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Help is at hand

Help is at hand

Since the International Booker Prize shortlist has only recently been revealed, readers won’t yet have had time to work their way through the six nominated novels. If you are one of those wondering where to start – or which book to turn to next – the Edinburgh International Book Festival is there to help. Each week until 27 May, the festival is interviewing the shortlisted authors and translators and the wide-ranging discussions should be more than enough to let you know whether or not each book is your sort of thing. The series kicked off with Olga Ravn and Martin Aitken talking about The Employees and their event is available on the EIBF website. Both also shared their fiction in translation recommendations. Next Thursday, 6 May, it is the turn of Mariana Enriquez and Megan McDowell with The Dangers of Smoking in Bed.

To add even more flavour, three actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company were invited by the RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran to read from the shortlisted six. Fiona Shaw, Ken Nwosu and Lucy Phelps have each taken on two books and, since it would be a shame if they appeared for one night only, more of their expressive tones will also be used at the virtual winner announcement  when it is livestreamed from Coventry Cathedral on Wednesday, 2 June. That will make what essentially amounts to four interpretations for each of the novels – the first is the author’s, the second the translator’s, the third the actor’s and the fourth, and most important perhaps, the reader’s.

Jon McGregor is not a writer who likes to rush things. The author has published four novels, three of which have received Booker Prize nominationsIf Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things in 2002, So Many Ways to Begin in 2006, and Reservoir 13 in 2017. Now he has a new novel out, Lean Fall Stand. The story centres round research scientists in Antarctica but was written fully 17 years after McGregor made a trip there – or almost there, since his ship got stuck in the ice. The reason for the near two decades delay? “First, to attempt to turn a nonfiction experience into fiction just felt artificial and kind of unnecessary. That had me stumped for a long time. Then the other thing was, it’s just quite difficult to describe Antarctica! Physically, the landscape is so alien.” Given his previous form, there’s a decent chance the novel will feature on various prize lists something about which invokes “complicated feelings” in the author. “I think they’re [prizes] both a useful way of bringing attention to hopefully interesting work, and a fairly shallow marketing trick, or both those things,” he says. But “I’ve done really well out of prizes! And being longlisted for the Booker with my first book turned what I was doing into a career.” So not so complicated after all.

Another novelist who has notched up three Booker Prize nominations is Colm Tóibín. What was clear from a recent Irish television documentary about him is that the plaudits that have long accompanied his career have not gone anywhere near his head. He has no time for the tortured artist cliché: “I think it’s important for a writer to not go on too much about how hard it is. Also: no one cares.” If that weren’t bracing enough for any writer tempted to bemoan their fate, Tóibín lobbed on an extra bucketful of cold water: “I mean, there’s no one screaming, saying, ‘If there isn’t a new novel by you, the economy will collapse.’ Or, ‘You know, there’ll be a flood.’ It’s not as though you’re a plumber – where you’re actually needed.” Of course plumbers are needed but perhaps Tóibín was being a touch harsh – novelists are needed too.

Should anyone want the definition of a “man of letters” they need look no further than the figure of Anthony Thwaite. Thwaite, who recently died aged 90, was literary to his fingertips: his multiple achievements included a long career as a highly respected poet, editing his friend Philip Larkin’s collected poems and letters, positions as literary editor of the Listener and the New Statesman, reviewer and teacher, editor of the poetry list at Secker and Warburg and editorial director of André Deutsch. He could be dashing too: during the Cold War he smuggled a manuscript by the poet Miroslav Holub out of Czechoslovakia. And in 1986 he chaired the Booker Prize panel that picked Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils. Thwaite looked beyond the page, however, living in both Japan and America and being an archaeologist too. Those who knew him will remember him as a gentle and kind soul, albeit with a steely eye for words and phrasing.