The Goldsmiths Prize: Where the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction cede to creativity

After the Booker Prize's announcement that it will accept English-language across the globe, the Goldsmiths Prize occupies a unique position. Its debut shortlist was revealed this morning.

Blake Morrison, lecturer in poetry at Goldsmiths University, has written that the presiding genius of the new Goldsmiths Prize will be that of Laurence Sterne: the novelist and priest whose genre-bending masterpiece Tristram Shandy continues to subvert readers’ expectations 300 years after it was first published. But really, judging by the shortlist announced this morning, it seems the spectre that will haunt the prize is that of W G Sebald.

Some of the most satisfying new novels of the last two years have taken Sebald’s ambulatory blend of fiction and fact, and made of them something funny and new, which speaks to our historical moment. Now that the Booker has entered into the same broad territory as its newest rival the Folio Prize – both with much larger prize funds than the Goldsmiths’ – the Goldsmiths Prize occupies a unique position. Not only is it the last large prize with the capacity to raise obscure and interesting British authors to international prominence (along with their publishers), it is the only prize which focuses on innovation first and foremost.

Jim Crace’s atmospheric Harvest, which looks likely to triumph at this year’s Booker Prize, tells the story of the widowed Walter Thirsk, who recalls the cataclysmic harvest week in which a wandering family arrives, uprooted by enclosure, signalling an end of collective rural values. Nicola Barker, one of the prize judges, has called David Peace’s Red or Dead “a broken heart and a nervous breakdown.” It is a cumulative, repetitive statement of might-have-beens centred on the life of former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly. Just as Sebald’s opus Austerlitz blends history, biography and fiction, Peace’s book is written out of a deep, personal preoccupation with its protagonist, rather than a desire to please. Similarly Ali Smith’s Artful. In selecting this short book the panel of judges have made a bold statement about their interest in books that are novel, rather than novels. Artful takes the form of an essay selection, or a series of lectures. It invites the reader into the home of its bereaved narrator, who uses her memories as a counterpoint to draw conclusions on the world art of and literature.

Three smaller publishers have made it onto the list alongside the more established houses Picador, Penguin and Faber. Melville House, founded in 2001 and operating out of London and New York, Galley Beggar Press, founded in 2011 and based in Norwich, and Reality Street, based in Hastings. Lars Iyer, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Newcastle, has been shortlisted for his funny, sad “tour of the ruins of the humanities”. Exodus is fiction as argument, written in the dialectical tradition, about everything in British culture that is priceless and irreplaceable. A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing by Irish/British novelist Eimear McBride took nine years to find a publisher (a similar story to the recent “industry success story” A Naked Singularity by Sergio de la Pava), while the background to Philip Terry’s Tapestry seems placed as if to taunt the Booker Prize board by focusing on the creation of a symbol of Britain's creation mythology: the sewing of the Bayeux tapestry.

One thing these books all share is the threat of the dread label “experimental fiction”. They may seem needlessly difficult, or opaque to some, but to their admirers they are refusing to compromise their vision, even as the wheels fall off the publishing machine. Now more than ever literature must expand its horizons. Where the “anti-novel jihadist” David Shields recommended a swift death for large, sprawling novels in Reality Hunger, the Goldsmiths Prize encourages innovation, while refusing to give up on creation ex nihilo. It will encourage young writers to write boldly, to remain faithful to their instincts, and to be formally inventive. It will provide a breakwater against the common fear of a culture in which artists are dogged by the constant fear of Amazon reviews. At least, I hope it will.

The winner of the £10,000 Goldsmiths Prize will be announced on 13 November 2013

From top-left to right: Philip Terry, Eimear McBride, Lars Iyer, Ali Smith, Jim Crace and David Peace. Images: Naoya Sanuki, Andrew Bainbridge and Sarah Wood.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism