On Tuesday evening at the Hay Festival, I went to see Alexander McCall Smith in conversation with S. J. Parris at the Tata tent.
McCall Smith recently won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction for his novel ‘Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party’. As well as being a literary prize for one of the more neglected genres of fiction, it is notable for its unusual reward. Rather than money, the winner receives a jeroboam of champagne, the 52 novels by P. G. Wodehouse and a Gloucester Old Spot pig named after the winning novel. The event began with McCall Smith being presented with the champagne and 1 of the 52 Wodehouse novels having met the pig earlier in the day (you can watch the meeting here).
As Parris noted in her introduction, McCall Smith has written over one hundred books and makes a lot of other so-called prolific authors seem rather lazy. He is perhaps best known for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series as well as the Scotland Street and Isabel Dalhousie novels amongst others. McCall Smith said that while all of these books contain elements of humour, they are not entirely comic novels and often deal with more poignant or tragic events too. Genres can be helpful for readers but he doesn’t want to be defined solely by the category of comic fiction and believes that humour works best when it focuses on small everyday matters.
One of the criticisms of McCall Smith’s work is that his Mma Ramotswe books are often very sentimental and rarely tackle the grim social realities facing Botswana. He says he never set out to write something balanced and that not every story needs to address these issues. Similarly, his view of Edinburgh in the Isabel Dalhousie and Scotland Street books is often idealised and very far removed from the Edinburgh featured in the novels of Ian Rankin or Irvine Welsh. McCall Smith’s stories tend to focus on puzzles or mysteries which need to be solved and he made the point that not all crime fiction needs to feature a murder, joking that other common crimes such as parking offences should be covered too.
My account of this event probably doesn’t really do justice to just how entertaining he is to listen to but McCall Smith is a wonderful teller of anecdotes and stories including a particularly memorable tale at the end of the event about a visit to Tuscany where the hire company didn’t have a car available and supplied a bulldozer instead. I think his work tends to have a reputation for just being “light” rather than comically funny. However, it takes real skill to bring genuine humour to fiction and I’m pleased he has received recognition for this talent by winning the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize.
Earlier this week, I booked a ticket to see this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize winner in conversation with panel judge and journalist Boyd Tonkin. On Wednesday, it was announced that Jenny Erpenbeck had won this year’s prize for her novel ‘The End of Days‘ translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky. Erpenbeck is the first living German author and only the second woman to be awarded the Prize. After much deliberation among the shadow panel last week, I’m pleased to announce we also chose ‘The End of Days’ as our winner before the result was announced. We gave a special mention to ‘Zone‘ by Mathias Énard while the official panel selected ‘In the Beginning Was the Sea‘ by Tomás González and translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne as their second choice.
Having mostly attended larger venues at the Hay Festival so far, the IFFP event was one of the more intimate events I went to in the Elmley Foundation Cube tent. Tonkin described ‘The End of Days’ in his introduction as a story which covers a century of tragedies, troubles, and also hope. The original intention was for Erpenbeck to give a reading in German and for Tonkin to read a passage in English, but they had forgotten to bring a German language copy of the book to the event. Instead, they both read in English from the memorable and moving passage from the first page of the book about a mother burying her child.
Erpenbeck wanted to explore the nature of death from different perspectives in different contexts. Her grandmother was a popular author in East Germany selling over one and a half million copies of her books and Erpenbeck structured ‘The End of Days’ around the places where she had lived over the twentieth century including Galicia, Vienna and Moscow. Growing up in East Berlin close to border with the West and how different generations responded to the fall of the Berlin Wall has also informed her work.
Susan Bernofsky also participated in the second half of the conversation. ‘The End of Days’ is the fourth of Erpenbeck’s books translated by Bernofsky and she spoke warmly of Erpenbeck’s beautifully crafted prose. Each sentence is its “own little masterpiece”, full of clauses but rhythmically smooth with a sense of forward motion. Bernofsky explained the process whereby she drafted her translation of the whole book and then collaborated with Erpenbeck afterwards with discussions around specific words and phrases.
I asked Erpenbeck if she had made the decision not to name her characters early in the writing process. She said the absence of names is also a feature of her earlier novels. She doesn’t think names are especially important and prefers to use terms such as “mother” or “daughter” to denote who is who and show that their roles change as they get older. However, her next book about African refugees in Berlin will use names in a more conventional way.
Overall, I have really enjoyed reading lots of new translated fiction by working my way through most of the IFFP longlist. It was the first time I have taken part in a shadow panel with other bloggers and I would definitely consider participating in something similar again in the future. I have bought a fair amount of translated fiction at the Hay Festival this week and look forward to discovering even more new authors from around the world.