Literary lists and twists

The shortlist for the biggest literary award in the United Kingdom, the Man Booker, was announced this week, and immediately a flurry of comments burst forth — many of them expressing astonishment. Especially as, much to the disappointment of Allan Hollinghurst fans, he wasn’t on the list. Occasionally, the awards do spring an element of surprise — perhaps partly due to the increasingly eclectic mix of judges, now a robust line-up of politicians and professionals from all walks of life — not just literary buffs and publishers.

This time, interestingly, there is a former head of the MI5, Stella Rimington, who is the chair of the awards — and she was quite firm in her opinion about the selection. “We want people to buy these books and read them,” she said “Not buy them and admire them.”
(The choice of Ms Rimington made me wonder when we would, in India, ever see the day when a former head of the CBI or any other investigative agency would judge a literary prize!)
However, Ms Rimington’s pragmatic opinion is not something you can argue with! And so the list could actually be called “popular”. The books range from a Western set in gold rush California to life according to a very young immigrant living in a London council house. Yet each book shows an enormous breadth of vision. Within the six short-listed books, there are four British authors. The hot favourite is also someone I have a lot respect for: Julian Barnes. He has been shortlisted three times before. I thoroughly enjoyed his Arthur & George — and am looking forward to this latest, very brief (its just 150 pages) offering which has swept the sweepstakes. Everyone is betting on The Sense of An Ending and as one of the judges said succinctly, the length of the book is irrelevant. It represents “the total distillation of ideas he has been rehearsing for almost all his working life,” she said. Wow!
The inclusion of a “Western” in the shortlist is intriguing as I used to be inordinately fond of the genre as a child! It is becoming increasingly rare these days. The Sisters Brothers is about two assassins, Charli and Eli Sisters, who want to bump off a prospector called Hermann Kermit Warm, and for this they travel from Oregon to California. Sounds like fun! But it is The Sense of An Ending that is drawing all attention. It is about memory and what we choose to remember. A middle-aged man confronts his past and finds things quite different to what he had imagined.
This time round there are no Indians in the shortlist and perhaps just as we are slipping in cricket it might be time for us to re-examine our “emerging” power in literature. Was it just a temporary blip?
While still on “bookery”, amazingly, the latest film to take Britain by storm is based on the old favourite, Wuthering Heights. It is astounding how many times old well-loved British classics (a bit like Sarat Chandra’s Devdas) are re-made and how popular the Bronte sisters continue to be. This time, Wuthering Heights has a black Heathcliff. (My immediate question was: why not an Indian? I think Hrithik Roshan could have done the role beautifully!) It was just shown at the Venice Film Festival and has created a total sensation. For a novel published in 1847, much before the invention of cinema, it has seen all kinds of actors playing Heathcliff, including Laurence Olivier and Ralph Fiennes. It began its cinematic journey as a silent film and has even been made into a musical, starring Cliff Richards!
But a black Heathcliff? Wouldn’t that have required a whole new look and biography for the tempestuous lover of the doomed Cathy? Well, that’s exactly what the adventurous director, Andrea Arnold has done. She has used animalistic fervour in shooting the love-making and has not shied away from nudity, taking the film to new Heights (pun intended)!
Saying that she really wanted to honour Bronte, the director, nonetheless took a fair share of poetic license. In the film, Heathcliff (played by the relatively unknown James Howson) is brought home by Yorkshire hill farmers from Liverpool. But sadly, he becomes a victim of racist behaviour and of course then enters into a stormy relationship with Cathy. Kaya Scodelario, a graduate of the Channel 4 series Skins, plays Cathy, Heathcliff’s eternal love.
Thus, modern interpretations of classics are pushing the original story much, much further than the author had even dreamt of and why not?
It is probably with the same thought that Michael Winterbottom has shot his latest film, Trishna, now all set to premier at the Toronto International Film Festival. This is a remake of Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. The Hindi version, Trishna, is set in modern times, in Rajasthan, and stars Freida Pinto and Riz Khan.
But even more fascinating will be the long-awaited Hindi film version of Great Expectations. Slated for an early release, the film will transpose a classic tale from 19th century Britain to 21st century India. Seamlessly.
The rags to riches story as well as the reunion with a childhood love is what a million Bollywood tales are made of! Only, like many of the old masters, Charles Dickens had imagined it first.

Kishwar Desai can be contacted at

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