Monday, December 31, 2012

Books in 2012: Review of a year in literature

It has been a great year for invention and experiment, both in the content of books and their form, says Gaby Wood.

Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith Photo: Rex Features
If the year in fiction could be said to have belonged to anyone in 2012, it’s a novelist who has resurrected the past. The two Man Booker Prize-winning volumes of Hilary Mantel’s projected trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell – Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies – have made the 16th century so familiar to us that it’s easy to forget the extent to which their author has remodelled the English language. As she put it wryly when speaking at this year’s Telegraph Hay Festival, Mantel “learnt to talk Tudor” by giving just “a flavour” of the way people spoke then. Documented texts and resonant letters are joined seamlessly with jocular, everyday figures of speech, resulting in something suggestive and true to its own logic – but you’d hesitate to claim it was anything so gauche as “authentic”.

Although Mantel has entertained the idea of parallels with modern day Britain (and suggested that we might welcome Cromwell back to fix the banking crisis), overall she has said that “I’m not just writing a giant parable of today. We have to respect those people’s stories in their own right. They are no less people for being dead.”
None the less, three very distinct novelists have attempted to deal with the present – and more particularly, with the question of class. Martin Amis’s latest book,

Lionel Asbo, which carried the subtitle “State of England”, is set in Diston, an abbreviated dystopia where the titular lager lout has won the lottery. But its main narrative discomfort stems from the apparent positioning of the narrator as high enough above the working class anti-hero to spell out his pronunciation for the benefit of presumably equally snooty readers. (Cynthia is “Cymfia”, Lionel’s own name is pronounced “Loyonoo”.)

When I quizzed Amis about this at Hay he replied, more or less, that some of his best friends were working class, which did little to explain the archness of tone.

Amis’s grisly vision is not so very far from that of JK Rowling, whose The Casual Vacancy shocked many of her loyal fans. The “X” on the book jacket – standing for a ballot paper in a local election – might just as well have been a rating. Self-harm, heroin, sudden death, suicide: if the real world looks like this to Rowling, no wonder she came to invest in the magical one with such vigour. The pages of this first book for adults burst with everything she couldn’t say to children, and although she evidently meant it to represent a left-wing political view, her characters are all so monstrous as to obscure it. 
Full article at The Telegraph

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