Published by Pushkin Press 18 July 2013
288 pp, hardback, £14.99
Reviewed by Elizabeth Hilliard Selka
There is obvious irony in a small (but illustrious) publishing house publishing a scathing satire about a small publishing house and its publisher pushing its writer to win a literary prize. Perhaps the whole business of literary awards is asking for a brave novelist to fictionalise and poke fun at it. Here is a rich seam of bitter humour and literary humanity to be mined, and one can imagine gold being extracted from it by, say, David Lodge or Mark Haddon.
What Filippo Bologna and Howard Curtis give us is a fable or parable in which none of the characters has a name, only a designation: The Beginner, The Writer, The Master and so on. These three are the finalists in the battle for The Prize. The first is the youngest and the ingenue, the second the well-known author, the third the oldest and longest-established: literary small, medium and large, as it were. Each has a backstory and a current life, each has their pleasures and troubles, each has written a book, none of them worthy. Yet here they are, and each wants badly to win.
The question is, how badly? What would each do to be the one who holds The Prize in his fist on the night the judges’ decision is announced?
So, none of the protagonists has a name, and none of the books they have written is any good. One of them wasn’t even written by the credited author. None of their relationships in the real world seems fulfilling – the fraudulent author has four on the go, with The Old Flame, The First Wife, The Second Wife and his mother all featuring – and none seems engaged with their writing, or with writing in the broader sense: none seems to be reading anything or aware of any writers other than the other two finalists. This novel is not really about books, reading or writing at all. Pursuit of the literary Prize is just a vehicle, for a mashup of depressing visceral urges which lead pretty much nowhere (other than to The Prize, the awarding of which turns out to be a damp squib more literally than anyone expects).
This is not to say that the novel is entirely without wit: there is at least one funny scene, where The Writer chooses which clothes and shoes to wear for an event he will stage just before the prizegiving. And the narrative seems clever, toying knowingly with existential ideas and references to parrots and other birds, their adaptability and proliferation. The narrator even tells us that ‘Talent isn’t a gift, it’s the conviction that you are better than the others.’ All three writers doubt, with good reason, so the entire plot feels hollow at its core. Even the twist at the end is predictable and grubby. It’s misogenistic too: all the finalists are male, which seems unlikely, and so is the other main player, The Publisher. Women almost invariably appear only in ancillary roles, appendices to their men, though ironically (again) it is The Beginner’s Girlfriend who wins through as the one character in the book with balls and anything approaching maturity, perception or self-knowledge. Perhaps emptiness is ultimately the point of this novel. Clever, maybe, but it hardly makes for a good read.
The translation, incidentally, is generally spry and sharp, projecting the ironic tone of the text. But is there such a thing as a ‘sleeveless [man's] shirt’? Doesn’t a ‘shirt’ by definition have sleeves and a collar? Do we have here a short-sleeved shirt, or a singlet (the former, surely, since it is worn to work by The Publisher)? This is a diverting question, rather less irksome, in fact, than most of the novel itself. Along with The Writer’s aforementioned wardrobe moment, and a couple of daft doings involving shoes, it offers some all-too-brief but enlivening sartorial amusement.