My week has been anything but literary, as I was away with work in a sweltering Rome - a place where you feel its almost criminal not to be thinking about art, poetry and philosophy.
So I missed the Booker longlist announcement. The main thing this year, year 2 of it allowing American novels, is that its bounced back a little to the old Booker of the empire - so its USA 5 Britain and Ireland 4, Rest of the World 4; a bit like the Ryder Cup in golf in other words. So vast are the amount of American novels each year, I'd be surprised if we saw any less. What this says for British literary culture - just three novels, by O'Hagan, McCarthy and Sunjeev Sahota - I hardly know: not a single novel by a British female writer worthy of a longlist mention this year? Such is the nature of expanding the field. I can't say it sounds a vintage list, but the Booker hasn't been particular sure of its course for a good few years now - with a seemingly random book choice, being narrowed down somewhat arbitrarily, and one book being picked as first among equals without there being much rhyme or reason to it (such is the nature of book prizes.) Nationality aside, there seems to be quite a few "issues" based books on the list, with a usual Booker propensity for a historical novel or two. Unusually, (but pleasingly), the majority of the list have already been published. Let battle commence.
I suspect a hundred years ago, that "The Rainbow","Of Human Bondage," "The Voyage Out", "The 39 Steps" and "The Good Soldier" might not have been the judge's shortlist, though they are the books that have lasted. The BBC has been a bit sluggish about reflecting a hundred years of modernism, so I was excited to hear that last week they were premiering a new series "Life in Squares" about the Bloomsbury Set. Yet whether I was a bit tired last night as I watched on catch up, or whether the bewilderingly large cast (and the notoriously complicated relationships) of this "set" made it hard to engage with, I found it a bit disappointing. Do we even "do" the Bloomsbury set anymore? English modernism is an interesting subject, mostly for what it was not, rather than what it was - and though it was painting that brought Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and the older Roger Fry together, it was only in literature - and the novel, not poetry - where English writers really embraced modernism. Elsewhere its Americans (Epstein, Pound, Eliot) or the Irish (Joyce, Beckett) where greatness lay.
But of course, we still talk about Bloomsbury for at least one reason, and that is Virginia Woolf, the unexpected breakout star of that shiny group of individuals. Unexpected because it is the Cambridge-educated gay men - Strachey, Grant, Maynard Keynes - who were the key players at the time, though the Stephen sisters - Vanessa and Virginia - are the fulcrum of the group. There was a TV dramatisation of the Pre-Raphaelites a couple of years ago that was colourful and fun, called "Desperate Romantics", I enjoyed it thoroughly despite (or because of) it playing fast and loose with history. I'm not sure what we did to deserve the full BBC costume drama approach to "Life in Squares" but it seems dark and drab, and could have done with a less serious, less respectful approach. I'd have liked to have seen it done like a series of "Skins" with maybe a story per episode - and a bit of on-screen intervention, like "Maynard, Economist" or "Vanessa, painter" - or even a bit of an idea about when exactly it was set.
I'll go back to it - as I've gone back to a Woolf biography - for though the main fascination with Bloomsbury has always been partly because of their upper class bohemianism, its "Mrs. Dalloway" and "To the Lighthouse" that explain why we are still interested.
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