Weekly Roundup: Favourite opening lines, betting odds and supermodel books

09 August 2013

In response to Atlantic magazine asking celebrated American authors for their favourite opening lines in literature, the Observer asked this year’s Man Booker longlistees the same question. The replies, as you might expect from what the chair of judges Robert MacFarlane called “the most diverse” longlist in the prize’s history, were, well, diverse. Jim Crace, for example, went for the 105-word opening sentence of Robinson Crusoe; Eve Harris went for the first line of the current Man Booker laureate Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies (“His children are falling from the sky”); Tash Aw went for Flaubert’s opening to A Simple Heart; Colum McCann for a book that hasn’t yet been published – Redeployment by Phil Klay (“We shot dogs”). Richard House, meanwhile, simply couldn’t make up his mind and suggested opening lines by seven different writers. But then because his The Kills is composed from four separate books he has had plenty of recent practice with opening lines.

A Man Booker writer with something to sing about is Margaret Atwood (winner in 2000 with The Blind Assassin). She has, after 15 years of intermittent work, finished the libretto for an opera, Pauline, based on the life of the Canadian poet, writer and actress Pauline Johnson. The opera will open in Vancouver next May. Johnson, born in 1861, was the daughter of a Mohawk chief and a Quaker Englishwoman and, according to Atwood, “She had courage, brains and beauty, like many of the best operatic heroines. She also led a double life, in which a secret love, a jealous sister and an early death were elements.” It is not Atwood’s first brush with warbling: her novel The Handmaid's Tale was adapted for opera in 2000. Ironically, the words for that work were not hers but those of the British librettist Paul Bentley.

Timing is everything. The formal launch has just taken place for the inaugural Gibraltar International Literary Festival which starts in October. One of the writers scheduled to take part is the Man Booker winner Ben Okri (The Famished Road, 1991). It can only be hoped that for the sake of both Okri and the rock’s book lovers that the border dispute with Spain has been resolved by then.

Current betting on the Man Booker longlist has Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (5-1) narrowly ahead of Jim Crace’s Harvest (11-2). Catton’s ahead-by-a-nose is interesting – the book has only been in the shops for a week. The best return of your cash is offered by Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being at a very tempting 16-1.

Should Colm Tóibín go on to win the prize in October, The Testament of Mary will be the slimmest victor in Man Booker history. The book tops the scales at a positively supermodelish 112 pages. Other slim winners were the trim 160-page The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes, 2011) and the even more svelte 144-page Offshore (Penelope Fitzgerald, 1979).

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