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Rewriting Hilary Mantel

Rewriting Hilary Mantel

A brilliantly garbled short item on about Hilary Mantel’s memories of winning the Booker Prize for the first time, with Wolf Hall in 2009, is what’s known as “comedy gold”. Either courtesy of spellcheck or a translation app, Mantel’s words take on new life. “I said I’d spend the money on intercourse, drugs and rock ’n’ roll”, she apparently said. The more normal “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” getting a linguistic upgrade. Of the award ceremony itself, she recalled: “I used to be feeling ailing that evening, and I believed, ‘If I lose, no less than I can go house.’” Go house indeed. Even the book’s title gets a makeover: “The expression, ‘It’s like Wolf Corridor,’ has handed into the language, to explain political infighting.” Wolf Hall or Wolf Corridor, take your pick. . . The alternative is that Dame Hilary had suddenly started to talk like Yoda from Star Wars.

Mantel’s second Booker Prize winner, Bring Up the Bodies, has just claimed the number one slot in the Independent’s list of the top 40 books of the decade. No fewer than 16 Booker Prize writers feature on the list, among them a clutch of winners, including Anna Burns, Paul Beatty, Marlon James and Margaret Atwood. This representation is no mean feat given that the list of 40 includes non-fiction as well as fiction.

Olga Tokarczuk received her Nobel Prize for Literature this week from King Carl Gustav XVI of Sweden.  Recipients traditionally donate a personal item to the Nobel museum: Tokarczuk gave her personal diary from 2018, a sort of scrapbook of appointments, travel tickets and random jottings. She also delivered a lecture about the nature of writing called “The Tender Narrator”. In it she discussed writing in the digital age as a “polyphony of first-person narratives”: “Thus literature has become a field for the exchange of experiences, an agora where everyone can tell of their own fate, or give voice to their alter ego,” she said. “It is therefore a democratic space – anyone may speak up, everyone can create a speaking voice for herself.” What’s more, “Never in the history of humanity have so many people been writers and storytellers.” This last point is undoubtedly true which makes the achievement of Tokarczuk – standing out in such a noisy and crowded field – all the more impressive.

As if to show the punch of fiction and the Booker Prize, Anna Burns has made it on to a list of “The 10 best things that happened in Ireland in the past decade.” There, among such decade-defining events as the legalisation of same-sex marriage and abortion, Ireland beating the All Blacks at rugby, and Game of Thrones being filmed in County Down, is Milkman’s 2018 Man Booker Prize win. Burns didn’t just do readers proud but her nation too.

Lucy Ellmann, Booker Prize shortlisted this year for Ducks, Newburyport, was nearly lost to literature. Her ambition initially was to become a different type of artist. “I wanted to be a sculptor,” she confessed recently. And what stopped her? “I didn’t really enjoy the cold and manky atmosphere of art schools. I’m a wimp.” The clincher though in ensuring that a life of clay and bronze was not for her was “an unspoken prejudice against female sculptors, which subtly undermined me”.