Thursday 12 December 2019

Fact or fiction? The Silkworm vs The Most Dangerous Book

Ed Power pits a novel against a non-fiction each week. Suggestions to

The Silkworm

Robert Galbraith

Fiction, Sphere

There was a dramatic real-world twist last year as fledgling crime novelist Robert Galbraith was unmasked as gadzillonaire Harry Potter creator JK Rowling. In the sedate universe of publishing this was a shock on a par with Darth Vader revealing to Luke Skywalker that they were close relatives or Kat Slater off Eastenders telling her sister she was her mam. People were baffled, excited and disbelieving all at once.

You can understand why Rowling would wish to go incognito. Her bespectacled wizard casts a long shadow – her previous attempt to step outside of Potterdom, 2012's The Casual Vacancy was hyped mercilessly and poked and probed by reviewers as though it were an alien artifact rather than a chunk of middle-brow fiction. The book itself was almost forgotten in the stampede to contextualise it.

As Galbraith, Rowling has opted for a gentler reinvention. Her 2013 'debut' under the pseudonym, The Cuckoo's Calling, was an Agatha Christie murder mystery which occasionally subverted the cliches of the genre but often seemed happy to celebrate them at face value. Second time around, she has introduced a whiff of satire, setting her book in the same narrow realm of London publishing whipped to apoplexy when her true identity was revealed in 2013.

As before, her protagonist is Cormoran Strike, a one-legged private investigator who, like every PI in literary history, has a disastrous personal life and deeply nihilistic world view. He's hired to solve the murder of a narcissistic English writer, who has cultivated an impressively thorough list of people wishing him dead. Just as Harry Potter drew on a previous epoch of YA writing – being equally indebted to Narnia and Billy Bunter – The Silkworm owes much to Poirot, Miss Marple, even Murder She Wrote. It isn't quite a pastiche – more a homage with just enough self-awareness to let you know Rowling understands the silliness of crime's hoariest tropes even as she celebrates them and invites readers to do likewise.

The Most Dangerous Book

Kevin Birmingham

Non-Fiction, Head of Zeus

If you wished to be oikish about it, you might describe Ulysses as the dirty book that changed the world. It is swirling and post-modern and, for all its esotericism, powerfully – almost narcotically – Irish. And yet, there's also lots about panties and moaning and ... well, we've all read it (right?) so little need to elaborate. Naturally on publication, it was the saucy, seedy excerpts that attracted the attention and had censors more or less passing out in the street. Indeed, there was a very real danger Joyce's manuscript might have been suppressed utterly, so claustrophobically backwards was the atmosphere at the time

The story of how Ulysses journeys from the recesses of the author's mind to bookshelves around the world is relayed in surprisingly breathlessly terms by Kevin Birmingham, a professor of English at Harvard. It's no surprise that many of the leading authors of the day rallied behind Joyce – among them William Faulkner, TS Eliot and Ernest Hemingway. More surprising are the writers inclined to dismiss him. Chief among those inclined to roll their eyes were EM Forster and Virginia Woolf.

No less accepting were the publishers. Joyce struggled to find anyone willing to back the book – in the end, the first edition was published in Paris by Sylvia Beach, proprietress of the bookstore Shakespeare and Company, who presented the first copy to Joyce on his 40th birthday. The censors were even more hardline: a Washington bookstore owner was arrested for stocking a magazine in which an extract was published.

A book about a book may, at first pass, seem like an exercise in redundancy. Why read about Ulysses when you could be reading Ulysses? Then, few works of art have endured so rocky a landing as Joyce's avant-garde epic. There's an important story to behold here and Birmingham weaves it well – above all, he shows us that often great art has to fight for the right to exist.

The verdict: Fiction

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent

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