Sleight back

In the room, the literary prizes come and go, overlooking the merits of Michelangelo. The Goldsmiths prize, though, given annually to “a book that is deemed genuinely novel”, seems to be sticking around. It was established in 2013 and its first winner was Eimear McBride, for A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing; the tenth such lucky innovator in the novel form, announced last week, is Diego Garcia by Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams. This marks a rare occasion on which literary collaboration of any kind has received such an accolade, to the tune of £10,000.

The British Academy book prize (“for a non-fiction book … that has made an outstanding contribution to global cultural understanding”) is the same age, but is worth £25,000. This year’s winner is When Women Kill: Four crimes retold by Alia Trabucco Zerán, translated by Sophie Hughes. You’ll win a prize yourself if you can name three of the others.

Fans of large sums of money will be pleased to know that the Baillie Gifford prize for nonfiction (formerly known as the Samuel Johnson prize, which was in turn formerly known as the NCR book award) is worth twice as much as the British Academy book prize . We look forward to seeing – after this week’s announcement of the latest winner – if the current sponsor can sustain their largesse for a whole decade before another name change is called for.

In Haruki Murakami’s Novelist as a Vocation, meanwhile, translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen, may be found a bemused view of the whole game. “A literary prize can turn the spotlight on a particular work, but it can’t breathe life into it. It’s that simple.”

Readers with friends who think themselves bookish may wish to set them a little challenge for the year to come: may we recommend giving them a copy of Nemo’s Almanac? The latest round of this excellent literary competition, now in its 132nd year, asks if readers can identify quotations – a year’s worth of quotations, with a different theme from month to month – “by reference to author, work, and where appropriate stanza or line number of chapter, canto, book, act or scene”. Extra marks may be awarded for answers “found only by one or two competitors, and also for exceptionally good, interesting, or otherwise learned or entertaining answers”, at the discretion of the editor, Ian Patterson. “Guesses … are always a good idea, as I award marks for their proximity, inventiveness, or imaginative zest.” Googling is not supported. You’re only cheating yourself if you resort to the information superhighway to establish who wrote:

But oh! The drag and dullness of my self;
The turning seasons wither in my head;

A copy of the new Nemo, which is available now, costs £4; Make that three copies, if you want to get competitive about it, for £10. The website is easy to find – in contrast to the answers.

Poirot returned late that night. I did not see him until the following morning.” The first word of this quotation gives away the identity of the author. Yes, but in which of Agatha Christie’s thirty-three novels featuring Poirot did these words appear?

The answer: none of them. These lines originally appeared in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (re- issued last week by HarperCollins, £14.99), which happens to have been Christie’s first. They opened a climactic courtroom scene that her publisher, John Lane, judged improbable, and Christie rewrote.

This reissue of Styles – triumphantly gold-embossed hardback though it is – ought not to be mistaken for the first appearance of that canceled chapter in print. It first appeared in a paperback reissue of 2013. Our copy of the new one Styles did arrive, however, with an invidious piece of paper, of the species that the trade is pleased to call a press release. This piece of paper announces that the novel is “now published with a previously deleted chapter”. “Now”?

In the book business as in other businesses, we fear, such innocent sleights of hand are quite common. Another of this month’s exquisite hardbacks that has come our way offers a sleight that we may also regard as a slight.

Night train to the stars (Vintage, £14.99) features the superb fables of Kenji Miyazawa. It also features a foreword by David Mitchell and an introduction by Kaori Nagai. These contributions, as you might expect, are acknowledged on the reverse of the title page, their respective copyrights there affirmed. No such acknowledgment is given to the translator of these magical tales, John Bester (1927–2010), whose work on Miyazawa goes back at least as far as an earlier selection of stories called Winds and wildcat places (1967).

When Bester revised his translations in 1993, for an edition of Miyazawa he called Once and Forever, he omitted “Night Train to the Stars”; the original manuscript was “incomplete and muddled,” he said. Despite its fame in Japan, he felt that this was not a story by which to represent to Western readers an author who was “above all a poet and a perfectionist.”

So pick up the New York Review Books edition of Once and Forever (2018) and you’ll find that it lacks “Night Train to the Stars”. Now it’s back, in the prettiest edition of Miyazawa yet, while Bester’s useful foreword is gone and his biography expunged.

Mackenzie Crook may be best known as an actor, but – with both screen works and children’s books to his name – he is to be reckoned with as a writer as well. Fans of his work will also know he is an artist.

Into the red (British Trust for Ornithology, £25), curated by Kit Jewitt and Mike Toms, includes Mr Crook’s depiction of the lesser spotted woodpecker, reproduced above, as one among seventy such portrayals of the UK’s most endangered bird species. (There is a “Red List” of such species; hence the title of the book, the profits of which will go to the BTO and the Rare Breeding Birds Panel.) The Lesser Spotted, Ken and Linda Smith report here, has suffered a steep decline since the 1970s. Isabella Tree recalls the turtle dove being “the sound of lazy summers” during the 1960s. Benedict Macdonald describes the capercaillie as “a species that seems too improbable to exist” nowadays; he once spied on some (“each walking around, tail raised, in their own, self-important world of pomp”) in the seclusion of one of their favored forests. Spare a thought for the improbable capercaillie on your next holiday trek into the undergrowth.

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