Man Booker 50: Why the novel matters

The tickets were bought months ago and maybe that’s why when the day comes I do not know what to expect. Yet, the names ‘Man Booker 50’ does not promise less than great expectations.

I booked the first event at 10:30am on a Saturday more due to its name than to the author in question. If I aim to be totally honest, I did not know him by his name. It had escaped me even from my recently pursue for Man Booker prize winners. How? I am still not sure.

Winner of that same prize in 2010 and author of one of the most famous books about the T-word, everyone acclaims him for his sense of humor on this satire Pussy.

As I said, my tickets have been bought months ago and only then, entering the room five minutes after the starting time, I understand how close I am.

The meters that separate me from Howard Jacobson are not more than 5. And when he stands to read his talk, his mastery and love for words and language are notable. It seems I am even closer, metaphysically speaking.

I would not say he is indistinguishable, but I have to admit his sense of humour is beyond undeniable and his arguments find -the truth. The truth that, as Jacobson says at some point, no one knows what is. Questioning the truth, the writing, the arguments or the value of the novel leads us to an interesting pint about the artist’s will on his own creation. For Jacobson, the best novels are the ones and set away from the writer, where the author asks himself, ‘Where the hell did that come from?’. Being creative or creativity in general simply means doing stuff. Because again, the truth is,  and probably the only one authors can agree with and believe to be truly true, ‘it is not art we’re interested in, it’s ourselves’.

But if it is notorious how novels matter, it is also visible the format is in a fight. As Jacobson highlights several times in his talk, ‘not in danger, in a fight. The novel is in good health, what is not in good health is the reader’, a matter that Jacobson believes social media is to blame for. Blaming mainly twitter, for being T-word’s weapon, this argument comes back to the stage in the Q&A, when editors and publishers demand a page.turner manuscript to those who pursue publication. The fight plot vs language can be considered an academic discussion, especially by comparison studies. Page-turners are a virus which may be considered guilty for the lack of literacy today. They are the demand of generations who are now used to instant reactions due to our relationship with the green. There is a lack of patience on the reader who is not able to enjoy a book where the pleasure is mainly on its language.

If the most obvious solution is stepping away from the screen, the most obvious answer is a massive social and emphatic ‘NO’. Even if it is literacy and our own concentration the ones on jeopardy. In Jacobson opinion readers need than to be educated in schools and universities. Which makes me wonder, could that really work when most young people hate the English Literature classes? This is all connected, after all.

The interviewer, a literature teacher herself, defends twitter at least for the possibility of contact between reader and author. As you can probably tell, Twitter has now turned into a joke between stage and audience. To the argument presented he answers: ‘I have never wanted to be in contact with an author in my life. You want to be in contact with me, read my novels’.

During the talk, there are amazing mentions to Dickens, DW Lawrence, Kundera, Henry James and a few to Jane Austen and George Elliot. The interview question is predictable in the 21st century. He admits to admire them, especially Austen for her mastery in comedy and knowledge on women.

In the end there is time to ask about Orwell and politics. Jacobson believes a writer should not be judged for not writing about misogyny or colonialism. In fact, he believes they shouldn’t even be judged by the place they take when they do include them in their novels. If there is something to judge is their choice on using it on the narrative.

And of course there are questions about Pussy, which the author explains can not be considered a novel. Mainly because on novels, people tend to sympathise to the main character and he did not wish that with a person as Trump.

Yet, Trump seemed to opened an exception in Howard Jacobson writing. He admits that when asked if a certain character is a real person he always say ‘no’, hoping that the person is not annoyed with fictional features. Nowadays, people are more offended when ‘no’ is the answer. Which is directly connected to an endless discussion on autobiography and fiction to which he easily, and even beautifully, responds: ‘The moment you put punctuation in your own life it’s not life, it’s art’.

And speaking of endless discussions, literary translation is not forgotten, appearing at the end of Q&A.

Relying on his passion for language, Howards is a believer that a good writer teamed up with a good translator prove his argument. If it is good, if it is well written (especially within the European literature) the particularities of the author’s voice and language  will get through.

As I sit now, hiding on the shadow of Queen Elizabeth Hall, I face my notebook’s page hardly without touching my phone to check time or answer some messages. From this exact spot, again meters away from Howard Jacobson giving autographs and making a few more jokes I imagine, I look around. Famous Man booker winners walk up and down  Southbank like any other human being. Most of them strangers to the common and non-reading souls. And near the margins of river Thames all the winner novelists blend perfectly with the novelists- to-be.


*The podcast of this amazing talk will be available Tuesday 12th July at 10pm on BBC3*



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