Tomorrow morning, six authors will find themselves one step closer to literature’s holy grail, when the Man Booker shortlist is announced. And it is (I smugly declare, as one of the judges of this year’s prize) an excellent list, which will put some terrific books on the bedside tables of a lot of readers. It’s not the prize money which will make a difference to the eventual winner, so much as the raft of new opportunities which will come along after the victory
Today, Hogarth have announced two additions to their Shakespeare project (for which hotshot literary novelists retell Shakespeare plays in prose form): Margaret Atwood, who won the Man Booker in 2000, and our very own Howard Jacobson, who won in 2010. Atwood will take on The Tempest, which makes sense given her passion for myths and monsters. Jacobson, meanwhile, will re-work The Merchant of Venice: the perfect choice for a writer whose Booker-winning novel, The Finkler Question, was all about what it means to be Jewish.
No doubt Shakespeare-purists will be livid at the very idea that someone might touch the sacred texts. But I can’t wait to see what Atwood and Jacobson do with such glittering raw material. Atwood has form for reworking a classic, after all: The Penelopiad, her version of the Odyssey, focussed on his patiently-waiting wife, is an exquisite piece of writing. And if you aren’t going to be intimidated by Homer, you can probably stand up to Shakespeare.
My favourite Man Booker winners have always been the novelists who at least nod to dramatic structure: who don’t disdain tension or dramatic irony, because they mistakenly believe those belong to the low arts. Shakespeare had no such snobbery: to watch Romeo and Juliet is to agree to trying not to bellow, ‘Stop!’ at various characters for at least an hour and a half.
Atwood and Jacobson also two of the most poetic of Booker-winning novelists, which is hardly a surprise in Atwood’s case, since she also writes verse. Jacobson, meanwhile, chooses his words with the care of a comedian, knowing that word placement is as crucial as vocabulary if you’re going to make someone laugh. It’s not just what he says, but the way he says it.
Whenever Shakespeare is performed in other languages, or whenever we see an English-language production of Sophocles, Racine or Lorca, we’re happy to embrace a translation. The only difference this time is the translation will go from stage to page.