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The British are Coming! To the International Festival of Authors Parry Sound

The British are Coming! To the International Festival of Authors Parry Sound

On Monday evening 1 November at 7:30 pm the International Festival of Authors brings four internationally renowned authors to Parry Sound. Canadians Katherine Govier and Sandra Birdsell, and British authors Andrea Levy and Tom McCarthy, will take to the stage at the Charles W. Stockey Centre.

Last week I wrote about the Canadians, Katherine Govier and Sandra Birdsell, and this week I will write about the Brits, Andrea Levy and Tom McCarthy.

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Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island won the Whitbred Book of the Year and the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2004, and is a book I often recommend to readers. It is the story of a young woman coming to England – home – from Jamaica, at the time of the Second World War. Small Island is one of those perfect books, beautifully written, insightful, informative and very funny.

We’ve waited six years for a new novel from Andrea Levy, and we now have The Long Song, recently short-listed for the prestigious Man Book Prize. The story begins – and ends – in 1898 – but travels into the past, through memory, to an earlier time. The place is Jamaica and the story told is that of a woman, born as a slave, but now living in freedom in her old age. She is July, daughter of a slave woman and her white master. As a child, July lives in two worlds – in both the slave quarters and the home of her white father. I found the history of Jamaica captivating – the world of the British sugar plantations, the privileged lives of the white owners and their wives in their fine houses, and the separate world of the slaves. The time of the Baptist uprising makes for fascinating reading, a brutal time for all involved, slaves and plantation owners, as slavery is coming to an end on the island. Freedom for the slaves will bring a fundamental change to Jamaica and the world that July’s son will live in, in freedom, is a world away from the time in which his mother lived – he learns as much about that time as the reader does through the memories of July.

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Tom McCarthy, I will admit, is a writer whose work was unfamiliar to me until it was announced that he would be coming to Parry Sound. He is certainly not unknown now – his most recent novel, C, was also short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and with a front page review in the New York Times Book Review he’s getting the sort of publicity writers and publishers dream about.

In an interview this fall in the British paper The Newstatesman, Tom McCarthy is questioned, “Your first novel, Remainder, was fiercely contemporary, but C is set at the turn of the 20th century. What made you write a historical novel? McCarthy answers, “I don't see it as a historical novel. It's not a study of that time, of Edwardian London or Europe. Maybe you get some of that as a side effect, but I'm more interested in something that's at the same time very contemporary and very ancient, which is the relationship between language and technology and the human subject. But yes, the period particularly interested me because of the emergence of radio and the golden years of modernism. It's the time when "The Waste Land" and Ulysses were both written.

Questioned about the scenes set during the First World War, McCarthy says, “I've always wanted to write something like that, about being up in the air in the First World War. But I'm plugging into something different from the Wilfred Owen view of war; I'm looking at it like Marinetti. He basically thought that war is great, war is pure poetry. I find the anti-humanist, avant-garde tradition more dynamic and also (though it might be provocative to say this) more truthful. When I listen to interviews with First World War veterans conducted in the 1970s, they start out saying, "War's terrible but I had to do my bit for king and country," but then ten minutes later they're saying how exhilarating it is to be roaring through space in a beautiful machine.”

When asked if McCarthy would refer to himself as an avant-garde writer, he answers, “One has to be careful how one uses these terms. "The avant-garde" describes a specific historical moment that belongs to the early part of the 20th century. Certainly in C there is a huge amount of that moment behind the writing; the avant-garde is definitely embedded in it. But at the same time I think it gets used as catch-all term now for something that isn't retrograde, anything that's not a kind of nostalgic, kitsch version of the 19th-century novel, which is what much of middlebrow fiction right now is.

I grew up on Shakespeare; I love Donne, Marvell, Defoe, Richardson, Dickens and, of course, Conrad. But after that, British writing just peters out. From the mid-to-late 20th century there just isn't anything British that inspires me - apart from the work of J G Ballard, who was a genius. 
I think Britain turned its back on modernism and isn't dealing with its legacy. You can't ignore it. You can no more ignore Joyce than you can Darwin. If you ignore Darwin, you're a creationist, and this is where I think the bulk of "commercial", "middlebrow" or whatever you want to call the mainstream, British novel is now: back in the 19th century. In fact, it's not even the real 19th century, as the 19th century was quite dynamic and innovative.”

It is going to be a very interesting evening! We promise you an evening that will be literally enlightening and exhilarating - don’t miss the opportunity to hear these authors read from their work at the Charles W. Stockey Centre on Monday 1 November at 7:30 pm.

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