no better, no worse, no change, no pain

decorated books

In Literature on June 22, 2010 at 12:35 pm

Online literary magazine, The Millions, have released their annual Prizewinners 2009/2010 list. A sort of “hall of fame” of literary award winners, the list is an aggregation of shortlisted and winning books from six major awards since 1995. The rankings are established by awarding three points for a winner, and two points for a finalist, from the following awards: Booker Prize (B), National Book Critics Circle Award (C), International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (I), National Book Award (N), Pulitzer Prize (P), Costa Book Award (W, formerly the Whitbread).

Rank Year Title Author Awards
11 2003 The Known World Edward P. Jones C, I, N, P
9 2001 The Corrections Jonathan Franzen C, I, N, P
8 2009 Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel B, C, W
8 2007 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Junot Díaz C, P, I
8 1997 Underworld Don DeLillo C, I, N, P
7 2005 The March E.L. Doctorow C, N, P
7 2004 Line of Beauty Alan Hollinghurst B, C, W
7 2002 Middlesex Jeffrey Eugenides I, N, P
7 2001 Atonement Ian McEwan B, C, W
7 1998 The Hours Michael Cunningham C, I, P
7 1997 Last Orders Graham Swift B, I, W
7 1997 Quarantine Jim Crace B, I, W
6 2009 Home Marilynn Robinson C, N, I
6 2005 The Inheritance of Loss Kiran Desai B, C
6 2004 Gilead Marilynn Robinson C, P
5 2008 The Secret Scripture Sebastian Barry B, W
5 2008 Olive Kitteridge Elizabeth Strout C, P
5 2007 Tree of Smoke Denis Johnson N, P
5 2006 The Road Cormac McCarthy C, P
5 2006 The Echo Maker Richard Powers N, P
5 2005 Europe Central William T. Vollmann C, N
5 2005 The Accidental Ali Smith B, W
5 2004 The Master Colm Toibin B, I
5 2003 The Great Fire Shirley Hazzard I, N
5 2001 True History of the Kelly Gang Peter Carey B, I
5 2000 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay Michael Chabon C, P
5 2000 The Blind Assassin Margaret Atwood B, I
5 1999 Waiting Ha Jin N, P
5 1999 Disgrace J.M. Coetzee B, C
5 1999 Being Dead Jim Crace C, W
5 1998 Charming Billy Alice McDermott I, N
5 1997 American Pastoral Philip Roth C, P
5 1996 Every Man for Himself Beryl Bainbridge B, W
5 1996 Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer Steven Millhauser N, P
5 1995 The Moor’s Last Sigh Salman Rushdie B, W
5 1995 The Ghost Road Pat Barker B, W
5 1995 Independence Day Richard Ford C, P
5 1995 Sabbath’s Theater Philip Roth N, P

a “tray, tray, tray bong” production

In Theatre on June 21, 2010 at 2:50 pm

WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett
A Theatre Royal Haymarket Company Production
Directed by Sean Mathias
Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 20 June 2010

Estragon: Ian McKellen
Vladimir: Roger Rees
Pozzo: Matthew Kelly
Lucky: Michael Burrell
A Boy

The wait is over to see Sir Ian McKellen on Australian shores, in a highly anticipated production of Waiting For Godot.

Sean Mathias’s production is on international tour, with Roger Rees (Vladimir), Matthew Kelly (Pozzo) and Michael Burrell (Lucky) joining the only original cast member, McKellen, as Estragon.

In a crumbling theatre, designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, where the famous tree pokes up through fractured floorboards, Estragon and Vladimir wait for Godot every day. As they wait, they meet Pozzo and his frail slave, Lucky, who limps along at the end of a rope, laden with luggage and abuse. To pass the time, they argue, they sing, they play games, they exercise, they contemplate hanging themselves. They always find something, notes Gogo, “to give the impression [they] exist”.

McKellen’s performance is superb. His Estragon is vulnerable and maudlin, addled with pain and struggling to survive, yet with a wry smile and vaudevillian swagger, he is undoubtedly the comic hero of the play. Rees’ Vladimir is stoic and rational, with moments of tenderness. McKellen and Rees resemble a scruffy double-act, clowning and bantering in perfect synchronicity.

What does the play mean? Among readers intent on arriving at a concrete conclusion, Godot does not sit comfortably. Beckett said that “the early success of Waiting for Godot was based on a fundamental misunderstanding, that critics and public alike insisted on interpreting in allegorical or symbolic terms a play which was striving all the time to avoid definition”. When people sought clear-cut explanations of Godot in Beckett, he invariably side-stepped their questions. To director Alan’s Schneider’s question, “Who or what does Godot mean?”, he replied, “If I knew, I would have said so in the play”.

The first words of the play, “Nothing to be done”, reveal its focus: inaction. Beckett rejects the idea that drama tells a story, by making his audience wait for something to happen – the arrival of the elusive Godot, who never comes. Vivian Mercier famously said that Beckett “has achieved a theoretical impossibility – a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What’s more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice.” (Irish Times, 18 February 1956, p. 6.)

To celebrate this “tray, tray, tray bong” production of Godot, I have collected some of my favourite lines.

Estragon: What about hanging ourselves?
Vladimir: Hmm. It’d give us an erection.
Estragon: (highly excited). An erection!
Vladimir: With all that follows. Where it falls mandrakes grow. That’s why they shriek when you pull them up. Did you not know that?
Estragon: Let’s hang ourselves immediately!

Pozzo: The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep, somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh.

Vladimir: That passed the time.
Estragon: It would have passed in any case.
Vladimir: Yes, but not so rapidly.

Estragon: We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression that we exist?

Pozzo: They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

Vladimir: But you can’t go barefoot!
Estragon: Christ did.
Vladimir: Christ! What has Christ got to do with it. You’re not going to compare yourself to Christ!
Estragon: All my life I’ve compared myself to him.

Estragon: I can’t go on like this.
Vladimir: That’s what you think.

childish churl

In Literature on May 26, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Literary snobs are all het up after Jennifer Byrne invited four “bestselling authors” (quelle horreur!) to take part in a special edition of her monthly book show on ABC1, Jennifer Byrne Presents: Bestsellers & Blockbusters (aired 11/05/10). Lee Child, a British thriller writer (who no one worth their literary salt will admit to having heard of), has apparently reignited the popular-versus-literary debate.

After scorning the phenomenal success of Swedish writer, Stieg Larsson, Child swiftly shot down ‘the critics’, then moved on to that most malevolent force, ‘literary authors’. Essentially, bestselling authors write books that readers enjoy; literary writers don’t. Bestselling authors could easily write literary fiction if they chose to, but literary writers couldn’t write bestsellers if they wanted. And they do want to. But they can’t.

Mr. Child was quick to point out that animosity between the two camps is entirely one-sided: “the rivalry does not come from us. Why would I care about Ian McEwan? The rivalry comes from them”. They’re jealous, you see!

Now, before you rush out and burn down the Crime/Thriller section of your local bookshop, take a moment to indulge in this conceited claptrap:

LEE CHILD: Yeah, Matthew’s point is another difference between literary and what we do, which is that in popular fiction we do the work and the reader enjoys the ride.

MATTHEW REILLY: That’s right.

LEE CHILD: And literary people seem to think the reader should do an awful lot of the work to try and puzzle it out and figure it out. And we don’t believe that. And actually, in my books, every word is polished, the reader doesn’t have to puzzle over it. The reader gets in the car, I’m driving the car. And the reader doesn’t have to do the work.

MATTHEW REILLY: I agree completely.

JENNIFER BYRNE: Yeah, so that’s a complete distinction, isn’t it? So it’s not your fault as a reader if you don’t enjoy the book.

LEE CHILD: No, and I think that’s something that we have to come out and say. You can’t blame the reader if they’re not enjoying the book. That’s our fault. And maybe popular writers are the only ones that admit that.

LEE CHILD: And it is not necessarily about the sales, it is not necessarily about the sales, it’s about something else. It’s about this. They know, in their heart, that we could write their books but they cannot write our books. That’s what it’s about.

JENNIFER BYRNE: And all nodding.

DI MORRISSEY: And they try.

LEE CHILD: And they have tried.

DI MORRISSEY: Under other names.

LEE CHILD: And they sometimes say “Oh well, I don’t want to,” and I say, “Well, why wouldn’t you? You could set yourself up for life.” You know, in the paper in Britain last week I deliberately said, I was trying to start a fight about it, I said “Oh, I could write a Martin Amis book. It would take me about three weeks, it would sell 3,000 copies like he sells.” And only because I’m with the same publisher as Ian McEwan, so I didn’t really want to pick on him particularly. That’s what it is, they know they can’t do what we do. And they are jealous of that skill.

JENNIFER BYRNE: But that absolutely assumes that they do want to do what you do.

LEE CHILD: Well, who wouldn’t? I mean, come on. If you were a literary author starving in a garret and you had the choice to turn out a Bryce Courtenay and make yourself a multi-millionaire so your family was looked after forever, why wouldn’t you do that? If you could do that. Of course you would.

JENNIFER BYRNE: Because I think some people feel so powerfully about their art that they wouldn’t, but maybe I’m wrong.

LEE CHILD: I think you are wrong.

BRYCE COURTENAY: OK, you’re 2% right.

MATTHEW REILLY: I was at a writers’ festival once on a panel for thriller writers and there was a poet who’d written a thriller. And they asked him “Why did you write a thriller?” and he said, “Well, I saw these thriller writers were making money, so I thought I’d, you know, develop an international intrigue story, put some sex, put a car chase in it, have someone get killed.” The book disappeared without a trace. And that goes all the way back to what we were talking about at the start.