When news arrived recently of the Orange Inheritance series, a selection of titles being published by Vintage in celebration of sixteen years of the Orange prize I was very quick off the mark and a set arrived within days. Quick because the six titles, with a couple of exceptions, are a little out of the ordinary, if not unusual and unexpected, making an interesting blend and I wanted to see them.
I'm dipping in and out of this year's Orange longlist, concentrating on the serious end rather than the lighter or seemingly more experimental titles, and that's all hopelessly judgemental and subjective, and relevant only to my current reading mood rather than any reflection on the quality of the books.
Witness my recent sense of humour failure with The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus, reading mood and context can be everything. Not an Orange contender obviously, but many are tipping it for Booker stardom so you are bound to hear more about a book that is employing some very tricksy publicity angles ensuring that, love it or hate it, an afterparty is exactly what this book is creating in its wake.
Kimbofo loved it, KevinFromCanada didn't, so if you missed the debate last week nip over to Kevin's blog where I have shared my thoughts on his review as to why I was completely the wrong reader for this book .. let's just say it wasn't Kevin's best read of the year either.
Leo Benedictus has joined the debate in most gentlemanly fashion, father of Leo Benedictus has joined the debate in most fatherly fashion and I have no doubt his mum's probably pouring the gin all round, because the world and its mother have gatecrashed this particular afterparty for which no invitation required. Jonathan Cape the publishers must be thrilled and delighted with the number of guests pushing in the doors to say something, tipping one hundred comments last time I baled out for some air vowing to have a quiet night in...but I keep going back for more.
Last year the Canadian Curmudgeon (his own description, not mine) accorded similar low status to The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson and we all know what happened next... best get your bets on now, he has a real gift for this sort of thing.
It seems that celebrations of something or other are becoming an essential add-on to these literary prizes and I'm not even going to begin to reason why, I'll just enjoy the books that find themselves in the spotlight as a result. In this instance Orange asked a bevvy of previous prize winners to nominate the book they would most like to place in the hands of the next generation and here's the result.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf selected by Helen Dunmore, Orange Prize winner in 1996
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy selected by Anne Michaels, Orange Prize winner in 1997
Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman chosen by Linda Grant, winner of the Orange Prize in 2000
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell selected by Ann Patchett, Orange Prize winner in 2002
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates selected by Lionel Shriver, Orange Prize winner in 2005
Eugénie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac selected by Rose Tremain, Orange Prize winner in 2008
Probably the only occasion a publisher is going to knowingly and justifiably stray into the Penguin colour chart and of course it's good to see Virginia Woolf and dear old Tess of the D'urbs in there. I am more than delighted to see both William Maxwell and Balzac too, books I have written about on here, whilst Richard Yates will be new to me, and nor did I see the film of Revolutionary Road, but what of Linda Grant's choice Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman?
Each prizewinner has written the introduction to their choice and, being in full-on Russian mode at the moment, but not really knowing what to expect, I idly picked up Life and Fate to read Linda Grant's introduction. I'm now not quite sure it's ever possible to 'idly pick up' a book like this and not feel the need to make an instant commitment to reading it. 800+ pages that having been written through the 1950s were then confiscated in their entirety by the KGB in 1961. No other book apart from The Gulag Archipelago was ever considered such a threat.
Told that the novel would not be published in the Soviet Union for three hundred years, Vasily Grossman suprisingly kept his freedom and continued to fight for the same liberty, sadly unsuccesfully, for his 'arrested' book. He died in 1964 and as far as was known Life and Fate had died with him, until a liberated copy appeared in France in the 1980s when it became clear that the microfilm had been smuggled out to the West.
How plucky in that case of Orange to publish such a book, and thus giving lie to the assertion that this prize is all about women, but what a fortuitous opportunity for Linda Grant too, who has been urging everyone to read it since she first did so seven years ago, in the hope that they may, perhaps like her, also experience Grossman's ' furious joy of life itself ' whilst feeling as she has done ' that they are entering the heart of the twentieth century, feeling its pulse.'
Frequently compared to War and Peace, Life and Fate, in the words of Linda Grant
'encompasses the whole of Soviet life, from Stalin down to the luckless peasant in the line of fire...'
whilst also elaborating on something fundamental to all humankind.
'The right to be oneself. however modestly ordinary that self is... Grossman's plea to be left alone, continues to resonate, whether it is a man building a cathedral out of matchsticks or a teenager choosing a mobile phone ringtone. Without these modest peculiarities we are ciphers.'
I warmed to that suggestion readily, turned over the page, started reading the book and was fifty pages in and consumed before I realised it. How this is going to fare alongside War and Peace I have no idea, two chunksters on the go at once, I'll need a trolley and it could all end in tears. But I can already see, as Grossman's account of the siege of Stalingrad unfolds, that the books are likely to interrogate each other with ideas. This could be the very best time for me to read it, I might be Russia-d out by the time we reach the September finish line with Team Tolstoy.
Grossman's observations on the heat of battle for example,
'A deep change of perception takes place at this mysterious turning point: a gallant, intelligent 'We' becomes a frail timid 'I' , while the enemy changes from a hunted isolated prey to a terrible threatening 'Them'.
or the misunderstandings between the Soviet prisoners-of-war
'...The more they talked and argued the less they understood each other. In the end they fell silent, full of mutual contempt and hatred.
And in this silence of the dumb and those speeches of the blind, in this medley of people bound together by the same grief, terror and hope, in this hatred and lask of understanding between men who spoke the same tongue, you could see much of the tragedy of the twentieth century.'
Has anyone else read Life and Fate?
Is there hope for me?
Will I survive?