Is it a coincidence that JK Rowling studied French and Classics? Or that Shakespeare wrote passages of dialogue in Welsh and French, suggesting that he was conversant in both? To write successfully in your first language, it can help if you know a second. It is one way of seeing the world from another perspective and making comparisons, which is after all what literature is all about. But what of writers of contemporary literary fiction?
Researchers on the Open World Research Initiative at Swansea University have investigated the nearly 300 novels that have made the Booker shortlist since 1969 to find out, and their initial findings throw up a disturbing recent trend that language awareness is decreasing among British-born writers.
The ability of authors to understand another language gets ignored in surveys of the Booker Prize—multiple times. If a writer’s English is inflected by Australian, South African or Canadian roots, these origins are duly noted by literary journalists. Why not language background too? Language-switchers who grew up in the former British Empire are not the only multilinguals to watch out for on the Booker shortlists. Some of their British-born counterparts also learnt a second language, which influenced their writing in similar ways: their choice of subject matter and how they expressed themselves.
The second language of writers on the shortlists is nearly always European, with French firmly in first place (more than 20 speakers among the 200 writers who have been shortlisted for the prize). German, Italian, Spanish and Russian are also well represented, as is Japanese, albeit all in single figures. There is only one identifiable Czech speaker (Tom McCarthy, nominated in 2010 and 2015) but none with Polish.
Spawn of Flaubert
The most famous literary French speaker is probably Julian Barnes, winner in 2011 with The Sense of an Ending. His breakthrough novel Flaubert’s Parrot, which was nominated in 1984 presents a series of takes on the great French novelist assembled by a Francophile narrator. Knowing another language is after all one way to see the world from an alternative point of view. For this reason many writers cut their literary teeth, like Barnes, on foreign-language material or experiences.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles should have made it to the inaugural shortlist in 1969, but it was The Magus, the original “year-abroad novel” set in Greece, which launched Fowles’ writing career. JG Farrell, who studied French and Spanish at university, is famous for his “empire trilogy,” Troubles (named the “lost” Booker Prize winner in 2010), The Siege of Krishnapur (winner in 1973) and The Singapore Grip (1978), but his first novel A Man from Elsewhere (1963) is set in Paris.
In his debut South (1992), the Irish writer Colm Tóibín, who has subsequently been nominated for the Booker three times, was inspired by his own encounter with Barcelona as a young man—which he transfers to a female central character who narrates some of the novel. Switching languages for an author—or anyone—can change who you are in fundamental ways. Canadian author Yann Martel won in 2002 with The Life of Pi, but his first novel Self (1996) merges gender and language identity as the multilingual narrator metamorphoses from man to woman and back again, showing that language identity is bound up with other identities and can be part of the literary imagination.
The shortlists for the Booker throw up some amazing linguists—but, at least when the British are concerned, their heyday appears to have been in the first two decades of the prize’s existence, the 1970s and 1980s. First prize for language prowess in any era would have to go to Anthony Burgess, on the shortlist in 1980 for Earthly Powers, who invented a new language for the dystopian Clockwork Orange and read and spoke up to ten real ones.
Burgess was born in 1917, a year after Penelope Fitzgerald, who won the in 1979 for the evocatively entitled Offshore. Three other novels are set in Italy (Innocence, 1986), Russia (The Beginning of Spring, 1988), and Germany (The Blue Flower, 1995), each written as if by a native speaker, except of course in English.
Jewish emigrés were a further force for the internationalization of British fiction. Sybil Bedford (1911-2006) found herself on the shortlist at the age of 78 with Jigsaw in 1989. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927-2013), who moved to India after the war, where her early fiction is set, won the Booker with Heat and Dust in 1975.
The Cold War also produced some high-profile language learners. Michael Frayn—who was shortlisted in 1999 for Headlong—was taught Russian during his national service, as was DM Thomas, whose White Hotel ran Midnight’s Children a close race for the prize in 1981. Thomas translates Russian poetry and has written a biography of Solzhenitsyn. Frayn’s novels include The Russian Interpreter (1966)—and his play Democracy (2003) was about the fall of Willy Brandt.
Their close contemporary John le Carré was recruited to the secret service on the basis of speaking fluent German, which he learned after running away to Switzerland as a teenager. He has called German his “muse.” But, sadly, genre fiction is not Booker material—and, in any case, le Carré is not keen on literary awards.
The young generation
But what of younger novelists, say those shortlisted since the turn of the millennium? If we limit the field to British writers, then it is getting narrower. Graeme Macrae Burnet made the shortlist in 2016 with His Bloody Project. The Accident on the A35 from 2017 is very much a linguists’ novel about translation and transcription, as is Men in Space—the 2007 novel by the twice-nominated Tom McCarthy which is set in Prague and includes a series of jokes on interlingual miscommunication. Both authors are still under 50.
Philip Hensher, nominated in 2008 for The Northern Clemency, is reticent about his proficiency in German, which came to the fore in his 1998 novel Pleasured which is about the fall of the Berlin wall. Simon Mawer, nominated in 2009 for The Glass Room, lives in Italy. That is more or less it.
People who visit the UK are sometimes struck by how few books are translated into the world’s lingua franca which in all its global variants can seem sufficient to itself. As a culture English monolinguals risk missing out on how near neighbours are representing their experiences to themselves and each other.
Translation takes many forms, however, and mother-tongue English novelists could make up the gap by getting abroad, whether in person or through books, as previous generations were doing up to quite recently.