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Sleeping with Henry James

Sleeping with Henry James

Eleanor Catton, Man Booker winner in 2013 with The Luminaries, recently made a shocking confession: Henry James sends her to sleep. The American Golden Age author tends to be revered as a deity by most bookish types but, says Catton, “I’ve been 'in the middle of' The Bostonians now for over a year. Every few months I pick it up again, start to read, and then immediately fall asleep.” This is a new form of Pavlovian reaction worthy of further study: “It’s odd,” says the dozing Catton, “I actually think the book is superb.” It would make a fascinating psychological case study to ask a selection of Man Booker authors which books they found so superb that they couldn't keep their eyes open when reading them.

In 2015, Chigozie Obioma's The Fishermen was Man Booker shortlisted. The story of four Nigerian brothers who, against their mother's strictures, head off to a river where they meet a stranger (in every way) who prophesises that one of them will be killed by “a fisherman” has now been adapted for the stage by Nottingham's New Perspectives theatre company and has just begun a run at the HOME in Manchester. The play will move to the Assembly George Square Studios in Edinburgh for festival from 2 August.

Jon McGregor is continuing his one-man assault on every literary award in Britain. His Reservoir 13 kicked off the campaign with a Man Booker longlisting last year, then won the 2017 Costa Novel Award and the 2018 British Book Award Fiction Book of the Year, and was shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize and the New Statesman/Goldsmith's Prize. The latest skirmish comes in the form of a longlisting for the Goldsboro Books Golden Bell Award. Now in its second year, the prize aims to “celebrate the best storytelling across all genres of contemporary fiction”. The shortlist of six is announced on the 20thAugust and the £2,000 cheque accompanied by a mantelpiece-friendly glass bell will be handed over on 27th September.

Jennifer Croft, translator of Olga Tokarczuk’s Man Booker International prize-winning Flights, has been explaining the book's title. When it was first published in Poland the novel was called Beiguni (orWanderers) but, Croft says, “the word in Polish is a strange one – not a word people use” so she thought of calling it Runners instead. That though “is much more prosaic, much less evocative” – conjuring up stair-carpets and sweaty joggers – while Flights reflects Tokarczuk's “tendency throughout her work to create networks of associations. . . where fragments may appear at first glance to be disconnected from one another, yet in reality they’re linked conceptually as well as though subterranean formal bonds”. So Flights, says Croft, “suggests plane travel, imagination (“flights of fancy”), fleeing (which is closer to the original Polish title)” among other associations. 

The Royal Academy of Arts in London is holding a “Festival of Ideas” from 7 to 16 September and a wide range of celebrated arty figures will be delivering their words of wisdom. Among those sharing their mighty thoughts are Thomas Heatherwick (the designer of the 2012 Olympic torch), the photographer David Bailey and the winsome ballet dancer Tamara Rojo. Needless to say, because it is a meeting of sizeable minds, the Man Booker will be there too. Its presence takes the forms of two former winners, Howard Jacobson and Ben Okri, who will be talking about art, collaboration and quite possibly the meaning of life too. 

Speaking of festivals, preparations for the Man Booker 50 at Southbank Centre, London, are well under way… with exactly two weeks to go until the opening event:  Hilary Mantel & Pat Barker: Rewriting the Past. Featuring more than 60 speakers – including 17 winners from the prize’s history – the programme of literary debates, readings and masterclasses offers an unrivalled chance to hear these champions of fiction in conversation at the UK’s leading arts centre. The festival will close with Golden Man Booker Live, where one of the ‘Golden Five’ shortlist will be crowned the finest work of fiction from the last five decades of the prize… and the choice is in your hands! Public voting closes at midnight this coming Monday (25 June) so head over to and have your say.

To learn more about the Golden Man Booker and the Man Booker 50 Festival tune into our latest podcast, where host Joe Haddow catches up with judge Simon Mayo, Southbank Centre programmer Ted Hodgkinson and Dotti Irving, Chief Executive of Four Culture (who’s been involved with the prize for over 25 years!)