RICHARD BURNS's new novel, Sandro and Simonetta, is published next Thursday, the day after this year's Booker Prize shortlist is announced. Any chance he might have had of winning has vanished, since the Booker rules state firmly that to be eligible an author has to be alive on publication date. Burns would have relished the irony, though he would not have expected to win in any case; it is one of the unfortunate side-effects of Booker ballyhoo that a whole host of fine writers get pushed even further into the shadows, any chance they might have had of making a living from their writing even more remote.
In 1987 the Sunday Express ran a talent-spotting exercise ('Who are the Booker Babies?') which included Burns alongside the likes of Jeanette Winterson, Kazuo Ishiguro and Caryl Phillips. There is a characteristic quote from Burns: 'Writing is a draining and sometimes arrogant business, in that it isolates you socially. It is a lovely way of life but a lousy way to make a living.' Like most writers he was perpetually and disastrously short of money, and he could never understand why writers considerably less deserving than himself - he was never modest about his own work, and indeed he had nothing to be modest about - should suddenly receive cheques of poolswinner proportions, while he soldiered on with his usual pittance. Useless to try and explain; anything you said merely confirmed his suspicion that there was a London literary mafia that organised everything for its own benefit; that if you lived in Sheffield you might as well live on the moon for all the notice anybody took of you. (He was, however, a generous and perceptive reviewer, particularly in the Independent.) Very rarely he could be encountered at literary parties in London, leaning against a wall by himself, casting a sardonic eye about him; he's right, you'd tell yourself, it is all vanity.
Burns was never a 'promising' writer; he seemed to spring fully formed from the egg. Every one of his books is different, yet entirely characteristic. A Dance for the Moon (1986), a prizewinner in the Jonathan Cape First Novel competition, is a compassionate, meticulously researched account of a shell-shocked First World War poet; The Panda Hunt (1987) is a spare, poetic story of an expedition to China in the 1920s; Why Diamond Had to Die (1989) is an exciting and funny thriller, written in the vain hope of making some money; Fond and Foolish Lovers (1990) is a profoundly witty meditation on death and literature, shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Award and, in my view, his best book; Sandro and Simonetta is a novel of Botticelli, colourful and passionate.
Burns's versatility may have contributed to his lack of worldly success by making it hard for those who care about these things to pigeonhole him; we shall never know. With a new novel out next week, alongside the paperback of Fond and Foolish Lovers, and about to take up a full-time appointment as Head of Creative Writing at Lancaster University, Burns seemed at last about to turn a corner. But his demons got him anyway.
There is a spooky passage in Fond and Foolish Lovers: 'I could describe Richard Burns for you, illustrate him in a sentence or two - has too many children, for instance, and not enough money; he is five foot eight; his eyes are blue - but there is little point in this. Any description I give is bound to be provisional. All our objective observations agree: Richard Burns is getting older; Richard Burns is going to die.' So are we all, of course, but the fact remains that now Richard Burns is dead, by his own hand, on the day before his 34th birthday. He was angry and cynical about what he saw as the publishing business's pursuit of the fast buck, but he was fiercely proud and protective of his work, and it is to be hoped that it will remain in print as the best memorial to him. 'That'll be the day,' Richard would have said.
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