A week in books
Marx storms the literary barricades
Saturday 08 April 2000
Not every author has the good fortune to see their work become a front-runner for four separate prizes within a fortnight or so. The lucky chap in question is Francis Wheen, whose life of Karl Marx for Fourth Estate - warmly praised in these pages by Ben Pimlott - has recently turned up on everybody's roster of favourite non-fiction titles.
There it is on the long-list for the £30,000 Samuel Johnson prize, where its rivals will include John Major's memoirs, Norman Davies's The Isles, Anthony Sampson's Mandela, Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy and Simon Schama's widely-panned Rembrandt's Eyes. On the shortlist for the W H Smith Award, which mixes works of fact and fiction, it faces J M Coetzee's Booker-winning Disgrace, Melvyn Bragg's The Soldier's Return and Joanna Bourke's remarkable exploration of why men enjoy war, An Intimate History of Killing. Today at the CafÃ© Royal, the PEN Award for non-fiction will see Wheen's Marx in a titanic battle of the bushy beards with Andrew Roberts's majestic biography of that Tory ogre Salisbury (another Johnson candidate).
Then, next week, Wheen will compete with Roy Hattersley (on the Salvation Army), Brian Cathcart (on Stephen Lawrence) and Ian Buruma (on anglophilia) in the book section of the George Orwell Prize for political writing. Parochial pride forces me to mention that, in the Orwell journalism category, half the shortlist comes from the Independent - Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Richard Lloyd Parry and David McKittrick.
I somehow doubt that Marx the theorist (as opposed to the ale-swilling Soho character) will enjoy much of a revival in Britain over the coming years. Yet good political writing surely will. That illusory end-of-history phase proclaimed after the Cold War by Francis Fukuyama and his smug chums looks well and truly over. Meanwhile, even the super-rich thrown up by the "new economy" feel not solid ground beneath their feet, but a flux of dancing pixels.
So, in these once-more interesting times, it comes as a disappointment that Richard Sennett's The Corrosion of Character (Norton) - his superbly pithy study of work in the age of cyber-capitalism - has not featured on more prize lists over the past year. This, you feel, is the book Marx himself would have devoured with glee. Perhaps we now prefer our radicals whiskered, whimsical - and safely dead.
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