The first of the post-war World Fairs was held in Brussels in 1958: I remember it well. Jonathan Coe captures the flavour of it in his recent Expo 58 [London: Viking, 2014]. One of my own tweed designs was on show in the British Pavilion and for no better reason than that I travelled over to see it and to gaze in awe at the many international stands dominated by those of the USA and the USSR, rivals in everything from industry to ideology. What did Britain hope to gain from its participation? Coe sums up where Britain was starting from.
Howard Jacobson is a writer of consummate skill and his most recent novel with its shortest of all possible title J [London: Jonathan Cape, 2014] was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He won that prize in 2010 with the extremely witty and wonderfully funny The Finkler Question. Jacobson is very much a Jewish writer with Jewish characters, often it seems doppelgänger for the author, and Jewish themes and problems as the main strands of their narratives. However, he writes from a cultural rather than a religious perspective. So; what to make of J which one could say conforms to this pattern? That is a harder than usual question.
Devoted readers of Murakami’s novels, in more than forty languages, will wonder how it has taken me so long to get here. Now I have arrived, I am taking up permanent residence. 1Q84 [London; Vintage, 2012 translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel] was published in Japan in 2009/10 and it just happened to jump off the shelf when I was passing it recently. It’s a marvellous book that combines adventure, romance, philosophy, fantasy, deep understanding of loneliness and a compelling, beautifully written, page-turning narrative. What a discovery!
If you feel a need to have the story of Shakespeare’s Tempest retold then this, Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood [London: Hogarth 2016] is the way to do it. This is no mere pastiche. Reflecting Atwood’s seemingly effortless skill as a writer, she takes the themes of the play and creates a new, but somewhat less ‘magical’, island.
Antonia Byatt’s personal account of the end of the Gods. Ragnarok [Edinburgh: Canongate, 2012] owes its origin to wartime reading by a clearly autobiographic ‘thin girl’ who poured over a copy of Asgard and the Gods using a torch under the blankets. That early reading and regular re-reading led the thin girl’s enquiring mind to read deeply and broadly about Norse and other myths on the origin of the world and, due to their limited capacity for reason and rational analysis, the end of the Gods.