Laud and Lucre
IN AUGUST, the London Times ran a list of 101 headlines to be dreaded. You know the type: "New Love for Warren Beatty"; "Sting Visits Rainforests: Exclusive Pictures"; "A Day in the Life of a TV Weatherman"; "Whatever Happened to the Yuppie?" Buried in the middle was: "Booker Shortlist Contains Small Surprise."
Well, a little more than two weeks ago the shortlist for the $27,000 Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary award, was announced, and everyone agreed that it contained the smallest surprise in years. "No shocks. No horrors. No Salman Rushdie," was the way the Times put it, referring to the fact that Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories (just published in Britain and due for mid-November release here) had been passed over.
The six uncontroversial finalists for the Booker, which is probably the English-speaking world's single most profitable in terms of its ability to sell books: Beryl Bainbridge's An Awfully Big Adventure, Penelope Fitzgerald's The Gate of Angels, John McGahern's Amongst Women, Brian Moore's Lies of Silence, Mordecai Richler's Solomon Gursky Was Here and A.S. Byatt's Possession.
Byatt, sister of Margaret Drabble, has had several novels published in the States, generally to good reviews but no lasting effect. That might change with Possession, to be published here in November, especially if, as predicted, it wins the Booker next month.
If Byatt is the favorite, the writer turning up in the most places is McGahern (reviewed on page 7). Besides the Booker, he's on the shortlist for the $47,000 Irish Times/Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize, which draws its contenders from the same places as the Booker, plus the United States. Byatt is there, too, as is the American Russell Banks and the Canadian Alice Munro. And then, somehow, McGahern is also on the shortlist for the $18,000 Irish Fiction award given by the same people. At this rate, who would be surprised if the Nobel committee were considering him too?
In Europe they give big cash prizes to books; over here, we'd rather give the money directly to writers. The Lannan Foundation, which is the organization that puts poetry onto advertising placards in buses, has just announced its 1990 Lannan Literary Awards.
These prizes operate much like the bigger MacArthur "Genius" Awards: The purpose, the press release says, "is to increase the level of critical acclaim paid to English-language writers whose work is of exceptional quality and to provide support for their future projects."
Winning $35,000 each are John Hawkes (fiction), Seamus Heaney (poetry) and Barry Lopez (nonfiction) -- none of whom, it could be pointed out, has previously been neglected. There are also three $35,000 poetry fellowships: Derek Mahon, Peter Reading and Carolyn Forche.
Does anyone ever expect phone calls so pleasant? "I could barely speak," says Forche, who lives in the District with her husband, a documentary filmmaker, and their 4-year-old son. "It was especially surprising since I've been working so quietly."
Acclaimed in 1982 for The Country Between Us, an award-winning, fiercely political collection that also happened to be one of the best-selling books of poetry of the decade, Forche has been teaching poetry and literature at George Mason for the past two years.
To be issued this winter is her and William Kulik's translations of the poems of Robert Desnos, a member of the French Resistance who died as a result of his treatment at the hands of the Nazis. Following in 1992 will be Against Forgetting: 20th Century Poetry of Witness, a Norton anthology edited by Forche. And eventually there will be The Angel of History, a book of her own poetry.
"Some of the new work I'm doing arises out of my family's past in Czechoslovakia," says Forche. "When I went there in May, I found an aunt who had been lost to me for 18 years. The award money will enable me to make a return trip." Beyond that, she says, "I'll also be able to stay home in D.C. and write," instead of traveling around doing readings.
Her best-known poem, "Ourselves or Nothing," begins: "Go after that which is lost,/ and all the mass graves of the century's dead/ will open into your early waking hours." Nearly all of Forche's work is unified by this concern for the missing, the lost and the disappeared: the victims of history.
"There's a tragedy to the 20th century that I think we all recognize, and I feel a certain vigilance as it comes to an end," the poet says. "If we agree with Adorno that to write poetry after the Holocaust is barbaric, that these subjects are too large for the individual voice, what then is feasible? In The Angel of History I hope to explore some of the possibilities for human response." Manhattan Transfer "EVERY TIME I leave New York I wish I were back there," says the narrator of Charlie Smith's The Lives of the Dead (reviewed on page 6), "back on the streets where any moment somebody is seconds away from the opening notes of a scream."
After years of wandering, Smith himself now lives in the city, which makes him as good a person as any to ask just why so many writers, many of whom could live anywhere, choose Manhattan. His reasons:
"I grew up in a real small Georgia town where everything was in arm's reach -- the grocery store, the ball field, the movie theater. My life in New York is very much like that now. I live in a parochial neighborhood where I can walk to the bookstore, the laundry, the movie theater. So it's very much like the world I come from, which has a calming quality.
"I think, too, that when you live in a place where there's this frantic buzz, what you wind up doing is developing a life where you build into it a quietness that exists underneath, like you're living at the bottom of the ocean and the currents are flowing over you. It's in cities like New York, in places of wild activity, that you have to do things like this. If you live out in the country, what you find yourself doing is jumping in the car looking for white water rivers, or getting wild videos that you and your wife romp to out on the back porch.
"I found in my own life that it's most often in the country and small towns that wild violence begins to accrue and break out. In the city it's a kind of random flow that may once in a while reach up and slap you, like a wave or fish jumping out of the water, but it's not necessarily part of your life the way it is in the country."
Smith, who is 43 but looks at least a decade younger, lives most of the week above a video store in a cramped Greenwich Village apartment. (The rest of the time he lives elsewhere in the city, with his wife.) There are two bare bulbs in the ceiling, fans for ventilation, and a box of Triscuits. Not exactly the most auspicious setting for a writer being hailed in some quarters as one of the most impressive voices to come out of the South in some time. (Not that the raves are uniform. As he notes, "There are some who hate what I do so much they just want me to stop writing.")
He discovered writing after being assigned to write poems in the 10th grade. "Up till then, sports was my thing, sports and girls, and writing those poems was the only thing that came close. It's like someone tells you about a beach in the Florida panhandle that you go to and it's wonderful, so each summer you just keep going back."Murder, You Wrote AT ITS WORST, the English detective story is a stilted matter of teacups and drawing rooms, with the reader wishing that the whole lot of characters might be poisoned, and soon. But the form also has permitted practitioners as diverse as Dorothy Sayers, Freeman Wills Crofts, E.C. Bentley and P.D. James to construct sedate but pleasing puzzles. "The only above-board grown-up children's stories," Elizabeth Bowen once called this category, a label that still applies quite nicely.
In it's never-ending quest to provide an Oxford Book of everything, Oxford University Press has now done the treatment for English detective tales: 33 stories, 554 pages. To promote the book, it is also sponsoring a competition for the best new English detective story. Full information is available on an entry form, which is available in bookstores (your best bet would be one specializing in mysteries).
This is the second time Oxford has done such a thing. Three years ago, it had a similar competition for The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories. There were 350 entries, with the winner a Pennsylvania woman who had originally worked for Scribner's (the publisher), which provided a nice touch when the awards ceremony was held at the reopening of Scribner's (the bookstore).
Stephen King selected that winner; this time, P.D. James will make the final cut. Part of the mystery, it seems, is exactly what the winner receives. The press release says $500, while the entry form says $500 and a first U.S. edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Both agree that part of the prize is publication in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.
Speaking of mysteries, Washington Deceased (St. Martin's Press) is another effort in an ever-growing category: mystery novels set in the District and written by lawyers. Author Michael Bowen is not a local attorney, though; he practices in Milwaukee.
"Lawyers tend to be exposed in their practices to areas that lend themselves to mysteries," Bowen comments. "My practice is about as ordinary as it gets: commercial litigation. But you still run into contact on a daily basis with little human dramas."
Not to mention, he adds, "techniques that, with a little embellishment, would be good for stealing money from people, or ways to try to kill someone and get away with it." Remember this the next time you hire a lawyer from Milwaukee.
Bowen has another explanation for the boom in lawyer novelists: "Scott Turow hit it big with Presumed Innocent. Being all egomaniacs, we figure we just need to sit down at the typewriter to do the same, and that the biggest problem will be negotiating the movie deal."The Best Worst THROUGH interviews and an assiduous combing of printed sources, Doug McClelland has compiled Hollywood Talks Turkey: The Screen's Greatest Flops (Faber and Faber). This is the kind of book that's easy to do poorly, but hard to do well; McClelland has done such a fine job it's tempting to call this "definitive." It's full of comments like Teri Garr's: "The Escape Artist played in theaters for two minutes before going directly into airplanes. You have to pay $500 to see it now."
Then there are two related anecdotes. First, Jack Benny: "The Horn Blows at Midnight -- when the horn blew at midnight, it blew taps for my movie career." And from Milt Josefberg, about a time shortly thereafter when Benny was driving up to the studio gate: "The guard shot at them and Jack said, 'Don't you recognize me? I'm Jack Benny. I made a movie here at Warner Brothers -- The Horn Blows at Midnight. Didn't you see it?' And the guard answered: 'See it? I directed it!' "