Boyd Tonkin: Infinite riches in two little rooms

The Week In Books

Just when we had good reason to fear that fiction in the English-speaking world had succumbed to a vulgar blight of High Concepts and Big Themes, two big prizes have rewarded the smaller virtues that alone make language into art. On Wednesday, Marilynne Robinson took the Orange Prize for Home, the third finely crafted and patiently worked novel in a career that saw a 24-year gap between her debut, Housekeeping, and its successor, Gilead. A week earlier, the Canadian doyenne of the perfectly-wrought short story, Alice Munro, had won the third Man Booker International Prize against a field of contenders that sported some louder talents, from VS Naipaul and Peter Carey to Mario Vargas Llosa.

Both victors sometimes labour under the rubric of "writer's writer", although "reader's writer" would far better catch the intimate sense of satisfaction that they always give. Both eschew fashion and follow their own path, delicately excavating the layers of memory and desire that lie buried behind the most humdrum and limited of lives. Both remain proudly provincial, able to extrapolate a universe of feeling from the small towns and suburbs of the Mid-West (Robinson) or south Ontario and the Canadian Pacific coast (Munro).

Both make the language of North American English stride and sing. No one could ever miss the Biblical rhythms and allusions that stiffen the spine of Robinson's Gilead and Home. But the language of scripture also plays a part in the inner lives that Munro unveils - especially when, as in the recent The View from Castle Rock, she revisits her Scots migrant ancestors and their battles with creed and conscience (Munro is a decendant of James Hogg).

Although a decade separates their ages, neither author will see 65 again. And both – by the way – are women who know that enduring fiction carries the duty, and the privilege, of seeking the grandest epic and tragic emotions in anybody's kitchen or backyard. Both know, to quote Marlowe, how to find infinite riches in a little room.

I suspect that one other factor links the filigree art of this uncompromising pair. Neither could hope to survive, let alone flourish, in the sort of publishing culture that now prevails in North America and – even more so, perhaps – in Britain. However much acclaim a strong debut might attract, the idea of leaving a quarter-century between one's first and second novel would currently have outraged publishers spluttering into their budget Sauvignon. Between 1980 and 2004, Robinson published only an anti-nuclear tract, Mother Country (on the Sellafield re-processing plant), and a somewhat abstruse essay collection, The Death of Adam. These days, agents and editors would give up in despair before a tenth of her fictional lay-off had expired.

Munro's commercial crime is, if anything, even more heinous. She writes short stories. And, incorrigibly, she goes on writing them, from the blissful Lives of Girls and Women in 1971 through a dozen further collections to the partly-autobiographical View from Castle Rock in 2006. This autumn we can look forward to a new volume, Too Much Happiness. As critics make plain, these stories often fall into family groups (literally) or thematic patterns. The same characters may re-occur. They have a coherent architecture that leaves the reader with a sense of twinned unity and diversity. The whole does add up to more than the sum of its parts.

All that would cut no ice with today's market-conscious print entrepreneurs. They look with deep suspicion on any fictional form that can't easily be promoted as a full-length novel. So this repeat offender bears – in the UK even more than across the Atlantic – a mark of book-trade shame. That makes her Man Booker International honour even more welcome. After its far-sighted awards to Ismail Kadare and Chinua Achebe, here is one big-bucks prize that shows every sign of operating with a mind - and a vision - of its own.

P.S.Amid all the anniversary articles devoted to the Tiananmen Square massacre, don't forget that China's 1989 trauma and its legacy have given rise to a majestic epic novel: Ma Jian's Beijing Coma. I will be chairing an event with the exiled Ma (left) and his translator Flora Drew at the British Museum on Saturday 20 June. It forms part of the London Review Bookshop's "World Literature Weekend" from 19-21 June, in association with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (Beijing Coma was shortlisted this year). Other highlights will include Hanan Al-Shaykh (see p. 30) talking to Esther Freud, French rising star Faiza Guène, Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury and – centre-stage for once - an all-star panel of translators who have won the Independent prize. More details from www.lrbshop.co.uk; credit-card hotline for bookings: 020 7269 9030.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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