A pair of

Ragged claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

THE Man Booker Prize short­list was an­nounced as this col­umn was go­ing to bed, as we say in the trade. Kiwi Eleanor Cat­ton, who we men­tioned here last week as be­ing, at 27, the youngest writer ever in con­tention, is the hope of the An­tipodes, with her 832-page novel The Lu­mi­nar­ies mak­ing the cut. We will re­view the book next week. The short­est book yet con­sid­ered, Colm Toibin’s The Tes­ta­ment of Mary, also made the fi­nal six. The other four are: NoVi­o­let Bu­l­awayo’s We Need New Names, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Low­land, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Be­ing and Jim Crace’s Har­vest, which re­mains the book­ies’ favourite. The win­ner will be an­nounced on Oc­to­ber 15. WHO wrote Shake­speare? It’s a ques­tion that fas­ci­nates and in­fu­ri­ates in equal mea­sure. For fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, how­ever, the an­swer will be sim­ple: why, Mar­garet At­wood, of course. And Howard Ja­cob­son. The Booker prizewin­ners are the lat­est writ­ers to sign on for the Hog­a­rth Shake­speare pro­ject, which aims to pub­lish mod­ern prose ‘‘retellings’’ of the Bard’s plays in time for the 400th an­niver­sary of his death in 2016. At­wood, a great imag­iner of other worlds, will re­write that tale of storm and sor­cery, The Tem­pest, while Ja­cob­son, who is Jewish, will pad up for the sticky wicket of The Mer­chant of Venice. ‘‘For an English nov­el­ist Shake­speare is where it all be­gins. For an English nov­el­ist who also hap­pens to be Jewish, The Mer­chant of Venice is where it all snarls up,’’ Ja­cob­son told Lon­don’s The Daily Tele­graph. ‘‘ ‘Who is the mer­chant and who is the Jew?’ Por­tia wanted to know. Four hun­dred years later, the ques­tion needs to be re­framed: ‘Who is the hero of this play and who is the vil­lain?’ And if Shy­lock is the vil­lain, why did Shake­speare choose to make him so?’’ Adding that he ‘‘must be mad’’, Ja­cob­son con­tin­ued, ‘‘Only a fool would think he has any­thing to add to Shake­speare. But Shake­speare prob­a­bly never met a Jew, the Holo­caust had not yet hap­pened, and an­ti­Semitism didn’t have a name. Can one tell the same story to­day, when ev­ery ref­er­ence car­ries a dif­fer­ent charge? There’s the chal­lenge. I quake be­fore it.’’ The un­flap­pable At­wood is not for quak­ing. The Tem­pest was one of her favourite works, she said, and ‘‘work­ing on it will be an in­vig­o­rat­ing chal­lenge’’. Ja­cob­son and At­wood join Jeanette Win­ter­son and Anne Tyler, who signed up re­cently for The Win­ter’s Tale and The Tam­ing of the Shrew re­spec­tively. The nov­els will be pub­lished by Hog­a­rth, an imprint of Pen­guin-Ran­dom House. More an­nounce­ments are ex­pected soon. Per­haps we can help them out with some sug­ges­tions. How about Bret Eas­ton El­lis for Mac­beth and EL James for Romeo and Juliet, for starters? SHAKE­SPEARE isn’t the only canon­i­cal writer un­der­go­ing ren­o­va­tion in the af­ter­life. In Novem­ber, English nov­el­ist Se­bas­tian Faulks will re­lease Jeeves and the Wed­ding Bells, which will see top fop Ber­tie Wooster and his in­de­fati­ga­ble gen­tle­man’s gen­tle­man Jeeves make their first ap­pear­ance in print in 40 years. Faulks, who had some suc­cess chan­nelling Ian Flem­ing in the 2008 James Bond novel Devil May Care, has said this is a far more daunt­ing task be­cause of PG Wode­house’s large and de­voted fan base, of which he claims life­long mem­ber­ship. Bri­tish critic Robert McCrum summed it up neatly: ‘‘For a PG Wode­house fan to write a new Jeeves novel is a bit like ask­ing a de­vout Chris­tian to come up with a fifth gospel.’’ You can only imag­ine the pay cheque is a de­cent one, as im­per­son­at­ing Flem­ing and Wode­house must keep Faulks away from his own work. For my money his Bird­song (1993) is one of the best war nov­els there is.

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