Boyd Tonkin: The missing lanes of Olympic arts
The week in books
Friday 14 January 2011
When details began to trickle out of the London arts festival that, through summer 2012, will mark and match the Olympic Games, there appeared to be one very obvious non-barking dog. (Surely I don't need to remind you of the classic dialogue from Arthur Conan Doyle's story "Silver Blaze"? "'Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?' 'To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.' 'The dog did nothing in the night-time.' 'That was the curious incident,' remarked Sherlock Holmes.") Literature, the one form that in all of its variants has flourished in this country and its capital for six uninterrupted centuries and more, seemed conspicuously absent from the 2012 plans.
Since then, the role of the arts of language in the programme has begun to look a little less muted and muzzled. Simon Armitage will host a Poetry Parnassus, which aims to bring together poets from every participating nation in the Games. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison will collaborate with singer Rokia Traore and director Peter Sellars on their Desdemona Project. A World Shakespeare Festival will send interpreters from all over the globe all around Britain to stage productions and engage with audiences. All well and good.
But the 2012 schedule still feels sketchy and patchy on the literary front – especially given the unique power of the word to throw a line between near and far, home and abroad, in a spirit that should surely fit any definition of Olympic-branded arts. Above all, London's literature, and Britain's, has always and only flourished within an international arena. We will need some heartier celebrations of writing, and reading, as a global interchange next summer.
In the meantime, those of us who try to keep these links alive have some excuse for tootling modestly on our own trumpets. This week, I and my fellow judges began the process of assessment that, in late May, will finish with the award of this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize: that annual Cultural Olympiad that showcases the riches of global fiction and the skills of its translators. This year, the panel includes novelist and BBC World Service presenter Harriett Gilbert; MJ Hyland, novelist and teacher at Manchester University's Centre for New Writing; Catriona Kelly, cultural historian and professor of Russian at Oxford University; and novelist and critic Neel Mukherjee. From the fiction by living authors published in translation in the UK during 2010, we already have among the entries an array of gold medallists who have bagged almost every shiny literary gong. Once again, the generous support of Arts Council England makes the whole competition happen.
From Geoffrey Chaucer onwards, EngLit could not exist without its history of incessant foreign trade. That traffic continues via a hundred overt or covert routes. Starting next week, the Institut Français in London will be the venue for "French Passions". Once a month, the season will present English writers talking about the French classics they love (I will be chairing the series). Next Thursday, Will Self opens by discussing Montaigne; followed in February by Alain de Botton on Stendhal; in March by Posy Simmonds on Flaubert; in April by Edmund de Waal on Proust; in May by Kate Mosse on Maupassant, with Tom McCarthy on Robbe-Grillet as the final event in June. In the sheer firepower of the guests, I think that we can safely say that it outguns the Anglo-French naval treaty by an aircraft carrier or two.
With the exception of Simon Armitage's sacred poetic mountain, I still see little evidence in the 2012 cultural programme that such literary to-and-fro will have a prominent place. Until a few years ago, you might have argued that the solitary pleasures of the page sat uneasily beside the public spectacle required by landmark arts events. But the huge appetite for "live literature", in festivals and other forums, has been among the key revelations of the past decade. All programmers should try to feed it, whatever the shape of their logo.
'French Passions' will take place at the Institut Français du Royaume-Uni, London SW7. Telephone booking: 0207 073 1350; online: www. institut-francais.org.uk
What will 'O' predict for Palin?
Over a week of rebuttals, every Washington insider who can ride a keyboard has denied authorship of O: a Presidential Novel. On 25 January, Simon & Schuster will publish this anonymous fiction of Obama's 2012 election campaign by someone who has "been in the room" with Barack (right). Easy comparisons have been drawn with Primary Colors, the (pretty impressive) fictionalised account of the 1992 Clinton run by an "Anonymous" who soon took human shape as journalist Joe Klein. However, Klein dramatised the past. O predicts the future. How far did the Arizona-damaged Sarah Palin feature in the first draft, and will some last-minute editing diminish her role?
In Mrs Thatcher's twilight zone
There was always something semi-fictional about David Hart, the erratic and elusive right-wing millionaire who during the coal strike of 1984-85 played the role of undercover fixer and enforcer for his beloved Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, the entrepreneur, who died last week, spent much of the time after his brief period in the sun – well, the shadows – at work on novels and plays now as hard to locate as a British colliery. But the definitive portrayal of this unlikely figure comes in David Peace's novel of the strike, GB84. There he appears as the sinister, volatile "Stephen Sweet", always referred to by his chauffeur Neil as "The Jew". "This is solely through Neil's eyes, and, given his background, that's how he would see Sweet," Peace told The Independent on publication. "It's uneasy, and I wanted to create that uneasiness." Does Peace give us a devastating portrait of the anxious, driven outsider, or just a modern Fagin? Hart's enduring presence in fiction, as much as his own deeply weird career, will stay firmly in the twilight zone.
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