Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth — as characters digging the deep past up in the form of a coffin of a Muslim who once painted a mural on a 14th century church wall (A Month in the Country)
Dear friends and readers,
While the fall term has hardly begun, today was time to put in a proposal for next spring for the OLLI (Oscher Institute of Life-Long Learning) at George Mason. I enjoy enormously Booker Prize books, winners, short-listed, nominated. I love most of the film adaptations, which also win prizes.
Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche as the English patient and wandering nurse (screenplay Anthony Minghella)
At the same time I am aware only a certain kind of book wins: you’ll find no John LeCarre’s there. And it’s not just books which can be fitted into formula genres that are excluded, non self-reflexive historical fictions are out. Nor is it that mawkish uplift, and the kind of woman’s novel that garners an Orange prize; anything profoundly reactionary. So casting about for some kind of framework whereby term after term I could slot in books and explore books of our time as well as the publishing industry, I came up with this:
The Booker Prize: a marketplace niche & selling tool?
In this course we will discuss 4 gems of Booker Prize fiction. Some have said the prize functions as a brilliantly exploited marketplace tool aimed at a specific readership niche, just perfect for high quality film adaptations and literary criticism. The books are characteristically historical fiction, self-reflexive, witty and passionate, post-colonialist, and the three of the texts I’ve chosen have been made into great films. I ask that before class begins everyone have read J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country; in class we’ll read Rose Tremain’s Restoration, Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and Graham Swift’s Last Orders.
I originally had Paul Scott’s Staying On in lieu of Restoration, but it is such a painful story of retired people now vulnerable to subalterns and the readers I read with are older retired people, so I worried. I ruled out Carol Shields’s Unless on similar grounds: perhaps they had a grown child who succumbed to such a syndrome. None of the Raj Quartet has won — the prize usually eschews sequel kind of books. A course just on Paul Scott is possible.
Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Staying On carry over the typologies of Brief Encounter
[NB: later on I discussed it with other people in classes and with the organizers and I may well substitute Staying On for The English Patient (after all an exotice romance) and Unless for Restoration (not commonly known history though the topic of mental illness during and after a war is central). They are shorter, easier reads and that they come home to people might make for a much richer class.]
I loved Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, but perhaps that makes the list insularly English. We can discuss it in claas; it is so slender — a characteristic of some Booker Prize books (they gave a prize to a long short story by V.S. Naipaul once). Byatt’s Possession (very precious), Atwood’s Alias Grace (complicated structure and POV too), and Mantel’s Wolf Hall were all too long to do other books with; Adhalf Soueif’s Map of Love long and too Eygptian: I can see doing that with her In the Eye of the Sun, but hesitate before a heavily Jewish population. I like the idea of pairing Alias Grace with the real woman behind the novel: Susannah Moodie and her Roughing It in the Bush. And in future terms I can see myself doing Ishiguru’s Remains of the Day — how I wept over that film with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson at the close, just missed out on what would have made their lives good, just.
The four frenemies carrying Jack’s ashes (in a box) to the jetty in “style” — a fancy car
Reconciliation by the sea (Last Orders) — my students loved the film
None of my choices are darkly despairing. There are fascinating films for all four. I hardly remember Tremain’s book except liking it intensely (and have never seen the film).
As a side-note: I noticed something typically about women’s books who win the prize: typically women winning the Booker either write very long complicated books — with a George Eliot impressiveness — and if I chose one I’d hardly have time for another. One or even two swallows do not a summer make for my thesis about Booker prize books. Or they write odd and/or very slender ones. It’s “as if” they have to strike an impression more than the men.
Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn (one of a continuum of heroines in Wolf Hall)
This is a new venture like my 19th Century Women of Letters which I hope to develop over a few terms — well within my taste, each time expanding my knowledge this or that way without asking too much, leaving time for scholarly reviews, essays, papers.
These books, indeed this sub-species, will be great fun to write blogs about here too.