The Christmas break is always a great opportunity to do some extended reading. Here are some of my discoveries from the festive period.
I returned to Jim Crace. Although he made a splash with his first book, Continent, which won the 1986 Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize, he really made waves in 1997 with his extraordinary novel Quarantine, dealing with forty days in the wilderness of Judea, where one of the wandering pilgrims happens to be called Jesus. Biblical, but not religious, it is a beautiful challenging novel about suffering and healing. However, the novel I read this Christmas was the cheerily-titled Being Dead, published in 1999. One wouldn’t think that a novel about a brutal murder and decomposition could be beautiful, but Crace writes with a poetic lyricism. The victims are a pair of married university zoologists, who are therefore well acquainted with senescence and thanatology and it is appropriate for Crace’s prose to detail the gradual destruction of their dead bodies:
The crabs, when they arrived and climbed the gradients of flesh and cloth, did not compete with the flies for blood. They grazed for detached skin and detritus, the swarf and dross and jetsam of animals with lives cut short.
Here is a view of human death, even that caused by murder, as a natural part of the rhythm of life (note the rhythm of the prose). On the wider scale it is of no more significance than the death of a fish or bird. But the novel, from that start, works backwards in stages to show how their lives have led to that moment. The narrative gradually constructs two ordinary lives, of flawed people in a dull marriage, who nevertheless demonstrate the enduring simple qualities of love. There is a thoughtful review of the novel here.
Read more about Crace and his work at jim-crace.com – not his own site, but devoted to him.
In browsing over the last couple of weeks, I found the following article amusing. There may be characters in fiction with whom we fall in love, characters we find amusing, but somehow we never forget those characters who invite hearty dislike.
Another novel to win a big prize was Lincoln in the Bardo by American writer George Saunders. Saunders was known as a writer of essays and short stories, but this experimental narrative was his first full length novel and won the 2017 Man Booker Prize. This interview with Saunders, about writing, reading and politics, is well worth a read.
George Orwell died in January 1950, which means his work is about to fall out of copyright. It’s not quite so simple, though – publishing rights are much more complex than simple date counting, as this article explains.
And if you fancy watching the early film of 1984, with Big Brother, newspeak and the Ministry of Truth, here it is:
Happy reading and watching. And happy new year!