Director's Cut: Nick Barley's International View - Thursday 10 August

Director's Cut: Nick Barley's International View - Thursday 10 August

Earlier this year, Book Festival Director Nick Barley chaired the judging panel for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize – a prize awarded annually for the finest piece of fiction in translation, and shared equally by the author and translator. In a series of blog posts running throughout the Festival, he gives you an insight into what went into selecting this year’s winner and highlights some of the top international authors appearing at the Book Festival this year:

Judge dread

This year I learned that if you’re sent 126 novels and you’ve agreed to read every one of them, they take up almost exactly three metres of space on a bookshelf. Then they look at you accusingly, an unapologetic reminder that within the covers there are roughly ten million words waiting to be consumed. Some people don’t get through that many novels in a lifetime… But this was the visual and mathematical reality facing me as I embarked on the journey towards a 2017 winner of the Man Booker International Prize.

I was fortunate: a sympathetic Book Festival board of trustees understood the importance of my chairing the jury properly, and generously granted me a three-month sabbatical from the day job. For my four fellow judges, each earning their profession through writing, a sabbatical wasn’t really an option: they simply had to pack in their reading round the edges of everything else in their hectic lives.

Despite my being in a relatively comfortable position, I had rarely faced a more daunting prospect and I began to experience the reader’s equivalent to writer’s block. Every time I picked up a book, my mind flooded with all the things that festival organisers obsess about in an average day. I was full of programming ideas for 2018 and couldn’t focus on the words swimming across the page in front of me. I couldn’t remember the names of characters and I kept having to re-read sections. In the end, with deadlines approaching and the number of completed books remaining a pitiful handful, I knew I had to take action and get out of Edinburgh. I booked in for a stay at the artist’s retreat known as Sweeney’s Bothy on the island of Eigg and set off for a period of solitary confinement with a suitcase full of novels.

Once I’d arrived at Sweeney’s Bothy, my reading took off. There was no internet connection, no phone signal, hardly anything to distract me from the business of reading. Sure, the breathtaking and endlessly changing view across the sea of the sawtooth hills on the nearby island of Rum became something I looked at with great fascination every half hour or so, and of course I had to chop firewood and feed the stove, but none of these things broke my focus. I’d made a breakthrough. To my amazement I managed to devour two, or sometimes three, novels a day without skim reading – each one curiously remaining much more crystalline in my memory than the earlier ones I’d limped through over the course of a couple of days.

By the time the judges met in London just before Christmas, we were all roughly halfway through our pile of books and the exuberance of the process was beginning to outweigh the reading fatigue. And as we sat together in a noisy office by Tower Bridge, I was tickled by the idea that my journey away from the Scottish capital, to the periphery of a country that’s already on the northern edge of Europe… that this flight from metropolitan life should be the key that unlocked my own journey to the heart of international literature.

Nick Barley interviews the winner of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, David Grossman, on Wednesday 16 August at 5.45pm. Tickets for the event are available online, by calling the Box Office on 0845 373 5888 or by visiting the Book Festival Box Office in the Charlotte Square Gardens Entrance Tent from Saturday 12 August.

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Edinburgh International Book Festival - bringing you the finest in translated fiction in association with The Man Booker International Prize

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