Fri 15 November 2019
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Across the literary pages
The latest goings on in the literary world

It was, in case you didn’t notice, World Book Night on Saturday. BBC2’s evening of bookish programmes can be found here, together with posts by Matthew Richardson and Emily Rhodes. Besides those, here is a selection of pieces from the weekend’s literary pages.

Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English is a highly acclaimed first novel, and Kelman is being tipped for further accolades: both Erica Wagner (£) and John Mullan have expressed their admiration. Lewis Jones reviews Kelman’s idiosyncratic and shocking book for the Telegraph.

‘It is bad form to be rude about first novels, and a pleasure to praise them. Stephen Kelman’s has a powerful story, a pacy plot and engaging characters. It paints a vivid portrait with honesty, sympathy and wit, of a much neglected milieu, and it addresses urgent social questions.
It is horrifying, tender and funny. In this case, though, my praise is quite irrelevant because – unusually for any novel, let alone a first one – Pigeon English is critic-proof. The reasons for this are not exclusively literary.

Brilliant as it is, Pigeon English was plucked from an agent’s slush pile, acquired after a bidding war for “a high six-figure sum” and sold to Italy, Germany, France, Israel, China and Brazil, at least partly because it is transparently based on the story of Damilola Taylor, a bright-eyed, grinning 10-year-old in a school uniform, recently arrived from Nigeria, who bled to death in a Peckham stairwell in November 2000, after being attacked by a pair of 12-year-olds.

His death hit a nerve in the national psyche in a different way to that of James Bulger, the two-year-old who was tortured and murdered by a pair of 10-year-olds in 1993.

The latter was a one-in-a-million event, while the former felt almost routine. If Taylor had survived, his attack would have been strictly local news.’ 

Robert Coover has written a short story for the New Yorker. It’s called ‘Going for a Beer.’ Deborah Treisman interviews for the New Yorker's Book Bench blog him about the art of writing:

‘To expand on a story shaped by such contraction is to undo the story itself, not explain or clarify it, so I pass. But, yes, all our lives can (and mostly do) shrink to a few words. Ask anyone on his or her deathbed: How did I get here so fast? I've only just begun!'

Writing in the Telegraph, Nigel Farndale interviews Ian McEwan, who would rather trash politicians than watch trashy TV. McEwan was also a founding member of an exclusive and ageing cultural clique:

‘But there are also hints of a life beyond books, a hinterland: the Bridget Riley paintings that frame the fireplace, the electric guitar on a stand and the drinks, a collection of bottles on a lacquered Chinese cabinet. One of them is Johnnie Walker Black Label, the favoured poison of his friend Christopher Hitchens. It is half empty, or half full, depending. “That? Yes, that's his. No one else drinks it. I hope he will one day come back to finish it.”

The Hitch has cancer, a subject he has written about with great poignancy, wit and grace for Vanity Fair. “He still drinks, but more wine than Scotch. Because he’s so oxlike in his strength I don’t think he knew how to be ill. I’m going over to Washington to see him next week.”

You imagine that Martin Amis will also have a half full bottle of Black Label somewhere in his house, also keeping vigil. There are other members of this gang, such as Salman Rushdie and Richard Dawkins, but McEwan, Amis and the Hitch form the unholy trinity, as reflected in a photograph taken about five years ago in Uruguay. McEwan has a brotherly arm around Hitchens’ shoulder.'

The Spectator


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