The literary Olympics: Brought to book
- From: pluto <pluto@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Thu, 11 Aug 2005 16:24:04 +0800
The literary Olympics: Brought to book
The judges of the Man Booker now know the 17 novels they have to choose
from after the prize's long-list was announced yesterday. But, if previous
years are anything to go by, the selection process will contain as much
drama and intrigue as the books themselves. By Boyd Tonkin
Published: 11 August 2005
Every year in the August dog days, the conclave of five Man Booker Prize
judges sends out smoke that's not yet white but a tantalising shade of
grey. They deliver an interim report on the state of British, Commonwealth
and Irish fiction in the form of a long-list. Every year, critics duly play
the game of lauding, trashing or carping at the choices made. More of that
later. But who ever bothers to judge the judges?
This year, I think I may have a right, at least in the case of the panel's
chair for 2005, Professor John Sutherland. In 1999, I served as a Booker
judge with Professor Sutherland, under the chairmanship of Gerald Kaufman.
Not only did Professor Sutherland leak to the press; many Booker jurors do.
No: his published account of what we said deviated so far and so brazenly
from what happened that two other judges, Shena Mackay and Natasha Walter,
felt obliged to write that he had "not only breached the trust of his
fellow judges" but strayed "into pure fantasy".
The professor's distorted leaks attributed to us views we never held. He
unpleasantly hinted that some judges felt uneasy about the " anti-Zionist
sentiments" of Ahdaf Soueif's short-listed novel The Map of Love, a claim
that prompted poisonous racist innuendos against Mr Kaufman in the Arabic
media. He falsely wrote that no one really liked that year's outstanding
winner, J M Coetzee's Disgrace. And he sneered at the exhausting,
life-consuming process by saying Coetzee had won merely "a lottery not a
A few years later, the Swedish Academy decided this unloved "
lottery-winner" deserved the Nobel Prize. Professor Sutherland's gross
misrepresentations stand uncorrected on a newspaper website.
So what does the Man Booker management committee, led by the veteran
administrator Martyn Goff, do? Not only does it reappoint Professor
Sutherland as a judge after an unprecedentedly short time. It upgrades him
to chairman. Neither did it offer a word of explanation to the majority of
judges who found his actions bizarre, to say the least.
This told me an eccentrically (perhaps shambolically) run award had raced
so far down the road of seeking gossip, scandal and controversy that it
wanted, above all, to reward judges who caused a stir. That would be
terrible news for the long-term reputation of the prize.
Yet if the Establishment cabal behind the Man Booker sought a literary
rerun of Reservoir Dogs by promoting Professor Sutherland, the opposite has
happened. This selection reads more like an invitation to an upmarket
vicarage tea-party than to a showdown in a blood-stained warehouse. It has
to be said that the overwhelming feature of the 2005 long-list is just how
orthodox, inoffensive, and non-contentious it looks. This is a bien pensant
list for, and from, bien pensant readers. It will ruffle few feathers and
frighten few horses. Yet it does embrace a dozen outstandingly good books.
Yesterday, Professor Sutherland said this year's long-list "may rank as one
of the strongest since the prize was founded in 1969". And, just this once,
I believe him. Powerful performances from the aristocracy of modern fiction
- Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie (who was awarded the " Booker of Bookers" in
1993 for Midnight's Children), Kazuo Ishiguro, John Banville, Hilary
Mantel, Julian Barnes and that jammy " lottery-winner", J M Coetzee - have
found due recognition.
Some of the strongest voices in a younger, chasing pack - Zadie Smith, Ali
Smith, James Meek - remain in the frame. A trio of resourceful debutants -
Tash Aw, Harry Thompson, Marina Lewycka - justify their place in the August
sun. The judges have deferred any choice between the biggest beasts -
McEwan (the early favourite), Rushdie, Barnes, Ishiguro and Coetzee - until
the shortlist stage. That rather feels like a cop-out, or else a row
Elsewhere, they have applauded full-dress historical seriousness (from Tash
Aw, James Meek, Harry Thompson and Sebastian Barry), modest avant-garde
experiment (Ali Smith) or high-bohemian intrigue (Rachel Cusk). The flavour
as a whole is well-bred, well-read and urbanely well-controlled.
The judges, who also include the book-dealer Rick Gekoski, the novelist
Josephine Hart and the literary editors Lindsay Duguid and David Sexton,
have shunned tricks, whims and gambles. Even the left-field comic relief
(Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian) comes with an
Orange Prize-shortlist seal of appoval already attached. If the presence of
Professor Sutherland was meant in some way to guarantee fireworks, then the
plan has misfired. If this list errs, it errs on the side of safety.
A less risk-averse panel might have chosen more adventurously. It might
have plumped for Rupert Thomson's timely and hypnotic fable of a tribal
Britain split into sparring subcultures, Divided Kingdom; for Maggie Gee's
tragi-comedy of low and high life in contemporary London, My Cleaner; for
Rebbecca Ray's enormous, extraordinary Welsh saga, Newfoundland; for Diana
Evans's mysterious and moving tale of suburban twins, 26A; for Abdulrazak
Gurnah's lyrical journey through the east African colonial past, Desertion;
or for Russell Celyn Jones's Thames-side blending of thriller and tragedy,
Ten Seconds from the Sun. That's one alternative shortlist.
You might, by this stage, be wondering where the traditional Booker outrage
and upset will come from this year. In that case, just hope that both Ian
McEwan and John Banville reach the shortlist.
A couple of months ago, Banville (in the New York Review of Books) gave
McEwan one of the most savagely dismissive reviews delivered in recent
years by one leading novelist writing about another. He called McEwan's
Saturday (nonsensically, to my mind) "dismayingly bad" and "a
self-satisfied and, in many ways, ridiculous novel". Perhaps, if both do
make the cut, the fireworks have merely been postponed.
The Man Booker Prize long-list
'The Harmony Silk Factory' by Tash Aw (Fourth Estate)
In his first novel, Aw weaves the story of Johnny Lim, a cloth merchant,
criminal and clandestine Communist in 1940s Malaysia, who rose by nefarious
means from obscure peasant origins to become the richest man in the valley.
The narrative is conveyed by the voices of Lim's family and friends.
'The Sea' by John Banville (Picador)
Max Morden, an ageing alcoholic, returns to the Irish resort where he spent
a memorable childhood holiday 50 years before. Recently bereaved by the
loss of his wife, Anna, Morden immerses himself in the memory of the
earlier visit to Ballyless as an 11-year-old, when he fell in love with an
'Arthur & George' by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape)
Barnes brings to life the case of George Edali, sentenced to seven years'
hard labour as the convicted sender of hate mail to his Indian father and
Scottish mother. His cause is taken up by the writer Arthur Conan Doyle,
who attempts to clear his name while suffering his own emotional turmoil.
'A Long, Long Way' by Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber)
It is 1916 and Willie Dunne is a volunteer with the Dublin Fusiliers
enduring the brutality of the battlefield in Flanders. On leave in Dublin,
he faces the Easter Rising. The son of a Catholic policeman and loyalist,
Dunne and fellow Irish soldiers are seen as traitors by nationalists and
distrusted by the English.
'Slow Man' by J M Coetzee (Secker & Warburg)
Coetzee has already won the Booker Prize twice, in 1983 and 1999, as well
as being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003. In Slow Man, Paul
Rayment has his leg amputated after an accident. He hires a nurse,
Marijana, and becomes increasingly drawn to her and her handsome teenage
'In the Fold' by Rachel Cusk (Faber & Faber)
In her fifth novel, the award-winning Cusk, named one of Granta's Best of
Young British novelists in 2003, deals with marriage, friendship, family
and morality. Michael is married to Rebecca, but their partnership is
threatened by her self-doubt. He has to look back at his youthful
'Never Let Me Go' by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber & Faber)
The children of Hailsham have no parents and are destined to have no
children of their own. The sinister truth is that they have been bred as "
donors", eventually to surrender their vital organs. The story is narrated
by one of the pupils, Kathy, who has become a carer, who spends her time
between "recovery centres", where she helps donors not to die, but to
'All For Love' by Dan Jacobson (Hamish Hamilton)
Based on the real story of Louise, younger daughter of King Leopold II of
Belgium, Jacobson's novel recreates an elopement that scandalised Viennese
society at the end of the 19th century. Married to a Hapsburg prince,
Princess Louise had an affair with a soldier who claimed to be a Croatian
count, Lieutenant Mattachich. They ended up in prison and a madhouse.
'A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian' by Marina Lewycka (Viking)
Sisters Nadezhda and Vera were brought up in England by their Ukrainian
refugee parents, but have not spoken to one another for years. They are
reconciled after their mother's death when their father, who is working on
a grand history of the tractor, becomes romantically entangled with a
pneumatic young blonde woman, who is clearly after his wealth.
'Beyond Black' by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)
Mantel's tenth novel revolves around Alison Hart, a medium from Slough, who
tours with her assistant Colette, showcasing her psychic powers to mainly
female audiences. Partly inspired by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales,
the book takes a wry look at Britain in the 21st century, where the
inhabitants of housing estates worry about immigration and Gypsies.
'Saturday' by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape)
McEwan's novel is set on 15 February 2003, the day Britain took to the
streets of the capital in protest against the impending war in Iraq. But
the action is away from the march when neurosurgeon Henry Perowne is in a
minor car crash. His encounter with the other driver, Baxter, whom he
diagnoses as having Hunting-ton's disease, has fateful consequences.
'The People's Act of Love' by James Meek (Canongate)
Siberia 1919, and the Czech Legion, which fought for the beaten Whites
against the Red Army, are stranded in a small village made stranger by the
practice of shamanism and a Christian sect led by the enigmatic Balashov.
Into this setting Meek brings escaped criminal Samarin and war widow, Anna
'Shalimar the Clown' by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape)
The book opens in LA in 1991, when Maximilian Ophuls, former US ambassador
to India, is killed at his illegitimate daughter's house by his Kashmiri
Muslim driver, who calls himself Shalimar the Clown. What appears to be a
political assassination is revealed to be a passionately personal murder.
'The Accidental' by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
Smith's first full-length novel, is drawn from Pier Pasolini's film
Theorem, starring a youthful Terence Stamp. In the film, the beautiful
young man entrances a bourgeois family. In the novel, a young woman, Amber,
brings turmoil into the family home of an English literature lecturer.
'On Beauty' by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
In her third novel, the author of White Teeth and The Autograph Man tells
the story of two academic families, the Belseys and the Kipps, who are
brought together despite their differences. Smith's social comedy deals
with themes of love, sex, race, class and belief systems.
'This Thing of Darkness' by Harry Thompson (Headline)
In his epic novel, Thompson tells the story of the voyages of the Beagle,
its captain Robert Fitzroy and most famous passenger, Charles Darwin.
Fitzroy was a devout Christian searching for geological evidence to back up
the Old Testament. Darwin, though a minor cleric at the time, had other
'This is the Country' by William Wall (Hodder & Stoughton)
An Irish teenager is heading for trouble, dabbling with drugs and the
criminal underworld. His life is changed when he falls for Pat Baker's
sister. When she becomes pregnant, Pat breaks his legs. Set against the
backdrop of a gritty, modern Ireland, it is a darkly comic tale of survival
against the odds.
Past Man Booker Prize Winners
2004 Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty
2003 DBC Pierre, Vernon God Little
2002 Yann Martel, Life of Pi
2001 Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang
2000 Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
1999 J M Coetzee, Disgrace
1998 Ian McEwan, pictured right, Amsterdam
1997 Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
1996 Graham Swift, Last Orders
1995 Pat Barker, The Ghost Road
1994 James Kelman, How Late It Was, How Late
1993 Roddy Doyle, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
1992 Joint Winners, Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient, Barry Unsworth,
1991 Ben Okri, The Famished Road
1990 A S Byatt, Possession
1989 Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
1988 Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda
1987 Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger
1986 Kingsley Amis, The Old Devils
1985 Keri Hulme, The Bone People
1984 Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac
1983 J M Coetzee, Life & Times of Michael K
1982 Thomas Keneally, Schindler's Ark
1981 Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children
1980 William Golding, Rites of Passage
1979 Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore
1978 Iris Murdoch, The Sea
1977 Paul Scott, Staying On
1976 David Storey, Saville
1975 Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust
1974 Joint Winners, Nadine Gordimer, The Conservationist, Stanley
1973 J G Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur
1972 John Berger, G
1971 V S Naipaul, In a Free State
1970 Bernice Rubens, The Elected Member
1969 P H Newby, Something to Answer For
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