Suzi Feay: Will he win the Booker? Oh, good question!

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The Independent Culture

We have nothing like the Gothenburg book fair in this country. The biggest such event in Scandinavia, it's something like a classic trade fair along the model of London or Frankfurt, combined with a literary festival, an academic symposium and a giant bookshop. The fair is aimed at librarians and readers as much as publishing insiders. You can go and buy a bestseller, or even just a card. You can listen to an author while sipping your coffee, go to a poetry reading or attend a formal seminar. The Swedish Academy, organiser of the Nobel prizes, has a stall, as does the Strindberg society ("I bet they have gloomy meetings," quipped a delegate). For visiting Brits it's shaming to realise anew how insular we are, and how resistant to literature in translation, compared to the intellectually eager Swedes who packed out Iain Sinclair's event, lapping up his tales of the M25 and the Millennium Dome. Hard to imagine a similar take up for stray Swedish psychogeographers visiting our shores.

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This year the focus of the fair was British literature, with a huge UK stand and a large contingent of our publishers and authors. Paul Binding gave a stirring lecture about the impact Scandinavian literature has had on the British literary imagination, from Ibsen onwards. More personally, he traced the effect his love of the north lands has had on his own work, beginning with a formative encounter with the magical children's story The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (1901) by Selma Lagerlöf. Paul outlined the key elements of Scandinavian literature: an intense love of the animal world, a reverence for nature bordering on the religious, combined with a profound respect for ideals of social justice. He finished off with a fine reading from his own novel, My Cousin the Writer, with its epiphanic finale deep in a Swedish forest.

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Later at a grand party for book fair dignitaries, I introduced Paul to a tired and pale-looking David Mitchell, the talk of the festival after the announcement of the Man Booker shortlist. If he's exhausted now, I wonder what he's going to be like if he wins on Tuesday. Quite apart from the fact that Cloud Atlas is a work of genius, it's hard to imagine any other author could beat him for sheer niceness. I went to see one of his talks, pegged to the Granta Best of Young British Novelists promotion. Also on the panel were admirable Sarah Waters and naughty Adam Thirlwell, who wriggled and whispered during the chair's lengthy introduction in Swedish. Thirlwell confessed to being surprised to be included on the list (he was not alone in his surprise) though this was not modesty, but because he'd never heard of it before. It was interesting to compare Thirlwell's and Mitchell's attitudes to audience questions: Thirlwell flicked them away with what looked like amused undergraduate contempt, while Mitchell had an almost painful willingness to please. When asked whether his full-on novel of sexual experimentation Politics was based on personal experience, Thirlwell drawled: "It all came from my imagination... I've never actually had sex..." while "Oh, good question!" was Mitchell's mantra. I asked him whether he'd read any of the other novels on the shortlist. ("Oh, good question!") The answer was no - he hadn't yet checked out the competition. Later, at the party, after he'd worked the room assiduously, he sat forlornly in a corner looking even more tired. A large British contingent then went on to a rowdy bar, but Mitchell had already made his escape. I hope his turn to party hard comes on Tuesday.

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