Soma loving

Literary prize culture, if such a thing may be said to exist, never rests. Just consider the past month’s literary prize activity, for example. The Walter Scott prize for historical fiction has announced its shortlist (which includes the traditional appearance from The Magician by Colm Tóibín); The organizers would like it to be known that this shortlist is the first in the prize’s thirteen years not to include an English writer (the shortlistees are “two Scots, one Irishman and an Irish-Trinidadian”). The International Booker prize shortlist includes six books originally published in six different languages, although, less diversely, Frank Wynne, the Chair of judges, has published several translations with one publisher responsible for two of those books, and the other translator on the panel, Jeremy Tiang, has a translation coming out soon with another (this, from 135 books, including a “record number of submissions received”, although it is not clear how many were submitted and how many were called in). The Highland book prize has also announced a shortlist (but remains more interesting for its incorporation of a “shadow judge” into the judging process, in the person of the novelist and poet Kevin MacNeil, who provides an “additional Gaelic perspective” on proceedings) . The Authors’ Club best novel award – which claims to be the oldest literary prize in Britain apart from the James Tait Black and the Hawthornden, established as it was in 1954 – has announced, you would believe it, a shortlist of six “terrific” debuts.

The Brunel International African poetry prize, meanwhile, has innovatively announced not merely a shortlist but its “retirement”. This prize was founded a decade ago by Bernardine Evaristo, who has also run it alone and partially funded it (but now has the presidency of the Royal Society of Literature to deal with). Appropriately enough, much of the poetry on this year’s shortlist is said to strike a “mournful” or “melancholic note”. But for prize monoculture – sic, surely – there is always hope. The prize will go on, thanks to the African Poetry Book Fund, as the Evaristo African poetry prize, and is worth a respectable £3,000 to the winner.

Here are some literary dates for your diary – it is safe to note them, we hope, now that they have passed us by.

World Book Day took place on March 3 this year. Then there was World Poetry Day on March 21. April 2 was International Children’s Book Day – the oldest of these three annual fixtures, established in 1967. (The other two date from the 1990s.) Subsequent inventions include Read in the Bathtub Day (in February) and Read an eBook Week (in March). Conflating these last two events is not a form of celebration that we could responsibly recommend.

You haven’t yet – unfortunately for you – missed out on all the fun. Just ahead of us, as we write, lies World Book Night, on April 23, when “84,000 books will be gifted to a range of organizations across the UK and Ireland including care homes, foodbanks, homeless hostels, hospitals and refugee charities as part of the World Book Night 2022 celebrations”. The press release we are quoting here describing this as a “campaign”, run by the Reading Agency charity; April 23 is also the UNESCO International Day of the Book. And don’t forget Limerick Day (May 12), Audiobook Appreciation Month (June), Book Lovers’ Day (August 9) or We Love Memoirs Day (August 31). Such occasions involve harmless pursuits in schools, we know, as well as in the remedial classes of social media. We only wonder what happens to all these lovers of books, of one stripe or another, during the rest of the year.

Determined to make absolutely sure that they are still getting their money’s worth out of Aldous Huxley, Vintage Classics have published two new editions of Brave New World in the past three months, by way of marking the novel’s ninetieth anniversary. First came a splendidly golden hardback, adorned with both Huxley’s foreword of 1946 – the novel had first appeared fourteen years earlier – and a brief but impeccably modern introduction by Yuval Noah Harari. “The most important technological revolution of the twenty-first century is the ability to hack human beings”, Harari writes, before praising Huxley’s novel as the “best guidebook to the future” there is.

Now comes Fred Fordham’s adaptation of Brave New World as a graphic novel (£20), following similar treatments of The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird from the same artistic hand. Huxley begins his story, superior to that well-known effort by George Orwell with which it is so often compared, at a “squat gray building of only thirty-four storeys”; This turns out to be the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. Fordham gets there after a few pages of prelude, depicting futuristic pleasure and pain, and thereafter proceeds quite dutifully onwards through the world of soma and Fordism, Shakespeare and sleep-learning, via some “rather technical” exposition concerning the Hatchery, to the Infant Nurseries – or Neo-Pavlovian Conditioning Rooms. Here, various human-hacking treatments, as depicted above, are under way.

What next for Vintage Classics, though? We look forward to next month’s edition of Brave New Worldpresenting it as a novel that speaks of its moment in history, nine decades ago, as well as the dystopian anxieties of today.

A little more ado about Much Ado. We plead guilty to writing in a mischievous spirit of Shakespeare’s comedy, suggesting that maybe it wasn’t quite as loved as it once was (April 1), and that there were alternatives people cherished more nowadays. Laurence Carter from Farnham writes to say that, as much he has enjoyed the “amusing chat” prompted by this outrageous piece of speculation, all that has been offered are “purely personal opinions” – “some like the play, others don’t, and so on” – and there is no point in trying to compare Much Ado About Nothing with Twelfth Night. “They cannot be compared.”

Mr Carter then proceeds to compare Much Ado with other plays by Shakespeare on what he describes as “more objective, more technical” grounds:

There is no doubt that Much Ado is one of Shakespeare’s best constructed plots (and he did also write some very clunky plots, Measure for Measure, Cymbeline among others). The construction is what gives the play much of its power and it is the more remarkable seeing that the plot consists of two separate elements; There is the original short story derived from an Italian novella, and then there are Beatrice and Benedick, the two wittiest and most charming characters he ever created, as Auden said. Shakespeare’s art is to combine these two elements into a seamless whole. The moment in the fourth act when the two are fused together (“Kill Claudio”) is one of the most shocking scenes in all his work.

If you ever need to explain to someone why people love Much Ado About Nothing nowadays, just show them this paragraph.

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