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Sunday, October 2, 2022

Booker winner Ben Okri rewrites published novel to drive home message on slavery | Ben Okri

Self-criticism, perhaps even regret, is common among writers looking back at old work, but the novelist Ben Okri has now gone so far as to rewrite a whole published novel. And it is a book he already liked quite a lot.

The Booker-prize-winning Nigerian author has spent much of the last five years re-crafting his 2008 story Starbook, a mystical romance set in his homeland. A new version, complete with a new title and cover, is to be published this summer as The Last Gift of the Master Artists, and Okri believes that he has given more emphasis to transatlantic slavery, and will now offer his readers a “more considered” narrative.

“It was a painstaking and agonising process. I still wanted the book to be magical and innocent but I also want it to be political. It all takes place just before the slave trade – in that moment of foreknowledge,” said Okri this weekend.

The changes made were more than cosmetic and gave his treatment of the slave trade more clarity, he said.

Starbook was a book that had cost me a lot emotionally. I paid a price for it, and I think it’s one of my important works,” he said, but when he was asked to give a public reading from it after its publication, he felt that it could be improved.

“I never re-read my novels because I don’t like looking back,” said Okri, “but when Starbook came out, I was aware that some of the responses did not pick up on one of the key themes of the book, especially in the central passages, which are all about the slave trade to come. Reviewers are not stupid and if they’re not picking up on something, there’s a reason.”

Charles Dickens.
Charles Dickens rewrote parts of Oliver Twist in response to criticism that it was antisemitic. Photograph: Charles Dickens Museum/Oliver Clyde/PA

Okri’s publishers, Head of Zeus, said: “The first reception of the book did not reference the slavery aspects or saw them as allegorical. This re-publishing is a chance to put that right in the light of contemporary acknowledgment of historical and current injustices.”

So perhaps it is the concerns of readers that have altered? Okri concedes that this is part of it: “Possibly, my audience has changed because of the impact of Brexit and of Covid, and of course of Black Lives Matter and the rise of new feminism. We’ve all been sensitised and opened up to a new discourse.

“There is perhaps nothing to gain for me from this but a good artistic night’s sleep,” said Okri. “I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it, and it is just a personal thing. I’m not aware of others doing this.”

The wholesale rewriting of published fiction is unusual, unless there are legal imperatives. It is an industry in which financial returns are often marginal, and extensive changes to a novel require issuing a new ISDN number, even for a self-published author who changes their own e-fiction. But six years ago, the American author and television writer Karen Hall did manage a similar feat when her publishing house, Simon & Schuster, put out a hardcover edition of her popular 1996 novel Dark Debts, with significantly revised contents. Hall explained to the New York Times she had “cringed” at the parts of the book she didn’t like.

Hall added a character and dropped another, as well as changing the ending, which she felt sounded a false note. The author had won the support of her editor, Jonathan Karp, as the popular novel approached its 20th anniversary. “There are so many books as a publisher where you miss the mark a little bit, either commercially or critically, and I’ve often wondered: why wouldn’t a writer want to try it again?” Karp said at the time.

James Joyce rewrote his first attempt at A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but this was before it had been published, as Okri points out. Charles Dickens, however, did heavily edit Oliver Twist after a Jewish woman, Eliza Davis, wrote to complain about the antisemitic depiction of Fagin. Dickens at first resisted, saying: “I must take leave to say that if there be any general feeling on the part of the intelligent Jewish people that I have done them what you describe as ‘a great wrong’ they are far less sensible, a far less just and a far less good-tempered people than I have always supposed them to be.”

Then, in 1867, sensitive to Davis’s argument that his friend Wilkie Collins had presented Jews more favourably, Dickens altered the phrasing in Twist before a reprint of the novel.

In the film world, creative revision is more widely accepted. Director’s cuts of hit films, or of films that were controversially edited, often acquire greater cachet than the original.

“I would say the director’s cut of Miloš Forman’s film Amadeus, for example, is richer, although the original is great,” said Okri. “It was just that I felt there was something about the tone that allowed the first version to be read as a fairytale. It was a subtle thing really, but it changes the way something can be read. I needed to find a new, quieter tone: something less performative. I had to find a tone that would get this particular subsumed material noticed.”

To be worth the effort, the novelist argues, “the urge to go back” must have something important at its core: “It’s been a real labour of love but The Last Gift of the Master Artists is an older, wiser, humbler and more considered book. I guess we could think of it as a reincarnation.”

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