Man Booker prize
I’m knee-deep in books about organ donation at the moment (including some of questionable literary merit), so a masterclass in good writing seemed an attractive diversion.
How’s this for an opening paragraph?
‘I remember in no particular order:
- a shiny inner wrist;
- steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan in laughingly tossed into it;
- gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the length of a tall house;
- a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;
- another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
- bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.
This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.’
Intrigued? Yes, indeedy, so was I. Each of these memories gives a glimpse of an event we want to know about.
The Sense of an Ending is the story of Anthony Webster, a rather nondescript and timid divorced man in his 60s reflecting back on his life leading up to a shocking revelation. This is triggered by a bequest from the mother of an old college friend whom he met only once 40 years before. So why would she be leaving him money? His memory tracks back over schooldays, student days, affairs, marriage and divorce, retirement. Mistakes. Realisation gradually dawns.
But the book is also about memory – its subjectivity, its selectivity, its malleability. And the ending stops you in your tracks, making you want to go back and read it all again for the cues you missed first time around.
It’s a compact little book – a novella it’s been called – a mere 150 pages with wide spacing. Easily read in one sitting. And that’s been one of the ongoing criticisms of those who object to its selection as the Man Booker winner for 2011.
The judges, led by Dame Stella Rimmington, have also been castigated for putting ‘readibility’ onto their list of criteria. Hello? I’m one of those who are very glad they did. So many Booker winners are impenetrable to us ordinary mortals. Besides, as the judges themselves were at pains to emphasise, it wasn’t readability at the expense of quality writing, but in addition to.
And the quality is certainly there. In spades. Julian Barnes is a formidable writer in such command of language that he manages to convey profound truths through deceptively simple lives and actions. I won’t spoil the experience for those of you who’ve yet to read this book, but here are a couple of examples of Barnes’ mastery of his art.
Old Joe Hunt, the wryly affable history teacher, is challenging a class of pretentious boys as to the origins of the First World War. A new lad gives him a lengthy philosophical exposition ranging over culpability, anarchy, subjectivity and truth. A silence follows this, the other boys wondering if this is an attempt at ridiculing Old Joe; realising it isn’t. Then …
‘Old Joe Hunt looked at his watch and smiled. ‘Finn, I retire in five years. And I shall be happy to give you a reference if you care to take over.’
And he isn’t ridiculing anyone either.
Then there’s a wonderful sentence describing the narrator’s feelings when he hears about a lad who ‘auditions‘ girls by sleeping with them in order to decide which one ‘to go out‘ with. He himself has not slept with any girl to date (I should perhaps explain, the context was the prevailing morality of the 60s).
‘This made me feel like a survivor from some antique bypassed culture whose members were still using carved turnips as a form of monetary exchange.’
Well worth reading as an example of concise and powerful writing. The unravelling of a mystery is secondary. All grist to my mill.
But in the midst of this reading orgy, I’m trying to make time to enjoy the glories of spring and this unseasonable heatwave. Isn’t the blossom fabulous?
Jack is five years old. He lives in a tiny single room measuring 11 feet square with a locked door, Bath, Toilet, Wardrobe, Bed, Table, Freezer, Cabinet, Rocker and TV. And Ma.
But Ma has her reasons for giving Jack these distorted perceptions. She may be young and traumatised by the horror of being abducted at the age of nineteen and incarcerated in a shed for years, but she proves to be an inspirational teacher, using the rudiments of life to educate him – egg-shells, scraps of cardboard and fabric, the degrees of light coming through the skylight, the spit they leave after cleaning their teeth.
Then a chance advert on TV raises questions in Jack’s mind. How come Ma’s painkiller pills are on TV? The pills are real. TV is unreal. Suddenly his cosy assurance is shattered.
‘How can TV be pictures of real things?
I think about them all floating around in Outside Space outside the walls, the couch and the necklaces and the bread and the fillers and the airplanes and all the shes and hes, the boxers and the man with one leg and the puffy-haired woman, they’re floating past Skylight. I wave to them, but there’s skyscrapers as well and cows and ships and trucks, it’s crammed out there, I count all the stuff that might crash into Room. I can’t breathe right …’
Ma’s explanation is memorable: ‘Stories are a different kind of true.’
But after spinning her own kind of ‘true’ for five years, she has her work cut out disabusing Jack of all the myths and misunderstandings she’s implanted in his head to prepare him for a reality more harsh, more scary than anything she’s told him so far. Life outside.
Through Jack’s eyes we see the taken-for-granted world in a whole new light. Scary stuff. But sufficiently convincing for it to come as a surprise to hear a dispassionate perspective: ‘The despot’s victims have an eerie pallor and appear to be in a borderline catatonic state.’ Jack is a ‘malnourished boy, unable to walk.’ (As you can see, I’m trying not to give anything of the storyline away.)
My only complaint was that in places Jack’s speech patterns are unconvincing. The words seem to be jumbled for no good reason other than to convey his youth and confusion. They sit uncomfortably alongside his precocious facility with words elsewhere.
Otherwise I really enjoyed this book, Room, by Emma Donoghue. It’s unique, powerful and moving, and, despite its dark setting, it offers heartwarming homage to the triumph of the love between a quite remarkable mother and son. It fully deserved to be shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Man Booker this year. And you know how rarely I sing the praises of these contenders!
I’m a subscriber to the old English proverb: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
And I love Ecclesiastes‘ lyrical ‘To everything there is season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven …’ which includes ‘a time to keep silence, and a time to speak …’
But I suspect Harper Lee took this a bit too far. She was a literary sensation with her 1960 debut novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. It became an immediate classic; she had the world at her feet. After winning the Pulitzer Prize no less, she talked of becoming the ‘Jane Austen of south Alabama.’ No pressure then.
But … there was no next novel. The author (who’s now 85) hasn’t agreed to an interview since 1964 at which time she was writing her second book, The Long Goodbye, and expressed a pious hope that she would do the best she could with the talent God had given her. She’s won numerous awards since but yet maintained her silence. Theories abound: fame killed off any subsequent masterpiece; she couldn’t face a loss of prestige; she had a serious case of writers’ block lasting decades; she hadn’t actually written Mockingbird; the manuscripts are stacked up not to be published till after her death … Who knows?
Now, apparently, she’s cooperated in a forthcoming biography of her life by journalist Marja Mills, so we could soon know the truth. But doesn’t this underline the truth of the proverb? Once she opens her mouth and explains the mystery we will know if she was indeed a fool. Until then there is still room for doubt.
As for me, I shall endeavour to remember the adage about keeping silence if/when I win the Man Booker. (Cue muffled snorting.)
No danger there, of course, but I must confess, I have no ambitions in that direction. The Man Booker titles rarely do anything for me – with a few notable exceptions. You’re too low-brow by half, I hear you cry. Indeed. I know I am. A literary philistine, a heretic – you name it, I am it. I do try to take an intelligent interest in what’s deemed good writing, returning to the lists with monotonous regularity. Indeed, I’ve just finished reading The Finkler Question, which according to the Guardian is ‘full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding. It is also beautifully written with that sophisticated and near invisible skill of the authentic writer. Technically the characterisation is impeccable, the prose a subtle delight, the word selection everywhere perfect, the phrase-making fresh and arresting without self-consciousness.‘ And in the opinion of the Independent: ‘Jacobson’s prose is a seamless roll of blissfully melancholic interludes. Almost every page has a quotable, memorable line.‘
Hmmm. Let’s just say I struggled to stay attentive. I was sorely tempted to wander off and do other things like dusting or weeding or cleaning the shoes, by way of light relief. Every now and then I thought, Wow, beautiful writing, or What a penetrating insight. Several times I laughed out loud. But overall, it’s been something of a slog. Me, I like a book to hook me in and not let me go until the last page. How the judges trawl through a stack of these tomes one after the other is beyond my comprehension. Could this be a factor in the final decision, d’you think?
There, I’ve tolled my own death knell.
Like I said: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
With all the recent hype over the Man Booker prize it seems fitting to pause a moment and pay homage to authors whose work never wins the acclaim it deserves. I’m sure you, like me, have your own favourites – books that you personally love but the critics trash; unsung treasures discovered in a serendipidous way; gems that have changed the course of your thinking.
I’d love to start a campaign to get recognition for superb authors whose publishers don’t have a sufficiently robust marketing department or enough cash to promote their work effectively. But given current time constraints and resources maybe I’ll start small, and blog about it.
Some time ago a friend of mine was getting rid of a stash of books in readiness for moving house. I was only too happy to assist her in the task by squeezing a few of hers between the thousands I already own. Amongst her motley collection I found Niall Williams Four Letters of Love. I’d never even heard of Williams, an Irish writer, but the blurb intrigued me. And it was going begging. Well … what a delight lay in store. The writing is lyrical, evoking the lives, lores and loves of families living on an Irish island. Poetry in prose. To outline the plot would be to miss the whole point of this book, and I hate spoilers. But essentially it’s the story of two young people, Isabel Gore and Nicholas Coughlan, who are destined to love each other.
‘There is a meaning; there is a sense to everything,’ Nicholas Cougan thinks as, against all odds, he waits for his love to come to him. And somehow in this magical tale of romance and superstition, of profound wisdom and tragedy, one can suspend disbelief: dead people appear and are influencing lives; Irish mothers can smell and feel emotions in strangers; people are merely puppets in the play already written by a divine hand. You have to lose yourself in it to value it to the full. Try it and see.
And then there’s a book which has remained on my top ten list ever since I found it many years ago whilst browsing in a second-hand book shop in Saltash, looking for something to while away a journey from Cornwall to Scotland: Sacred and Profane by Marcelle Bernstein. The entire country flew by unnoticed. There are three main characters in the story: a nun, a prisoner, and a priest … sounds like a joke waiting for a punchline, doesn’t it? But this is not a humorous book; rather it deals with dark emotion and repressed drives, with lots of moral questions remaining to haunt you. (Well, you know what a sucker I am for an ethical dilemma!) All three characters are very well drawn, and the complex interweaving of their stories is totally gripping, culminating in an astonishing denouement. How come this masterpiece is virtually unknown?
If you haven’t read them, I recommend you do. And as part of this crusade to promote such neglected masterpieces, do you have any you’d like to share? Here’s your chance to strike a blow for your personal style of genius.
Another ten hours on trains, plus extra time on stations waiting for connections … another opportunity to read uninterrupted … what to take …?
Ahhah! One of those books that seems to permanently slip down the to-be-read pile. A (Mann) Booker Prize winner.
Sigh. Yep, I do try, but I often struggle with these big literary prize winners. Got to be in the mood (determined), with peace and quiet to really concentrate (when would that be, then?), and with a good reason to persist (a talk, an article, a bookclub session). So I deliberately created an incentive this time: my weekly blog.
I selected The Blind Assassin by Canadian author, Margaret Atwood, which won back in 2000. I picked it up in a wee shop near the hospital in Devon where my mother was earlier this year, but before I could get stuck into it, crises developed, and I spent all my time trying to sort out the muddle that is official provision for care of the vulnerable elderly.
Appropriate then that I should read it while travelling to visit her this week. (She doesn’t know me now but she seems reassured by a presence and touch, so I also read a bit while sitting holding her hand as she slept.) Cross Country trains were on my side, conveniently cranking up the air conditioning so that it was far too cold to doze off.
The Blind Assassin is off-puttingly long – 637 pages – and the detailed descriptions and slow pace would deter many a potential reader. But chapter 1 begins with: ‘Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge’ … Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens.’ So far so good.
The narrator is 83 year old Iris Chase, who tells of her own life in retrospect, taking in major historical events of the 20th century – WW1 and WW2, the Depression, the Spanish Civil War. Interlaced with her story is a novel called The Blind Assassin, published posthumously, which makes her sister, Laura, a household name as a novelist. In between the spaces there’s an ongoing account of a 1930s clandestine affair between a married society woman and a political agitator on the run from the authorities, and a sci-fi story which the man recounts to his lover over the course of their infrequent meetings. And as if that’s not enough, the whole is punctuated by newspaper extracts outlining significant events in the lives of the Chase family. Phew! Thoroughly confused? Well, just think of the infrastructure Atwood must have needed to construct in order to keep that little lot sorted in her head and accurate on the page.
Some aspects irritated me, some were simply tedious (lots of reviews talk about the need to persist – hmm), but every now and then there’s a gem of a phrase that makes me wish for that kind of skill with language.
Picturing the dress her sister would have been wearing when she drove to her death: ‘a shirtwaist with a small rounded collar, in a sober colour – navy blue or steel grey or hospital-corridor green. Penitential colours …’
‘Getting clothes on helped. I’m not at my best without scaffolding.’
‘He gave his version of a smile – a thin crack in his face, like mud drying …’
‘Her hat was the same shade – a round swirl of green fabric, balanced on her head like a poisonous cake.’
‘The elevator was the kind that had a crisscross grille of metal bars within the cage itself; stepping into it was like going briefly to jail.’
Those moments made persistence worthwhile in my book. (Sorry, inappropriate use of idiom.) But I have to confess, overall I’m glad to consign this to the tomes that I’ve read and won’t need again. I think I’ve earned a thoroughly enjoyable tale next. Now let me see …