Well, well, well. My new novel, Jude in London, has been shortlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize. Older readers will understand why I am so surprised (as well as, of course, delighted); younger readers will have it explained to them shortly. It involves dark literary doings, and the theft of livestock. Stick around.
The Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction is the one where they give you the prize at the Hay Festival, name a pig after your book, and take your photo with the pig. A great, idiosyncratic prize, with a good track record. The Wodehouse judges discovered Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, they chose Vernon God Little before it won the Booker, and last year they gave the prize to Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story.
This year, it's a very strong shortlist: the other four are Terry Pratchett (for Snuff), Sue Townsend (of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole fame, for The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year), John O'Farrell (for The Man Who Forgot His Wife), and John Lanchester (for his sprawling financial comedy of London life, Capital). Normally, natural humility would cause any author surprise at being on such a splendid shortlist. However, as regular readers of my work will know, I do not suffer from humility. My surprise at being on the shortlist comes from the fact that, last time I was on it, I disgraced myself so thoroughly that I'd assumed the judges were more likely to put me on a blacklist than a second shortlist.
Back in 2008, the first novel in my Jude trilogy - Jude in Ireland - was shortlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, alongside Alan Bennett, Will Self, Garrison Keillor (of Lake Wobegon Days fame), and Joe Dunthorne. I swelled with pride, chiefly in the region of the head. I blogged about my joy. But... well, at this point I may as well quote from a slightly later blog entry:
"You can imagine then my dismay when I discovered, shortly afterwards, buried in the small print of the Hay-on-Wye festival programme, the odd phrase "Will Self, winner of the 2008 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize." Winner? WINNER?!?!?!
As the festival program had gone to print before the shortlist was announced, this meant that the prize committee had picked the winner before they had announced, or perhaps even picked, the shortlist. It was a stitch-up. But worse, I had been denied my rightful month of anticipation, tingling, hiccups and giddy excitement.
Also I'd put serious money on Alan Bennett to win. His The Uncommon Reader is a little masterpiece. Something had to be done.
I thought long and hard. The prize is named after that comic god, P. G. Wodehouse, inventor of Jeeves and Wooster. What, I thought would Wodehouse have done, faced with such provocation? Sat in his room and written another comic novel, probably. That's how he reacted to everything, including World War 2. As I was already sitting in a room writing a comic novel this wasn't much help. Action was called for, dash it. So I asked myself, what would P. G. Wodehouse's greatest creation Bertie Wooster do, nobly backed by the genius of his manservant Jeeves?
And the answer came to me as in a vision - as though the ghost of Wodehouse himself whispered in my ear - he would steal the pig.
For if there is one constant in the work of P. G. Wodehouse, from Pigs Have Wings to Pig Hooey, it is that God put pigs on this good green earth to be kidnapped. Not a chapter goes by without somebody chloroforming Lord Emsworth's favourite sow, The Empress of Blandings.
And thus I made my way to the Welsh borders and, with the assistant of my trusty gentleman's gentleman, Jeeves (not his real name, but he would like to remain anonymous for some reason), I stole Will Self's pig.
I sent the organisers this, ah, pignapping video, containing my ransom demands. Tense negotiations continued up until the last minute. They, understandably, did not wish to give the prize to the man who had stolen their pig. I offered, as a very reasonable compromise, to deliver the pig to Alan Bennett's door in London if they would re-award the prize to him. They baulked - Will Self was in the program - his angry fans, denied, might rampage, torching tents, incinerating Gore Vidal in his invalid chair... The intervention of a bishop almost led to a compromise candidate (Joe Dunthorne), but we ran out of time..."
The full story is here. And in this story in The Mail. And in various pieces by Hugo Rifkind, now stuck behind The Times paywall... And The New York Times' arts blog... And in India's Sunday Tribune... I know, I know. And not a thought for my long-suffering mother.
OK, basically, I got a bit carried away. It's always a bad idea for comic writers to leave their padded cells and attempt to do things in a real world for which they are so ill prepared. Still, one learns valuable lessons, which can be fed back into the fiction. I learnt that stealing pigs, for instance, is considerably harder and more complicated in real life than in books. The paperwork for the transfer of livestock across EU borders is shockingly complex. I strongly suspect that PG Wodehouse never stole a pig in his life...
Anyway, it all turned out OK; Will Self kept the title, but I made my point, and I got a pig out of it, which, once converted into wurst and salty bacon, got me through the long Berlin winter.
The only downside, I thought, was that I'd thoroughly burnt all my bridges to the only prize in these islands for comic fiction - pretty much the prize I most wanted.
And thus my surprise at being shortlisted again this week. I think it reflects very well on the people who run the Prize. They have shown true Christian - or Wodehousian - charity. Moral of the story (if there is one): There is greater rejoicing in the literary world over the pig thief who repents, than over the author who never steals a pig at all.
(For those not put off Jude in London by the moral depravity of its author... the free Trust Edition is available from Ben, my publisher, here. You may download it and read it for nothing. If you like it, you can pay whatever you think it was worth. More orthodox editions of the book are available here...)