Saturday, August 23, 2008

Belben the explorer

I hope Rosalind Belben's long-overdue success in the James Tait Memorial Prize for Our Horses in Egypt encourages an enterprising publisher to reissue her remarkable earlier novels Dreaming of Dead People (1979) and Is Beauty Good (1989). In her review of both, Maggie Gee wrote that Belben:
has written pages about sexual desire, frustration and loss which are clearer and more compelling than any I can think of in literature. She has a photographic eye for natural beauty, and is also tough-minded and funny.
So why, she then asks, is Belben so little known? The unfortunate answer is provided: "Because she is an experimental writer".
In Britain today the body of experimental writing is even slimmer than it was 20 years ago. It is perhaps British empiricism, our commonsense regard for the plain truth, that makes us distrustful of it. But this prejudice cannot with any fairness operate against Rosalind Belben, for her pages, bare of euphemism and conventional narrative seduction, are truthfulness itself.
Twenty further years on, the body is healthy (from the New Labour lexicon, one might say it is "robust") yet, from the perspective of major literary prizes, invisible. So one has to wonder why then, as a judge on the 1989 Booker Prize, Maggie Gee chose to operate against "truthfulness itself" by not insisting on the inclusion of Is Beauty Good on the shortlist.

Another review of the same two books, by Linda Brandon, describes Belben instead as "an explorer". Isn't this is a much better, more appropriate word? "Belben's prose, like the gardens she prefers, is unpruned and 'crammed with oddities'; but her landscape is shaped by a musical sense of form, each voice tuned to its own harmony."
There are passages so powerfully evocative of the natural world, and its destruction, that the question 'Is beauty good?' is made concrete and urgent. 'Better never to have known it', says one of the voices, 'if that was what beauty was, to have to hanker after it. I wonder if senility is like that, suffering glimpses.' In her work Belben gives us glimpses of such beauty that one can only choose, like her, to celebrate life.
For more, see RSB's interview from last year.

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