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Tough to get a read on writers

What inconvenient creatures living writers are.

The best and most interesting of them willfully refuse to remain what they’re presumed to be, and perversely subvert comfortable readers’ attempts to fix them definitively within the firmament of admiration.

If ever we needed to be reminded of that, this fall’s annual shower of literary prizes has restated the proposition in nearly every imaginable fashion. Take the most recent example -- Tuesday’s award of the Man Booker Prize, arguably the most significant honor accorded English-language fiction each year, to DBC Pierre. (The Pulitzer and National Book Award have their partisans, but are open only to American authors; the Booker considers novels by British, Commonwealth and Irish writers, and, with a cash award of slightly more than $83,000, is the richest of the three.)

This year’s shortlist of six finalists was itself surprising, since it bypassed such established stars as the new Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, Martin Amis, Graham Swift and Peter Carey for four women -- the most in the Booker’s 35-year history -- and two men. Canadian Margaret Atwood was the list’s biggest name. As John Carey, chairman of the judges, put it, this was the “giant killers’ year.”

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Three of the finalists, Pierre, Clare Morrall and Monica Ali, are first-time novelists. Pierre, in fact, entered Tuesday’s award ceremony as one of the oddsmakers’ favorites -- yes, they make book on the Booker -- just behind the putative front-runner, Ali, who was born in Bangladesh and now lives in England.

Pierre’s novel, “Vernon God Little,” is the darkly comedic story of a Texas schoolboy who survives a Columbine-style massacre only to find himself on trial for the crime. Last weekend, England’s Guardian newspaper disclosed that the book’s Australian-born author is not “a cartoonist now living in Ireland,” but a 42-year-old, one-time con man named Peter Warren Finlay, who has been on the lam for years avoiding the large debts he ran up in Australia, Mexico and Spain. Among his creditors is a now-elderly American artist, Robert Lenton, whom Finlay/Pierre tricked out of an apartment, which he then sold for more than $45,000. According to the author, that money went to cover expenses incurred through his addiction to drugs and gambling.

“I am not proud of what I have done ... all the good people who trusted me and were burned,” Finlay told the Guardian’s interviewer. “I have lived in dread of this for 15 years -- that one day someone like you would come along.... I have let some very fine people who believed in me down. I thought that if the book worked, I could start to quietly pay some of them back.

“The day I decided to work my heart into this book,” Finlay said, “I decided that I wanted to pay up my past no matter what it cost me.”

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The author acknowledged cheating Lenton and told the Guardian that he already has arranged to pay the 75-year-old Philadelphia resident $75,000 in compensation, the first installment of which already has been sent. Lenton’s family told the paper Saturday that no money has arrived.

Back in September, when the Booker’s shortlist was announced, reporter Linda Mottram of Australian Broadcasting telephoned Finlay/Pierre at his home in Ireland and asked him to describe his novel. “Well, it’s a dark theme,” he replied. “I mean, it’s been touted a little bit as having to do with a high school massacre and the truth is the novel itself takes place after the massacre and involves the aftermath and, you know, it’s a question of guilt and redemption and things like that.... The book itself, curiously, is about paradigms and shifting impressions and the way guilt and innocence, black and white moves around us from day to day.”

Thus does fiction make a place for the habitual fabulist, the perhaps contemptible though clearly artful dodger. Oh, and Mr. Lenton, the check’s in the mail.

If this curious -- and slightly sordid -- divertissement has a coda, perhaps it should come from Irish playwright Brian Friel: “An autobiographical fact may be a lie, and no less true for all of that.” In Ireland, they’ve a fine appreciation of the well-told story for its own sake.

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That’s the sort of sentiment that might comfort Ali, who has been plagued by questions of identity since the publication of her novel, “Brick Lane,” a brilliant and closely observed exploration of life among the Bangladeshi immigrants living in London’s dreary tower blocks. As the child of an English mother and a Bangladeshi father, who immigrated to England at the age of 3, Ali has frequently been asked which of the two communities she regards as her own.

Her reply: “People keep asking me what my allegiances are. But I don’t feel the need for allegiances.... I am a storyteller.”

Sometimes, that inconvenient biographical fact is itself a source of discomfort. Coetzee, a South African and two-time Booker winner, was passed over this year, but received the Nobel Prize in consolation. The award was coolly received in his native country, where the longtime opponent of apartheid has more recently discomforted his readers with explorations of the new South Africa’s now endemic violence and continued racial divisions.

In fact, his situation there has become so uncomfortable that he now divides his time between Australia and Chicago, where he teaches.

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Coetzee, however, is an equal opportunity discomforter. His most recent novel, “Elizabeth Costello,” is the story of a novelist who -- like the author -- takes a skeptical view of literary prizes.

At one point, she is given the prestigious “Stowe Award” for international fiction. At the ceremony in her honor, she tells her audience:

“We all know, if we are being realistic, that it is only a matter of time before the books which you honor ... will cease to be read and eventually cease to be remembered.”


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