A week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Saturday 22 March 1997
First awarded in 1993, the biennial Cohen prize already has a splendid record of honouring the Awkward Squad. The initial winner, Sir Vidia Naipaul, kept up his reputation as an Olympic-standard grouch with some apres-moi- le-deluge thoughts about the death of the novel. In 1995, Harold Pinter refrained from cursing US foreign policy in the atrium of Coutts Bank, but he did chill the blood with some gruesome passages from Webster's plays. Pinter was paying tribute to his English master at Hackney Downs - a theme pursued by Dame Muriel when she gave the pounds 10,000 portion of the prize reserved for a beneficiary selected by the winner to arts projects at her alma mater, James Gillespie's High School in Edinburgh.
It was there, 70 years ago, that the nine-year-old Muriel Camberg wrote what she calls "an intended improvement" of Browning's "Pied Piper of Hamelin". Browning's little rival clearly foreshadowed the fearless writer who, in a recent TV profile, scorned the "timid' authors of her age. In the 40 years since she published The Comforters, she has kept timidity at bay with one succinct and stringent fable of spiritual or social life after another. Because she has no time for English sentiment, and shuns the picturesque detail of character and place that many readers enjoy, Spark can strike the unconverted as a dry and cold contriver of intellectual puzzles. Yet it is just this theologically inclined asperity that makes her voice so precious and unique.
An impatience with Anglo-Saxon platitudes began early. In the postwar years, the penniless young writer worked for the conceited nonetities of the Poetry Society (Now, I'm glad to say, a much saner place.) There she had a memorable run-in with the batty Marie Stopes - birth-control pioneer and dreadful poet. Superbly comic echoes of that period surface in her memoir Curriculum Vitae and in the 1980s novels Loitering With Intent and A Far Cry from Kensington.
In her brisk, bracing tragicomedies, poky offices and bedsits (or the odd Tuscan villa) act as backdrop for a metaphysical drama that - in the words of Andrew Motion, who chaired the judging panel - "transfigures the commonplace and makes what is ordinary marvellous or sinister or strange". As Ben Okri, another judge, said afterwards, "It's time to bring elegant seriousness back into fashion". Reading Spark would be a painless way to manage that - and a few ousted politicians may have some time on their hands to do so pretty soon.
Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Stuart Baggs dies: Apprentice star 'The Brand' found dead aged 27
- 2 Whoopi Goldberg tells Cara Delevingne to suck it up: 'She's not famous. I'M famous'
- 3 1000 people played Foo Fighters simultaneously to try and get them to play their city
- 4 Every club should be like Labour – you can’t join as a new member unless you’re already a member
- 5 Doctor Who: Christopher Eccleston says why he left the BBC series after just one series
Why Harry Potter's aged 35, not 26
Frank Ocean, where's that new album at?
Top Gear trio Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May heading to Amazon Prime for new car show
Benedict Cumberbatch has 1,480 lines in Hamlet - so what's the secret to actors' memory skills?
Drake responds to Meek Mill's 'diss' track 'Wanna Know' by laughing at the rapper on Instagram
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn – or a return to a Labour government
Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn says 'we can learn a great deal from Karl Marx'
Is Britain really full up? Are migrants taking our jobs? Leading academic answers the most common anti-immigration claims
Public anger after French sunbather beaten up by gang for wearing a bikini in Reims park
Labour leadership: New poll shows party is now even 'less electable' than under Ed Miliband
While we fixate on Calais, the Home Office is quietly deporting dozens of migrants on 'ghost flights'