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Lost Booker Prize: Reviving interest in nearly forgotten novelists

May 18, 2010

Mary Renault: Portrait of the artist as a young lesbian.

The winner of the “Lost Booker Prize,” to be announced tomorrow, is almost irrelevant. The gimmick is already a  splendid success –drawing attention to six semi-forgotten novelists, not least among them the odd hybrid known as Mary Renault.

The Lost Booker, remember, picks up that stitch in time — 1971 — when the award was switched from April to November, a move that meant that books appearing in 1970 were never considered for the prize.

As reported in the Guardian, the Lost Booker Prize was “dreamed up” by literary agent Peter Straus. Three judges — a poet, a TV newscaster and a journalist — arrived at a shortlist of six novels from 1970. Final voting, however, was open to the public.

Finalists: The Birds in the Trees, by Nina Bawden; Troubles, by J.G. Farrell; The Bay of Noon, by Shirley Hazzard; Fire From Heaven, by Mary Renault; The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Spark; The Vivisector, by Patrick White.

These were all big-deal writers in their day, but does anyone read them anymore? Only two — Hazzard and Bawden — are still living. “It’s astonishing,” the 85-year-old Bawden told the London Times. “Because I thought I knew all my books backwards but I couldn’t remember what this one was about.”

What a list of vivid literary personages! Farrell survived polio to write tragicomic novels of Britain’s disintegrating empire–only to  drown while fishing on the coast of Ireland. Hazzard, born in Australia, holds citizenship in Britain and the United States, and though she’s never before been so much as long-listed for the Man Booker, she has won the National Book Critics Circle Award (The Transit of Venus; 1980) and the National Book Award (The Great Fire; 2003), two top American prizes.

Australian Patrick White is described by the Canaadian LGBT site, Band of Thebes, as an “openly gay Nobel Prize” laureate “who never wrote gay characters in his novels.” Muriel Spark, best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a sly and slippery send-up of British fascism (among other things), was a Catholic convert who hid her mother’s Jewish origins, disinherited her son, left her estate to her female companion of 38 years, and insisted (“perhaps too much”) that she was not a lesbian.

If only because I remember Mary Renault as a best-selling writer of the ’60s and ’70s, when I was coming of age, she is the one whose backstory surprises the most. Based on her frequent romantically titled novels, I took her as a popularizer of history, along the lines of Mary Stewart or Frank Yerby. It’s a shock to see her listed for the Lost Booker.

Turns out Renault was a pioneer, writing some of the earliest novels featuring gay heroes (Fire From Heaven is about Alexander the Great’s love for Hephaestion). She was a lesbian who openly lived openly  (in South Africa, of all places) with her life companion, Julie Mullard, who she met in 1933. Yet she never embraced the gay pride/gay rights movement that emerged well before her death in 1983.

The Guardian has thoughtfully provided fresh reviews, by Sam Jordison, of the Lost Booker finalists. He praises Renault’s narrative “urgency,” “splendid” scenery and “vivid recreations of court life.” Not as brilliant as J.G. Farrell, Jordison concludes, but “a lot of fun.”

If anyone has ready any or –better yet — all of these novels, please share your thoughts. And who do you think will win? I’m guessing Hazzard…

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    May 18, 2010 2:29 pm

    Wonder why Renault didn’t embrace gay rights?

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    May 18, 2010 2:49 pm

    My guess: She was a person of her time (b. 1905), carrying vestigial notions and prejudices not in sync with what she otherwise lived and believed. This is true of all of us, though seldom as starkly visible.

  3. rachel permalink
    May 18, 2010 2:56 pm

    I haven’t read any of them. Although they all sound interesting. Thanks Chauncey Mabe.

  4. Candice Simmons permalink
    May 19, 2010 8:52 am

    My list of books to read just grows and grows and grows.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 19, 2010 10:58 am

      Hold on: It’s about to grow some more.

  5. May 19, 2010 11:22 am

    I haven’t read any of them either. I guess I have even MORE things to add to my To Read List.


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