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The shortlist for the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize has been announced

The award for “fiction at its most novel” returns for its second year.

“For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name...” The opening words of Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing are like blows from a hammer. An uncompromising, stream-of-consciousness novel that took almost a decade to find a publisher, the book won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize – a literary prize for “fiction at its most novel” launched by Goldsmiths, University of London, and the New Statesman in 2013. McBride – whose novel was rejected by all the major UK publishers before it was eventually picked up by the independent imprint Galley Beggar Press – went on to sweep the board, winning everything from the Desmond Elliot Prize to the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

This year the prize, established to celebrate the qualities of creative daring associated with the University and to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form”, returns with judges Geoff Dyer, Kirsty Gunn, Francis Spufford and Tom Gatti. The 2014 shortlist, announced this morning, is as follows:

Outline by Rachel Cusk (Faber & Faber)
The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves (CB Editions)
J by Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
In The Light Of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman (Picador)
How To Be Both by Ali Smith (Penguin)

The list includes two books published by small, independent imprints: CB Editions, a one-man operation specialising in short fiction, poetry and translations, and Unbound, which uses crowdfunding to finance individual projects. It also shares two titles – How to Be Both and J – with this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist (Ali Smith featured on last year’s Goldsmiths shortlist too).

You can read the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer, Leo Robson, on the shortlist and the prize’s position in “an ever larger, chaotic and fractured landscape” online now or in this week’s magazine. Francis Spufford, who chaired the panel of judges, had this to say about the list:

The Goldsmiths Prize rewards innovation in the form of the novel, a process with as many possible directions as there are writers settling down to their keyboards. We expected to be surprised, and we were; we expected to compare wildly dissimilar successes, and we did. We expected to argue, and we weren’t disappointed. Yet we’re delighted to have ended up with a shortlist that captures so much of the versatility with which the novel, these days, is being stretched, knotted, rejigged, re-invented.

The winner of the £10,000 prize will be announced on 12 November during a ceremony at the newly reopened Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road.

Here are the Goldsmith Prize judges on the 2014 shortlist:

Geoff Dyer on Outline
On a flight to Greece where she is going to be teaching a creative writing class, the narrator begins talking to her neighbour. More accurately, initiating a pattern that will be repeated throughout the encounters and “conversations” that make up this hypnotic and unsettling novel,  he talks at her. Gradually her own identity emerges   in response to  – is given shape by – what is said to her. As one of her students puts it, the story constitutes a series of events she finds herself involved in, but on which  she seems to have  “absolutely no  influence at all.”  The irony, of course, is that all of these tales  – the author’s tale – hold our attention because of Cusk’s  unerring command of pace and tone. 

Tom Gatti on The Absent Therapist
The Absent Therapist is a little like spending an evening turning the dial on an old-fashioned radio: voices emerge from the static, gain perfect clarity, and then disappear.  Some tell anecdotes, banal or momentous; some talk technical business on the phone; some compose polite but freighted letters; some only have time for an elliptical scrap of speech before the dial spins on. From these fragments Will Eaves has composed a slim but remarkable novel, somewhere between a modernist poem and an “Overheard on the Underground” collage – attuned to different registers, often witty, frequently poetic, always with the bright ring of truth.

Francis Spufford on J
We seem, at the beginning of J, to be in some melancholy fable about the idiocy of rural life, with two touchingly tentative lovers providing the only oasis of reflection in a desert of poor impulse control.  But this isn’t the brutish past, it’s a future struggling with the always-denied, never-banished memory of a terrible act.  The nuanced shading of literary fiction blends into the muffling cotton wool of apology-speak, to produce a stingingly satirical dystopia.  You can argue with the premise of Jacobson’s nightmare, but then he expects you to.  Obsessional, unexpected, this is a kind of meta-flirtation with paranoia, both mischievously controlled and genuinely fearful.

Geoff Dyer on The Wake
The publisher’s blurb is actually implausibly accurate: The Wake is a post-apocalyptic novel set a thousand years in the past.  In the aftermath of the catastrophic defeat of  1066 small bands of guerrillas resist the Norman invasion. The events are chronicled by Buccmaster, a brutally unreliable narrator, in an adapted or shadow version of old English. At first the prospect seems unreadably off-putting; within twenty pages you get the hang of it; by thirty the suddenly fluent reader is immersed entirely in the mental and geographical contours of the era. But it works the other way too: we are seeing – and feeling and hearing – the living roots of Englishness. 

Kirsty Gunn on In the Light of What We Know
In the Light of What We Know is doing what the novel has always done best - taking us into a deeply private place wherein, by staying there for a long time to read about the lives of others, we come to speculate upon ourselves. In the case of this novel, though, it does this not by surrounding us with a story we may lose ourselves in but instead requires that we participate in the ordering and arranging of its various kinds of content. One doesn’t just read this book, one reads hard. 

Kirsty Gunn on How to be Both
Ali Smith’s latest renovation of the novel genre is a stunning example of literary inventiveness, idiosyncratic presentation of character and her charming, disarming way with plot. How to be Both slices a line through the content of her story and places what Virginia Woolf would have called a “corridor” between the two halves. In that space the reader turns and turns again, our experience of the novel released from a sense of its ending and thrown into a state of ever-reading, re-reading, reading “both”.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to:

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle