Now in its 37th year, Vogel’s Literary Award has become an institution. Awarded to an unpublished manuscript by a writer under 35, it has helped launch the careers of authors such as Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, Andrew McGahan and Gillian Mears. It has delivered a literary scandal in the shape of Helen Darville/Demidenko. And it has offered a fascinating window to the transformation of Australian culture and society across the past four decades.
Although several recent winners have been highly original in their conception, there’s little doubt this year’s, Marija Pericic’s The Lost Pages, is strikingly so, taking the friendship between Franz Kafka and his friend and editor Max Brod and transforming it into a narrative that is deliberately Kafkaesque.
The story of the relationship between the two men is well known. The dying Kafka instructed Brod to burn unread “everything I leave behind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches and so on”. Brod refused, later declaring Kafka “should have appointed another executor if he had been absolutely and finally determined that his instructions should stand”.
He instead sets about revising his friend’s remaining work, the publication of which cemented Kafka’s reputation as one of the geniuses of 20th-century literature.
Pericic’s novel does not so much insert itself into the relationship between the two men as The Lost Pages By Marija Pericic Allen & Unwin, 269pp, $29.99 Closing Down By Sally Abbott Hachette, 282pp, $29.99 reimagine it wholesale. Purporting to be a section of Brod’s memoir assembled from handwritten notes in exercise books, photographs and documents, it arrives garlanded with all the apparatus of scholarly study: editor’s notes and afterword, footnotes, inserted words and sentences where water damage has made the original illegible. It recounts the appearance of Kafka in Brod’s life and the consequent disorder and confusion that creates.
The version of events presented in the novel diverges from the accepted account in many respects (not least in chronology: although the The Australian/ Kafka’s identity mapping on to numerous potential subjects. Even Brod, with his twisted legs and spine, finds others becoming confused about his identity, mistaken not just for Franz but for his own dead brother.
Although Pericic writes with admirable clarity and considerable energy, at a line-by-line level the novel only intermittently captures the sheer strangeness of Kafka’s fiction, its aphoristic brilliance and peculiar combination of precision and indeterminacy. Yet despite that The Lost Pages is a strikingly assured and wonderfully original performance. For as Brod’s frustration and despair grow ever more intense the fascination with obsession and identity, doubling and impostors, acquires real charge, provoking larger questions about the nature of literary identity, fiction and fictionality, and finally — and most satisfyingly — the fictionality of authorship itself.
The Richell Prize was established in 2014 in memory of Hachette publisher Matt Richell, who died in a surfing accident that year. Like the Vogel it is aimed at emerging writers, with two differences: first, there’s no age limit; second, the writer must be unpublished. The award teams winning writers with professional mentors before editing and publication.
Sally Abbott’s Closing Down is the first Richell winner. Set a few decades from now, the novel takes place in a world in upheaval, its borders and systems deranged by climate change and geopolitical turmoil.
The exact nature of much of this turmoil is
Vogel’s Literary Award winner Marija Pericic