Watch: Lars Iyer, Jim Crace, Philip Terry and Eimear McBride on the Dark Ages, sexy prizes and experimentation

Writers shortlisted for the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize read from their work and answer questions.

The £10,000 Goldsmith Prize seeks to reward innovation in fiction. It is in an exceptional position to promote British authors, particularly following the Booker announced its intention to allow entries from across the globe, so long as they are published in Britain. Last Wednesday, all six shortlisted writers were invited to Goldsmiths, University of London, to read from and discuss their novels. Lars Iyer, Jim Crace, Ali Smith, Eimear McBride and Philip Terry appeared in the flesh - while David Peace was beamed in from Tokyo via Skype. The winner of the inagural prize will be announced at a reception on Wednesday evening (13 November).

Lars Iyer’s Exodus is a book of philosophy written as fiction. It is the third novel in a trilogy which follows two academics discussing, in the dialectical tradition, everything from Kierkegaard to Beckett (via Herzog). Juliet Jacques, in an interview with Iyer, attributes his success to Iyer’s “skill in distilling ... despair.”

Harvest by Jim Crace follows widower Walter Thirsk during one calamitous week of harvest. Enclosure has uprooted a family to the edges of his village and is set to uproot him too. Leo Robson describes it as the “most seductive and enthralling of Crace's novels”

Philip Terry’s novel tapestry is about the language of propaganda. The novel tells the story the nuns who made the Bayeux Tapestry and follows their conversations and tales they tell each other. Nicholas Lezard on tapestery: “It's fun, it's intelligent, it makes you contemplate the age with new interest, and yet it does not shirk from depicting the grim realities of life at the time.

Eimear McBride’s debut A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing delves into the mind of an adolescent Irish girl as she attempts to make sense of the world. The novel has been described as “the work of a writer with the courage to reinvent the sentence as she pleases, and the virtuosity required to pull it off.”

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser