Word-drunk in Auckland, Gordon McLauchlan

Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2006

The announcement that The Sea had won last year’s Man Booker prize came through while I was reading it, and I have to confess I was perplexed and then annoyed – both by the novel and the fact that it won. Or does an accumulation of beautifully crafted stories count when the author’s weakest offering in years comes up for judgement? I’m not alone in the opinion that after such resplendent books as The Book of Evidence and The Untouchable, The Sea is inert, self-indulgent, and has traces even of that greatest of anti-art qualities, pretentiousness.

Both The Book of Evidence and The Untouchable confirmed Banville’s reputation as a superb language craftsman and a philosophical writer who develops characters layer upon layer and fits them into intriguing and satisfying stories. The Sea, on the other hand, reflects its author’s dictum that style is everything, while providing evidence that it is not. The novel is beautifully wrought and, as always with Banville, patched with dark humour, but it is also overly mannered, minutely observed but then freighted with extraneous detail, and has no narrative thrust.

I suppose only the best writers can inflict upon a reader the disappointment of blunted expectations, so I put The Sea aside when I finished it and will try again in a year or so. Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland, and became a working journalist: chief sub-editor of the now-defunct Irish Press newspaper, and more recently literary editor of the Irish Times. He was nominated once before for the Booker, with a book much more deserving than The Sea, and he was quoted as saying with not atypical acerbity: “There are plenty of other awards for middle-brow fiction. There should be one decent prize for real books.”

For all that, Banville will be the literary heavyweight and the biggest draw at this year’s condensed festival, punningly tagged WitSunday, in Auckland in May. He is the top of as interestingly diverse a cast of writers as one could imagine, all of them swooping this way en route to the Sydney Writers’ Festival later in the month. The biennial Auckland Writers and Readers Festival has been made to fit so snugly with the annual Sydney event that the organisers here are not denying that something like the one-day WitSunday function will continue for many off-years to come. The organisers here have plenty to choose from among the hordes assembling in Sydney for its festival – about 180 this year, including nearly 70 from overseas, 12 of them visiting publishers.

The second senior literary man for the Auckland gathering is Edmund White, the eloquent, funny, often outrageous novelist and essayist who emerged from the American gay culture of the 1950s and 1960s. If he’s ever written a dull sentence I haven’t read it. He continues to write about gay life, but his work belongs to everyone who is literate, socially conscious, and appreciates a sparkling stylist. His oeuvre is essentially about human relationships in their diversity and intensity.

Two of the biggest attractions will be modern media men, writers and broadcasters who grapple with contemporary issues in clever and occasionally profound ways: Alain de Botton and Tim Harford. De Botton teaches at London University and writes a weekly newspaper column, but his name first reached New Zealand with How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel, an international bestseller. It was followed by The Consolations of Philosophy, a faint echo of The Consolation of Philosophy, the sixth-century classic by the Roman, Boethius. When asked if his book came within the category of “philosophy”, de Botton said it did, “as defined by the man in the street and Socrates”. He is a drawcard because he is a performer as much as a writer.

Harford is a smiling practitioner of the dismal science, author of The Undercover Economist, a book named after his column in the Financial Times, which has spawned a television series. His first column for the Financial Times was called “Dear Economist” and his answers to correspondents’ personal problems were shrewd and amusing, and gained him a wide readership. He has been a tutor at Oxford, has worked for Shell and the World Bank, and been speechwriter for the Governor of Israel’s Central Bank, Stanley Fischer, but is famous in the UK for the tongue he keeps in his cheek when discussing economic problems and theory. The boyish, balding Harford is also as much performer as writer.

Out of Africa comes Nigerian-born, 24-year-old Harvard graduate Uzodinma Iweala, whose story of a child soldier, Beasts of No Nation, is written in an original, lilting voice with the sort of pace writers develop when a story builds inside them and pours out on a wave of hurt and anguish. I know that because of some passages I’ve skimmed, such as:

I am meeting one fine professor whose name is Jamaica like the island. She is one very tall woman with face that is rounding well well and nose like African nose even if she is coming from island in the sea and not Africa …. She is helping me to know how it is I should be writing. She is telling me to listen listen listen. Don’t just be writing but be listening and Agu will be speaking to you …. So I am learning to talk how Agu is talking and he is talking to me about all the thing that is happening in his life. They are killing my father he is saying and I am writing it. I am killing woman with machete he is saying and I am writing it. He is saying I am not a bad boy. I am not a bad boy and I am writing it. And I am trying to feel as Agu is feeling but it is making me to dream bad dream. Sometimes I am crying because of all the bad dream I am having and sometimes I am thinking human being is really devil. But all the time Agu is talking to me and I am writing writing. I am writing his story for you.

 

I read a few excerpts and found the style mesmeric.

I have read none of the work of the other visitors, who include Australian Christopher Kremmer, a versatile journalist and former comedy writer, whose The Carpet Wars, a homage to the world of Islam, gave him an international audience. Forty-year-old Sherman Alexie, prolific poet, novelist, short story writer and filmmaker lives in Wellpinit on the Spokane Indian reservation in Washington State, with more than 1000 other Spokane tribal members. Other writers coming are Victoria Finlay, who worked for Reuters in Britain and Scandinavia, and spent 12 years in Hong Kong as a journalist on the South China Morning Post before writing two travel books; Audrey Niffenegger (appearing on the Monday evening), whose novel The Time Traveller’s Wife has been bought for filming by Brad Pitt; and Hari Kunzu, the London-based novelist who was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British novelists in 2003.

Proceedings kick off on Sunday morning May 21 in the Aotea Centre, and each writer has an hour, with 15-minute breaks between performances. The diversity of the writers appearing is extraordinary, but anyone sitting out the 12-hour day would be pretty well word-logged or, perhaps, word-drunk by the end of the last session with Edmund White.

 

Gordon McLauchlan is an Auckland writer.

 

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