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Jan 2004 Journal

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Great - but not necessarily Booker-approved - books

First the good news about the Big Read. Thanks to the publicity generated by the BBC competition, book sales nationwide have gone up appreciably. 'It has given the industry a huge boost,' said a Waterstone spokesperson.

Next the bad news: a third of the final 21 shortlisted works are children's books à la Winnie-the-Pooh or Harry Potter. This suggests either many readers' somewhat pathetic yearning to return to the nursery, or their abandonment of the reading habit soon after leaving school. But there's more bad news. Not only have some of the all-time British greats from George Eliot to Thackeray been ignored, but Jewish writers are woefully underrepresented (for all that Joseph Heller's Catch 22 and JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye made it into the top 21). Nobody expects Kafka - or even Proust - to be nominated, but what about such accessible towering literary heroes as Philip Roth and Saul Bellow?

Something else the poll shows is the insularity of the great British reading public. No huge surprises there, cynics might say, but I was still amazed at how little the average reader is swayed by the pundits, who for years have sung the praises of the nouveau roman and the 'magic realist' school (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende). In fact, not a single French- or Spanish-speaking writer even qualified for the long list of 100 titles. The only long-listed German author was Patrick Susskind with Perfume; why that admittedly finely crafted, atmospheric horror story should have outdistanced Günther Grass' Tin Drum - the subject of one excellent film - defies my comprehension.

Of course the transfer of books to the screen is of huge significance in the popularity stakes, and most of the short-listed books may first have impinged on readers' consciousness in their film (or TV) version. Not that cinematic treatment necessarily does a book any favours. I can think of at least two outstanding novels - Louis de Bernière's (shortlisted) Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Graham Swift's (unplaced) Waterland - where I thought the film a travesty of the book.

The converse can also apply sometimes. Some ten years ago the film director Robert Altman had the inspired idea of taking several of Raymond Carver's short stories and melding them together into an interconnected whole; already something of a Carver fan, I became an absolute aficionado after seeing Short Cuts on the screen.

Lastly, given that I put the Booker Prize into the title of this piece it might be appropriate to say something about this year's winner, DBC Pierre. TV viewers who watched the awards ceremony will have been startled by the author's inarticulate response, and even more by the revelation that he is a reformed drug addict with a near-criminal record. And this wasn't just PR hype designed to generate publicity for Vernon God Little - the man really has a shady past.

In that he fits into the tradition of the poètes maudits or the artists at odds with society. It may be a source of bitter-sweet pride to us that a few highly reputed Jewish writers were guilty of appallingly anti-social behaviour. Elias Canetti was dubbed the 'Hampstead monster' by Iris Murdoch's husband John Bailey, Arthur Koestler actually raped the wife of Michael Foot, and Norman Mailer (on a drug-induced 'trip') stabbed his own wife. Fortunately, the blade didn't penetrate very deeply, and the author of The Naked and the Dead acquired several unscarred wives subsequently.
Richard Grunberger

previous article:Being nosey about Fagin
next article:Austrian compensation fund eligibility extended