The literary world, in these recent weeks, experienced joy and sorrows. Never before had a Polish writer won the Man Booker International Prize. Olga Tokarczuk was awarded the prize for this year.
The death of American writers Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe shocked everyone. Both pioneers in their respective genres and styles, the legends were being showered tributes in various publications and social media.
The Shillong Times covers the biography and achievements of these three writers who iconoclastically took writing to newer directions.
Philip Roth is so great a writer that it was a shock to be reminded that he died on May 22. He had become part of the Mount Rushmore of American letters, hailed by The New York Times as “the last of the great white males”, his place secure alongside Saul Bellow and John Updike as one of the towering figures of the 20th-century American literature.
Roth won every accolade, and in 2005 the Library of America announced it would publish Roth’s works, lifting him into a pantheon that included the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Walt Whitman, only the third writer ever to receive that honour.
His death deprives America of one of the biggest literary names of the 20th century also of one of that era’s greatest chroniclers. The seam he mined was his own life – reassembled, reimagined and variously disguised in meta-fictions in which the narrator might be a writer very much like Philip Roth or a writer called “Philip Roth”. As he put it, “Updike and Bellow hold their flashlights out into the world, reveal the world as it is now. I dig a hole and shine my flashlight into the hole.”
Nevertheless, it’s impossible to read Roth without experiencing the brimming confidence, exuberance and sense of endless opportunity that postwar America seemed to promise. In his “American trilogy” — American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain — written when he was well into his 60s, he explored the darker corners of that supposed golden age, when it seemed that to be born American was to have won the lottery of life. His preoccupations were Jewishness and sex. From the start he worried away at every knot and twist of the Jewish experience. His first collection of short stories included one called The Conversion of the Jews, in which a Bar Mitzvah boy threatens to jump from the roof of the synagogue unless the rabbi can answer a question about Jesus and the virgin birth.
The great American novelist may be no more, but he has left behind some great American novels.
Tom Wolfe, the essayist, journalist and author of bestselling books including The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Bonfire of the Vanities, died in New York at the age of 88. Wolfe died in a Manhattan hospital on May 14 his agent confirmed on Tuesday. He had been hospitalised with an infection.
With his literary flair and habit of placing himself as a character in his nonfiction writing, Wolfe was regarded as one of the pioneers of New Journalism. Works like the 1965 essay collection The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – a firsthand account of the growing hippy movement, particularly novelist Ken Kesey’s experiments with psychedelic drugs – and 1979’s The Right Stuff – an account of the pilots who would become America’s first astronauts – established Wolfe as the face of a new style of reportage that could be read for pleasure. He even helped define the term New Journalism – with his publication of a 1973 essay collection of the same name, which placed his own writing alongside the likes of Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Gay Talese and Hunter S Thompson.
“He was an incredible writer,” Talese told the Associated Press. “And you couldn’t imitate him. When people tried it was a disaster. They should have gotten a job at a butcher’s shop.”
Born in Virginia in 1930, Wolfe went straight into reportage out of university, beginning at the Springfield Union in Massachusetts. He later left for Washington, then New York, arriving there in 1962 to work for The New York Herald Tribune. He’d never leave, making a home there with his wife Sheila Berger, the former art director of Harper’s Bazaar, and their two children, until his death.
After the success of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby in 1965, Wolfe built a career writing about popular culture, politics and American life, particularly how money and prosperity had shaped the country since the second world war. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, regarded by many as the definitive book about the roots and growth of the hippy movement, placed him in the public consciousness.
Taking on what he called “the big challenge” – the novel – Bonfire of the Vanities was published in 1987, to huge commercial success. A satirical portrait of greed and money in 1980s New York, the novel followed bond trader Sherman McCoy’s journey from Wall Street to a court in the Bronx, after hitting a black man with his car. His second novel, A Man in Full was also a bestseller, but his success attracted critics; in the New York Review of Books the author Norman Mailer wrote: “Extraordinarily good writing forces one to contemplate the uncomfortable possibility that Tom Wolfe might yet be seen as our best writer. How grateful one can feel then for his failures and his final inability to be great — his absence of truly large compass. There may even be an endemic inability to look into the depth of his characters with more than a consummate journalist’s eye.”
After the great losses, the literary world saw a change of the sombre mood with Olga Tokarczuk becoming the first Polish writer to win the Man Booker International prize, which goes to the best work of translated fiction from anywhere in the world. More than 100 novels were submitted for the 2018 award, and Tokarczuk’s Flights secured the £50,000 prize, which is shared equally with her English translator Jennifer Croft.
Tokarczuk is a bestselling author in Poland, where she has won numerous awards. In Flights, she meditates on travel and human anatomy, moving between stories including the Dutch anatomist who discovered the Achilles tendon when dissecting his own amputated leg, and the tale of Chopin’s heart as his sister transported it from Paris to Warsaw.
“It isn’t a traditional narrative,” said chair of judges Lisa Appignanesi, pointing to Tokarczuk’s own description of her writing as “constellation novels” to describe an author who throws her stories into orbit, allowing her readers to form meaningful shapes from them. “We loved the voice of the narrative – it’s one that moves from wit and gleeful mischief to real emotional texture and has the ability to create character very quickly, with interesting digression and speculation.”
The book’s themes – “the nomadic life that we now lead in the world, with our constant movement, our constant desire to pick up and go, whether it’s from relationships or whether it’s to other countries”, and “the limitedness, the finiteness, the mortality of the human body, which is always pulled towards the ground” – collide in Tokarczuk’s “extraordinary” stories, said Appignanesi. She also praised the novel’s translation by Croft, an American who translates from Polish, Spanish and Ukrainian and is a founding editor of the Buenos Aires Review.
Selecting Flights from a shortlist that also featured the Spanish author Antonio Muñoz Molina, Iraq’s Ahmed Saadawi and France’s Virginie Despentes was “so hard”, said Appignanesi, but Tokarczuk is “a writer of wonderful wit, imagination and literary panache” who has “has written a great many books that sound amazing, but which haven’t been translated yet”.
“We really felt this is a prize that has an interventionist quality – it allows writers to be better known in Britain, and in the English language, than they have been previously,” said Appignanesi. Flights, which is published by the tiny independent press Fitzcarraldo Editions, is only the third of Tokarczuk’s 10 books to be published in English.
According to Appignanesi, translated fiction is “incredibly important”, particularly today, “when we seem to have this recrudescence of a kind of nationalism that would rather have insularity and homegrown-ness as the way of the world”. Appignanesi was joined on the judging panel by poet and translator Michael Hofmann, the novelists Hari Kunzru and Helen Oyeyemi and journalist Tim Martin.
The Man Booker International prize delivers a reliable increase in sales for the winning book. Han’s The Vegetarian, which won in 2016, sparked a 400 per cent increase in sales of Korean literature in the UK, while A Horse Walks Into a Bar, the 2017 winner by Israel’s David Grossman, saw its sales increase by 1,367 per cent in the week following the award, with the publisher Penguin going through 10 reprints in a year.
(Compiled by Willie Gordon Suting)
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