Wednesday, 21 March 2007

A Good Ole Punch Up

Last week I received a nicely worded rejection letter from The Guardian in response to a suggestion I had made to them for a new satirical series. The most remarkable thing about this was how long it took to get a response. I had to hazily cast my mind back into the mists of time to when I actually made the suggestion - October last year I think - meaning that it had lurked in a very deep in-tray somewhere for five months. This almost equals the performance of Kodansha who managed to respond a full year after I had sent them the manuscript of The Tower of London telling me they might be interested in publishing it. By that time the book was on the cusp of being published by Peter Owen. I wonder if there is a publisher out there who is currently penning a letter along the lines of:

Dear J.K. Rowling,

Apologies for the delay in responding to your letter. We have been extremely busy here. However we are pleased to inform you that we might be interested in publishing your Harry Potter book...

On the subject of The Guardian, Peter Owen dropped me a line yesterday telling me that The Guardian is doing a big promotion on the fifty most important books of the twentieth century and wondering whether I would like to plug works by Soseki and Mishima. I'm not exactly a fan of the latter, but I duly obliged. The shortlist will apparently be chosen by a panel of 'experts' (which usually means people who know precisely bugger-all about world literature and want to bore you off your chair about Proust and Joyce for the millionth time). I've seen at least two of these 'books of the century' promotions before (one by The Sunday Times and one by Penguin Modern Classics) and they both managed to completely ignore the entire literature of Asia and Africa. The Sunday Times I think concluded that The Lord of the Rings was the greatest book ever written. Of course it is - if you happen to be an educationally challenged elf who has trouble reading.

It's been an interesting week. On Friday I was invited to a corporate hospitality day to celebrate St.Patrick's Day at a bar on Canal Street in Manchester. The drinking began at 2pm and in true Shane MacGowan/ Brendan Behan fashion we had the bar drunk dry of Guinness by 8pm, after which I repaired to my fine local. The following evening however I got my comeuppance when my jacket, containing my house and office keys, mobile and other things was seemingly stolen from the same establishment and I had to limp in the rain to a friend's house generally cursing humanity. At 1am I faced the grim prospect of having all the locks changed on my house by an emergency locksmith, but then, wonder of wonders, my fine friend Ken received a call on his mobile announcing that the jacket had been picked up by mistake and would be returned to the pub if I could be standing in front of it in half an hours time. Relief was not the word. And faith in humanity restored, I naturally had to celebrate St.Patrick for a third time with a few slow pints on Sunday...

My favourite news item of the week is that Gabriel Garcia Marquez has patched up his thirty year feud with Mario Vargos Llosa after the latter punched Marquez on the nose. Don't get me wrong - I wasn't pleased about the reconciliation, it was just good to know that someone had clocked Marquez. I don't know if it's still the case now but back when I was an undergraduate it was thought that the two great gods of modern literature were Marquez and Milan Kundera and you would meet no end of silly, wispy girls telling you that their favourite book was Love in a Time of Cholera. I naturally felt obliged to read most of Marquez's novels and absolutely everything by Milan Kundera. Now looking back, I reflect that I can't remember a single thing about any of these Kundera books and while Marquez is somewhat better and slightly more memorable, he is still enormously over-rated. The final straw for me came when I read that Marquez was the favourite writer of that uber-slimeball Bill Clinton.

But reading about the fisticuffs between Marquez and Llosa made me warm to them both. There seems to be something about the Hispanic World so that each country manages to produce just one writer of international fame (Mexico - Paz; Peru - Llosa; Argentina - Borges etc) and I always feel acutely my general ignorance, but reading all these Marquez novels somehow put me off exploring South American literature for a while. Yet reading about how Llosa and Marquez squared up to one another made me think of Hemingway and Fitzgerald in the boxing ring. Hemingway always used to compare writers to boxers and would jokingly refer to who would beat whom in a bout (Hemingway was good over three rounds, Tolstoy over fifteen and Shakespeare was the champion). So it's good to see life imitating art by showing that Marquez would have probably emerged with a black eye.

Still, as literature often tends to be far too twee, self-absorbed and removed from visceral passions, it's nice to picture Llosa and Marquez squaring off - I'm sure their books were better off for it.

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