A middle-aged couple from the Isle of Wight are the toast of the literary scene today after publishing what the London Review of Books has called ‘the standalone achievement in British literary history’. Mr and Mrs Harris, whose only previous works have included notes for the milkman and a firm but fair letter of complaint to the council about overhanging branches, penned the seven-line postcard for a neighbour while on a city-break in Paris and are now firm favourites to pick up both the Booker and a Nobel prize for Literature.
‘Every country asks of its literature that it provides a defining statement of nationhood,’ said Melvyn Bragg at yesterday’s launch. ‘Russia has Tolstoy, France has Proust and America has Melville. And now, on a scale appropriate to our national sensibilities, we have Mr and Mrs Harris. They have rendered in sparse, unpretentious prose the universal experiences of displacement and return, of individuals forging a place for themselves in a vast, uncaring world and of worry about whether the cat will get fed while they’re away. This is a big work on a small canvas, an ‘On the Road’ for the Saga generation, and above all, it’s a heck of a page-turner.’
Unsurprisingly the Harris’s text has proved a fertile hunting ground for critics of all persuasions. Poststructuralist Umberto Eco has praised the work for its ‘unflinching insistence that language cannot begin to attest to the experience of a holiday in France,’ while Marxist critic Terry Eagleton saw the franking on the postcard which obscures some of the handwritten text as “symbolic of the commodification of culture, the mechanisation of art and the opening of a new front in the class struggle.’ Meanwhile Germaine Greer has seized on the sequence ‘Off to Le Mans tomorrow to keep John happy. Such is life’ as reinforcing ‘the casually determinant force of patriarchy and how much women still have to fight for,’ while Freudian critics have concluded that both the Harrises have repressed Oedipal anxieties.
Publishers have their fingers crossed for bumper sales of the postcard after the Daily Telegraph agreed to serialise it each day next week, and university lecturers and school teachers are already clamouring for the text to be added to reading lists and curricula, insisting its brevity is ‘merely a bonus’. A big marketing campaign will see the Harrises signing copies of their work in a number of towns, and the authors have promised to personalise copies by adding the buyer’s address to the postcard and sending it to them direct, assuring traditionalists that this is ‘in keeping with the spirit of the original and presents the work as it was intended to be received’.
With the promotional tour set to take in Taunton, Bognor Regis and Blackpool, publishers are hopeful the couple will find plenty of material for their difficult second postcard. However, Mr and Mrs Harris maintain they have their sights set on a trip to the Carribean and a concise but ambitious postcolonial epic.