Exceptionally Wonderful Book

John Sutherland

  • Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh
    Green Bay in association with Colt, 268 pp, £14.99, July 1994, ISBN 0 948845 05 8

The most valuable prize ever awarded for a work of fiction was the $150,000 put up by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1948 for Ross Lockridge’s epic of the American Civil War, Raintree County. The prizegiver’s motive in setting up this award was venal. They wanted to spawn a blockbuster series of ‘books of the film’ in the manner of Gone with the Wind. The longer-term aim was to out-spectacle TV and force the pesky new medium to ‘crawl back into its tube’. It all went wrong. The 1957 film, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, was epic only in the scale of its box-office failure. The chronically self-destructive Clift lost his good looks in an automobile crash during production, and has two disconcertingly different faces at various points in the narrative. Lockridge was so depressed by the scorn that the prize brought him that he killed himself the same year. Film, novel and prize are all forgotten. TV won.

Before freaking at the selections made by the Booker committee (a favourite activity of the British press in slack summer months) it makes sense to examine the machinery of prizegiving and the motives of the donor. Sometimes, as with MGM in 1948, the benefactor’s motives are transparent. As transparent is the Smarties Grand Prix, which Jill Paton Walsh won for her children’s book, Gaffer Samson’s Lunch, in 1984: Nestlé’s want to associate a product which is bad for children’s teeth with one that is thought to be good for their minds. The Encore fiction award, which gives a handsome prize (£7500) for the ‘best second novel of the year’, is designed to help starting novelists over a traditional obstacle. It does good and like other good deeds gets little publicity. Booker plc is a business conglomerate with a central interest in sugar. If it wanted to stay in character, it would presumably give its annual £20,000 to works of fiction that are outstandingly successful from a commercial point of view – Ken Follett and James Herbert, perhaps – or the most saccharine romance. Instead, it awards its prize to ‘the best novel in the opinion of the judges, published each year’. ‘Best’ is interpreted as ‘most distinguished literary performance’. The ulterior motive, evidently, is to enhance the firm’s image at remarkably low cost. (The best snooker player of the year would be depressingly more expensive than the best novelist.) Only once, with John Berger in 1972, has a winner been graceless enough to allude publicly to the source of the prize-money in black men’s sweat.

Booker judges change every year and the one stable element is Martyn Goff, the éminence grise of the panel which chooses the judges. Ever since his earlier days at the National Book League and the New Fiction Society, Goff has laboured with the dedication of a fanatic to make the British read quality novels – something that does not come naturally to them. It has been a long haul, but with the Booker Prize, Goff has succeeded magnificently. A large segment of the public now uses the Booker shortlist as they might the selections of a book club. Every title on the list is guaranteed extra thousands of sales. Publicity is the key and bad publicity is as welcome as good, in that it encourages people to buy the books that are causing all the fuss.

The real lottery is not the year’s shortlisted titles, but the judges who do the shortlisting. No two panels, as they are annually reconstituted, will come up with the same titles. George Steiner will not coincide in judgment with John Bayley. There is the added complication of the unpredictable preferences of the lay members of the committee – what might be called the Mary Wilson factor. At the heart of the Booker process is the assumption that where the novel is concerned, all celebrities (whatever the source of their celebrity) are experts. No one would appoint Julia Neuberger, distinguished person though she is, to judge a high-diving competition.

The fact that they are judges and the competition a judicial process imposes an invincible solemnity. Comic novels don’t do well. Malcolm Bradbury’s Post-Modernist attempt to win the Booker (if that is what it was) by sending up the Booker Prize in Doctor Criminale was quixotic and doomed, even with professional humorists like Mark Lawson on the panel. The other main prejudice built into the system arises from its rule that ‘the Prize is open to novels written in English by citizens of the British Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland.’ Not to notice far-flung novels is to invite accusations of discrimination. Berger’s denunciation, for all that it is mocked, has had a palpable influence in politically correcting the shortlist. Novels with New Commonwealth settings and post-colonial themes are guaranteed to get respectful attention (this year Gurnah’s Paradise and Gunesekera’s The Reef are in with strong chances).

Controversy in 1994 has focused on Jill Paton Walsh. In the public mind her novel Knowledge of Angels is the work of a highly worthy but obscure writer, rejected by as many as nineteen obtuse British publishing houses. Refusing to take the book trade’s noes for an answer, Walsh bravely brought her wares to market herself. As the Guardian proclaimed, in a profile of Walsh on 14 September, ‘in a season of celebrity novels, one book by a little-known author has been saved from the slush pile. Jill Paton Walsh is on the Booker shortlist ... with a novel she published herself.’

Many of the popular misapprehensions about Knowledge of Angels can be traced back to a press release of 6 September, issued by the novelist’s publicity agents, Hobsbawm Macaulay Communications Ltd, which asserts:

Knowledge of Angels was turned down by 14 UK publishers before it was published to great acclaim in the US, and Jill Paton Walsh decided to publish the novel in Britain herself, using her small personal imprint of Green Bay Books, and backed up with marketing and distribution by Colt Books of Cambridge, who initially approached HMC to handle the account. Joint Managing Director Julia Hobsbawm says: ‘The book presented us with an unmissable PR challenge: to get attention for a novel by a relatively unknown author of adult fiction with a relatively unknown publishing house. We had an immediate sense that this was going to be something special, and knew that if we held the courage of our convictions, the media would respond to this exceptionally wonderful book.

Hobsbawm Macaulay is not an amateur outfit – among their clients is Ken Follett. It is also the case that Walsh enjoys the services of one of the more established literary agents in London, David Higham Associates. The publicity studiously does not mention that Walsh has written other books. The implication is that Knowledge of Angels is a work like Joan Brady’s A Theory of War, which came from nowhere in 1993 to win the Whitbread Prize or, further back, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, which was rejected by eight publishers and eventually brought to Pulitzer-winning success by the author’s mother, after his despairing suicide. In a Times profile of 10 September Neuberger roundly indicts the British publishing industry for its lack of perceptiveness: ‘All of us [on the committee] were appalled that the British publishing world did not take up Jill Paton Walsh’s startlingly good, privately published, Knowledge of Angels, a tightly written, fierce, somewhat fashionable theological work that gripped me from the very beginning.’ It is a revealing insight into how the Booker committee likes to see itself – as the conscience of the book trade, standing back and coolly rectifying commerce’s crass blunders.

In fact, the British publishing world knows Walsh and her works very well – better, it would seem, than Julia Neuberger does. Walsh is the author of between thirty and forty books – more than all the other shortlisted contestants put together. She has published with many of the principal London houses. Her first work of fiction came out in 1966. Since then, the bulk of her output has been full-length novels for the teen market, a field in which she is, with writers like Leon Garfield, a leading practitioner. Take away some paragraphs of sex, torture and theology, and Knowledge of Angels could easily transplant to the other genre. Not that Walsh is a novice with stories for grown-ups. The dust-jacket states that Knowledge of Angels ‘is her third adult novel’. Other sources suggest it is her fourth, the first (Farewell Great King) having come out in 1972. This would mean that she has published more adult fiction than any of the other shortlisted contenders. Walsh has said that she turned to adult fiction in a serious way in the Eighties, as her children grew up. Green Bay Publications was evidently founded in 1986, and was used that year to publish a volume of short stories for adults, Five Tides.

None of this in itself makes Knowledge of Angels any less ‘exceptionally wonderful’ or ‘startlingly good’. But it does suggest that an author represented by David Higham and with as long a track record as Walsh has would not find herself in the publishers’ slush pile, as the Guardian romantically suggests. It was not the case that the British publishing world neglected Knowledge of Angels: it was just that they did not think it was any good. So, too, with the reviewing world. They did not simply overlook Knowledge of Angels: they chose to overlook it. Tom Shone’s declaration on the matter is unapologetic: ‘The Sunday Times did not send the book out for review, since we found its plot to be contrived and its language flat and banal.’

That wasn’t the view of the veteran American editor Peter Davison, who liked the book enough to publish it under the Houghton Mifflin imprint some months before a thousand copies of the same printing were imported (at Walsh’s cost) for subsequent publication in the United Kingdom. This order of events raises another problem. As proclaimed in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, the terms of the Booker Prize explicitly state that candidate works must be ‘published for the first time in the UK by a British publisher’. This statement presumably originated with the Booker authorities and has been allowed to stand uncorrected for two decades. As has recently emerged, however, the fuller set of regulations issued to publishers indicate that prior publication abroad need not necessarily disqualify a novel. While not exactly speaking with forked tongue on the matter, it seems that Booker wants to avoid promoting works that primarily benefit the American book trade.

Whether or not it can jam its toes into Booker’s glass slipper does not make Knowledge of Angels any better or worse a novel. The British publishing and reviewing establishment’s first impressions have been wrong before. With Knowledge of Angels, however, they are probably right. The narrative is written in the constrained idiom of historical fable, which grates condescendingly on the adult ear. The story has a dual narrative: something Walsh has specialised in since her earliest efforts in fiction, and which she handles rather too efficiently. The setting is Mallorca (she spent a ‘cheap winter holiday’ there) ‘at a time somewhat like 1450, but not 1450’. A wolf child is found by shepherds in the mountains, raped, and eventually put into the care of a well-meaning, quizzical priest, Severo, who intends to use the little human beast to investigate the innateness or otherwise of Christian faith. At the same time, a hyper-civilised traveller is wrecked on the coast of the island. He is Palinor from Aclar, an engineer by profession. Aclar is a country somewhat like present-day Hampstead, but not quite. Palinor is used to a world where one can choose one’s religion, where dissent is tolerated, and where rulers are democratically elected. The theocracy in which he is unluckily marooned labels him a heretic and, despite Severo’s well-meaning efforts, Palinor falls into the hands of the Inquisition. He refuses to compromise his humanity by renouncing his ‘atheism’ (i.e. his liberal humanism), is tortured and burned at the stake. The resolutely un-Christianised wolf child is freed by a friendly non-rapist shepherd and is last seen loping off through the mountain snow to rejoin her pack. Meanwhile, in the seas below, Mallorca’s theocratic insularity is threatened by the invasion of a vast fleet (package tours, we apprehend, coming on their cheap winter holidays).

Knowledge of Angels is written with a simplicity of design that verges on the Blytonish. It commits the unforgivable sin of fable, in that its meanings are too accessible and determinate. What interest the work has is biographical. Walsh’s father was, literary directories tell us, an engineer, like Palinor. She was educated in a convent school, and evidently found the nuns extremely oppressive. Walsh aggressively declares her religious affiliation to be ‘scepticism’ but has, reportedly, had long personal struggles with the Catholic Church. Although she has had ‘a 13-year-long affair’ with fellow author John Rowe Townsend, her husband (with whom she remains on good terms) will not divorce her, ‘because of his Catholic faith’. According to the Guardian profile (Townsend used to be the paper’s children’s books editor), she left the Church herself because of ‘an emotional involvement [at university] with her fiancé’s best friend, who happened to be a priest ... it all became rather messy.’ As a result of the mess, Walsh left the Church, unabsolved for her priest-spoiling.

Had the Booker committee studied the printing history of Knowledge of Angels they might have ruled the novel out on chauvinist grounds. Had they read it without preconceptions it is hard to believe that they would have identified it as one of the five best works of fiction published in 1994. It is clear that the mechanics of the operation don’t give the judges time for second thoughts. Or much leisure to see through the wiles of publicity agents.