind of literary novels published by Cape. What he needed most was a backer with serious money.

Before he had died, Michael Howard noted, Ian Fleming had arranged the ‘transfer of his copyrights to a complex web of trusts, and to his private company, Glidrose Productions, of which in 1964 he sold control to Booker Brothers for one hundred thousand pounds. Tax free, that sum seemed to Ian a good deal, but as an investment it proved cheap for Booker Brothers.’ Tax shelter schemes looked particularly attractive during Harold Wilson’s Labour government, but even so Bookers did get a good deal: buying up other copyrights, including those of Agatha Christie, their Author Services division made profits of £100,000 in 1968, four times that by mid-seventies.

It was a slightly odd offshoot of the company, which had been founded by George and Richard Booker in 1835 as a shipping company and quickly got into the sugar business in British Guiana. At its peak, the company owned over three quarters of all trading interests in the country, leading some to refer to the country as ‘Booker’s Guiana’. By the time Sir Jock Campbell first visited in 1934, he said, ‘I was as appalled as I was fascinated by the sugar industry. The workers were treated as chattels. I was told either I did not understand or that “they are a different sort of people”.’When he became chairman in 1952, he worked hard to correct some of these historical wrongs, offering free housing and loans to the workers, as well as medical and pension plans. It was the least he could do, really – by the mid-sixties sugar still employed half the country’s labour force. But much as Guiana needed them, Bookers began diversifying to make sure their fate did not rest on Guiana, particularly once it gained independence in 1966. And so, strange as it might seem, Bookers became one of the only companies, publishers included, that believed there was money to be made in the book industry.

When Tom Maschler approached Charles Tyrell, he and the other Booker execs might well have pointed out that Britain had a number of prizes already: the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize (1942), the Somerset Maugham (1946), the W H Smith (1959), Guardian Prize (1965), Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize (1965), Silver Pen (1968). But while some of them were prestigious, and in books one respects one’s elders, none could deliver the drama, nor the sales boost, of the Prix Goncourt. The idea was to make this Booker Prize not only the biggest literary prize in the English language, but to make it an event, to engage the public and even perhaps to persuade them that a book might be both literary and worth reading.

Because they conceived the project in those all-encompassing terms, the stated criterion for the winner was studiedly vague: the little trophy of a silver lady holding a bowl would go to ‘the best full-length novel in the opinion of the judges’. Early on, Maschler later said, ‘It seemed to me most desirable that there should be as much speculation as possible prior to the final announcement’, and they tweaked the rules to this end, publishing the shortlist separately a few weeks before the winner was announced, and arranging for the prize to be awarded in the autumn when the public buys most of its books – in fact, to be eligible in 1971, a book had to be published between 1st September and 15th November, though they later changed the rules to include books published across the year. From the start, the publisher would be obliged to advertise the winner to the tune of £500, which would have the effect of boosting the prize as well as the book. They also tried to introduce a ‘personality’ and a ‘book trade person’ into the judging panel, at a time when literature was still seen as the antithesis of popularity. Terence Kilmartin of the Observer strongly disapproved: ‘I have a feeling that these two categories of person are included in order to ensure that the book selected for the prize is a good commercial proposition. In the past this would certainly have excluded a large number of writers who have made a serious contribution to English Literature.’ A.W. Parsons, Literary Editor of the Daily Mail, wrote, ‘I cannot quite see the logic of including a “personality” in the panel. What about a librarian?’ Anthony Thwaite of the New Statesman went further, writing that ‘a serious literary panel should be made up of serious literary people, so that I can’t see the wisdom of having a “personality” and a “book-trade person”. Wouldn’t it be better to have four or five well-read people, whose judgement one respects?’

From the start, it seemed that the prize would be dogged by controversy. The 1971 judge Malcolm Muggeridge resigned from the jury, writing that the books ‘seem to me to be mere pornography in the worst sense of the word, and to lack any literary qualities or distinction which could possibly compensate for the unsavouriness of their contents,’ and after his departure a dispute broke out between judge John Fowles and the chair, John Gross, over the eligibility of V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State, compounded by the fact that both Gross and fellow judge Antonia Fraser were friends with Naipaul, and also by an unofficial phone call from Tom Maschler to chip in with his own opinion on the matter. In the end they had a blind postal vote, and the book was voted eligible by three votes to two (Saul Bellow also thought Naipaul ineligible and, of the rest, said that only ‘five percent were interesting’). Thankfully the dispute didn’t make the news, though there was real controversy in 1972, when the winner John Berger denounced Booker Brothers as a ‘colonialist enterprise built on the backs of black plantation workers’, to angry heckles from the assembled guests in the Café Royal, and announced that he was giving half his prize money to the Black Panthers. The press turned up quickly, having been tipped off by Berger’s publisher, and the speech was widely reported. Maschler later wondered ‘why Berger did not either decline the prize altogether or give all the money to the Black Panthers’.But what might have seemed a disaster for the prize turned out to be an unexpected windfall: there were fifty press clippings about the prize in 1971, and two hundred in 1972.

Maschler writes that ‘the turning point for the Booker came in 1980. That year two heavyweights [William Golding and Anthony Burgess] were in competition and this resulted in a great deal of speculation’. Indeed, that was the decade that confirmed the Booker as the publishing event of the year. At its inception the prize had been worth £5,000; by 1989 it was worth £20,000 (partly to fight off an enormous bequest for a new prize from the reclusive novelist Betty Trask).Ron Pollard of Ladbrokes opened a book on the shortlist in 1984. The prize even began to be televised, to numerous complaints. Fay Weldon, who had beenchair of judges in 1983, wrote to organiser Martyn Goff after the event:‘My concern remains for the writer’s (and indeed Booker’s) rather rapidly diminishing dignity in the face of the TV cameras… If the moral base of the Prize is corrected, everything will fall gracefully into place. Though the winner can sensibly be announced at the Dinner, the short-listed authors and publishers must know who it is beforehand and accept or refuse the invitation in that awareness. Salman Rushtie [sic] said to me with some passion last Wednesday, “If I haven’t won it, what am I doing here? Tell me!” and I couldn’t. Because he is quite right: the whole accumulated frisson of the Prize seems to depend upon the humiliation of those who fail to win it, rather than on the satisfaction of those who do.’ But the press clippings were up 50 percent on the year before, and the TV cameras stayed.

Weldon’s second letter,to Michael Harris Caine, the chairman of Booker McConnell, makes for interesting reading:

‘In literature, as in any other field, if people can leave the making of decisions to anyone else, they’ll leap at the chance. I would hate to see a situation arising in say, five or ten years’ time, when if a writer happened not to win a prize, he or she was not taken seriously… Writing is increasingly a profession, not a surplus of literary animation taken publishable form. Novelists, even good ones, see themselves as having careers. “Let’s set out to win the Whitbread with this one!” Can’t you hear some editor saying it, steering theme, character and plot prizewards?’

Ten years later, Weldon attended a Booker Prize dinner as a guest. The honourable chairman of Booker came up to her and told her, ‘It is not by any wish of mine that you are here tonight.’

That would have been the year that Roddy Doyle won for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, which sold just over 200,000 hardbacks by end of 1993. The next year, the paperback sold 355,000, grossing £2.1m in sales. If it had once seemed that literary quality had nothing to do with sales potential, some people were now beginning to wonder whether they need be mutually exclusive. Indeed, publishing was becoming big business. A 1993 Virago edition of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando sold 17,000 copies, exceeding the book’s world sales for the four years after its original publication. By that time, Cape and Chatto had been bought out by the American conglomerate Random House, which itself would be eaten by the Bertelsmann Group, which would later merge with Penguin. Maschler considered this conglomeration a ‘betrayal’.

The Booker Prize also found its centre of gravity drifting somewhere into the sea after shifting sponsorship in 2002 to the Man Group, a company founded 235 years ago as a sugar broker (what else) and which, despite still covering 16 percent of cross-border sugar trade in 1997, now describes its business as ‘technology-empowered active investment management focused on delivering performance and client portfolio solutions’. The Financial Times describes it as ‘the world’s largest publicly traded active management group’, and it has significant business in America. (Booker, meanwhile, has been eaten by Tesco for £4bn.) It was perhaps inevitable that the prize would be opened up to American writers, given how little else the sponsors demand of their prize – in fact, it is amazing that they didn’t do it sooner: Martyn Goff was saying back in the mid-eighties that ‘we have always wanted more interest in America’. It is too early to tell whether this rule change will hamper British or Commonwealth authors, but after fifty years we have enough historical biases to be getting on with.

Since 1969, 33 men and 16 women have won the prize – won at literature, in a world where those who don’t win prizes aren’t taken seriously. Jonathan Cape is the publisher with the highest number of winning titles (8), and the most shortlistings (31), all the more impressive if you count Chatto’s 3 wins and 18 shortlistings. By my count, imprints under the Penguin Random House group have won 19 of the previous 49 prizes, and have been shortlisted 103 times. Since 2014, when the prize opened to American writers, two have won the prize; four of the other winners hail from Australia, three from India, three from Canada, two from South Africa, two from New Zealand. If anyone is looking for a trend, a far greater number of authors – Kingsley Amis, Anita Brookner, Nadine Gordimer, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Storey, Salman Rushdie – were published by Tom Maschler. The shortlist for 2018 makes it a one-in-three chance that the winner will be American, a one-in-three chance that the winner will be a Cape author, and a one-in-six chance of being a current Jonathan Cape editor.

In the late sixties, there had been two pressing concerns for Jonathan Cape. The first was to avoid falling into close orbit with big business, particularly of the kind that was already taking hold in America. The second was to boost the sales of the high quality writing that Cape itself published by founding a high profile prize. But despite succeeding spectacularly in the latter, they had no way of avoiding the former, for Cape found that those authors on their list who didn’t win The Prize struggled to sell much as they ever had. Now, Jonathan Cape has become the model for a literary list nested in a larger conglomerate, whose first duty is to win the prizes, and the Booker Prize above all. Which, since the values of the prize were first articulated by the director of Jonathan Cape, should not be so very hard to do.

 

This essay was first published in Issue 3 of the Brixton Review of Books in September 2018. You can subscribe to the next four issues of the Brixton Review of Books for £10.