A Perthshire poet is in the running for Britain’s most prestigious literature prize – with a story told in verse about a D-Day veteran with post traumatic stress disorder travelling across post-war America.
Robin Robertson says he did not believe The Long Take, which has been hailed as “a film noir on the page,” was eligible for the Man Booker Prize.
But the book, described by the 62-year-old as “a long narrative poem,” has become the first ever novel in verse to make the shortlist for the £50,000 prize.
English author Daisy Johnson is the youngest ever writer to be in contention after being shortlisted at the age of just 27. The Northern Irish novelist Anna Burns is the only other British author to make the shortlist of the prize, which was opened up to English language books beyond the UK and the Commonwealth in 2013. It will also be contested by two American writers - Rachel Kushner and Richard Powers – and a Canadian novelist, Esi Edugyan.
A minister’s son born in the village of Scone in 1955 and brought up in Aberdeen, Robertson studied English in the city and in Canada.
He worked briefly as a labourer back in Aberdeen before moving to London in 1979 to take up a publishing job copy-editing and proof-reading. He has previously worked with a host of leading Scottish authors, including Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway, AL Kennedy and Alan Warner while working as a publisher for the firm Jonathan Cape.
Robertson was 40 when he published A Painted Field, the first of his five collections of poetry, which won the Saltire Society’s First Book of the Year Award. He received the EM Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2004 was appointed a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2014.
Billed as “one of the most remarkable and unclassifiable books of recent years,” The Long Take follows Canadian veteran Walker as he tries to piece his life back together by taking to the road instead of going home to Nova Scotia.
Robertson took four years to research and write the book, and also watched more than 500 film noir movies He said the main protagonist’s feelings of being an “outsider” in post-war America were partly inspired by memories of moving to the “alien city” of London.
Robertson said: “The book was written as a long poem, not as a novel. Verse is an awful word to me as it suggests rhyming couplets - it’s just contemporary poetry as far as I’m concerned. You imagine you might be in the running for some poetry prizes, but not that you will be up for the Man Booker when you’re not aware that you’ve actually written a novel. I was astonished. I was writing poetry well before I published my first book, partly because I didn’t want to have a lot of juvenilia hanging around and I was very busy building a career as an editor. I’ve made up for it since. It took two years to write, but there was more than two years of research to get things like the language and geography right. I didn’t expect it to take so long, but I didn’t know what I was doing, frankly.” Asked about the prospects of writing another novel, Robertson said: “I threw everything into this one. I don’t have anything left in the cupboard. But that’ll change.”
Jacqueline Rose, one of the Man Booker judges, said: “The Long Take offers a wholly unique literary voice and form. A verse novel with photographs, it manages to evoke with exceptional vividness aspects of post-World War Two history that are rarely parsed together.
“Swinging effortlessly between combat with its traumatic aftermath, and the brute redevelopment of American cities, it shows us the ravages of capitalism as a continuation of war-time violence by other means. It’s also a bold, eloquent homage to cinema..
“This is a genre-defying novel.”