Spare a thought for the authors in the running for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction: the announcement of its shortlist yesterday was somewhat overshadowed by the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, with the nation’s literati stampeding as one to frantically Google ‘Patrick Mondiano novelist’. The clash is rather a shame, as this year’s set of nominations are an interesting and unusual bunch, in what the Financial Times says is ‘a vintage year for non-fiction’: if the novel is indeed dead, there won’t be any shortage of worthwhile alternative reading-matter.
In part the list is remarkable for its preponderance of female authors, dispiriting though it is that such a fact is remarkable: this is the first instance in the award’s 16 years of the women outnumbering the men. A few of the famous names studding the longlist have fallen by the wayside: there’s no space for the autobiographies of Jonathan Meades (An Encyclopedia of Myself) or John Carey (The Unexpected Professor), nor for In These Times, Jenny Uglow’s history of Britain during the Napoleonic Wars.
Notwithstanding the elimination of Carey and Meades, there has been talk of this year’s having been a good one for memoir: H is for Hawk follows Helen Macdonald’s taming of a goshawk in the wake of her father’s death, while in The Iceberg Marion Coutts records the slow loss of her husband to a brain tumour. Yet while acknowledging that, the shortlist also illustrates the hybridity of genre that makes non-fiction so exciting – Macdonald’s extraordinary book is also a work of nature writing and microbiography (of novelist and sometime falconer T.H. White), while Alison Light’s exploration of her family’s history in Common People is a document of self-discovery (‘I began this book because I had no idea where my family came from’) as much as it is an unearthing of the past.
Buried secrets are something of a theme in the other nominees, whether in the revelations of extra-marital permissiveness in John Campbell’s blockbusting biography of Roy Jenkins, or in the courageous subterfuge practised by the villagers of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, whose harbouring of Jewish refugees during the Second World War is related by Caroline Moorehead in Village of Secrets. Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity retells the story of the slave rebellion that would later inspire Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno, in the process exposing the inextricable bonds between the slave trade and America’s nineteenth-century emergence as an economic powerhouse.
In many ways, in fact, the prevailing themes of this year’s shortlist echo those of Modiano’s work, which draws on his upbringing in the shady underworlds of post-war Paris to explore fugitive memories and half-erased pasts. There have been calls to establish a separate Nobel Prize for Non-Fiction, but whoever triumphs in this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize (Ladbrokes have H is for Hawk as the front-runner at 6/4, hotly pursued by Roy Jenkins at 7/2), it might be worth picking up one of Modiano’s novels as a companion volume.
Philip Sidney is a writer and academic, specialising in travel, literature and travel literature