The Booker’s Celebration of Bleak

Written on October 26, 2007 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Literature

Rolf Strom-Olsen


Last week, as Felicia has posted below, the Man Booker Prize was awarded to Irish author Anne Enright for her novel The Gathering. I have long felt the Man Booker to be the world’s most important prize for fiction, despite its strictures: it is awarded annually to a book written in English by a subject of the Commonwealth. Still, that means almost a third of the globe’s population is eligible. In theory at least, since even a cursory review of the Prize’s shortlist makes it readily apparent that the same names tend to recur: Iris Murdoch (6 nominations), Margaret Atwood (5 nominations), Salman Rushdie, etc….  Still, the scope of the prize is vast compared to other such recognitions. (If the prize was at one point a largely British affair, it is no longer: only two Brits have won the prize in the last decade.)

This internationalism is much of what gives the Booker its significance, I think. This year’s shortlist featured authors from Pakistan, New Zealand and India as well as England (including dreary prize perennial Ian McEwan). Compare that to the Prix Goncourt (nominally open to any work published in French). Last year, the prize was awarded to Jonathan Littell. This caused something of a stir since the author is *gasp* American (although he was brought up in France, wrote the book in French, and was widely expected to win). Amusingly, the author, who had previously been unsuccessful in his bid to gain French citizenship, was apparently fast-tracked for French citizenship once he had the Goncourt in his pocket – an incidental reminder that the Goncourt, like such prizes elsewhere, remains largely a national affair. 

The Booker, in cultural terms at least, is not bound by such parochialisms and this makes it unique (to my knowledge; I am sure there are others). Other major international literary awards – the Nobel Prize, the Goethepreis or, of course, the Premio Miguel de Cervantes, are based on lifetime achievement. The Booker nomination, however, reflects the merits only of a single work and leads to no conclusion about anything else the author has produced (as a sampling of some nominees wider work will make all too clear). Thus, making the Booker shortlist means (to me at least): book worth reading. Thanks to the Shortlist, over the last years, I have enjoyed  (inter alia): Sarah Water’s sapphic-tinged suspense Fingersmith, Rohinton Mistry’s sweeping tale Family Matters, and Magnus Mills savagely funny modern day Miltonesque parable The Restraint of Beasts, all works that I might well have passed over otherwise.

I was about  to order up the latest winner, when I chanced upon this interview with the author, where the book was summed up as an "unremittingly miserable Irish family saga, with its alcoholic suicide, blank-eyed paedophile, violent father, vacant mother and irritatingly smug priest, not to mention its scenes of bad sex, self-harm, a funless wake and 5am grief-stricken howling." Hmmm. Grim, bleak, and not much fun to read appears to be the consensus. The book itself was considered a longshot to win the prize and it seems that much of the value of the work is the feeling of accomplishment the reader has in managing to stick with it through to the end, despite the intractable misery and single-minded determination to enshroud the reader in the abject tragedy of the human condition. We still have a year of George Bush as president. Who needs more depression?

Two years ago, the Booker went to "The Sea", written by another Irish author, John Banville. I haven’t read that book either, for similar reasons. The author has a predilection, apparently, for making his books deliberately difficult to read, and he enjoyed gloating after his victory that it represented a triumph for literature which avoided pandering to the vulgar hoi polloi, by which he was presumably referring to the common unwashed riff raff that rushes out to buy novels by Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis. Banville’s specialty is apparently embroidering his prose with sesquipedalian words. Who needs this bozo on the bookshelf?

Even if the judging has taken a questionable turn in handing out the dosh, I think winning is secondary to making the shortlist. Regardless of which work actually carries home the prize, the Booker shortlist represents an amazing variety of excellent fiction that covers a vast canvass of voices and experiences, from Canada to the Caribbean to India to Australia and has done so – consistently – for a long time.

Objets Trouvés

Several things of interest: I recently stumbled across a profile in the New Yorker of Marie-Laure de Noailles, which offers a fascinating glimpse into the louche, libertine and borderline insane world of the den mother of Surrealism who used to raise pocket money by selling a Braques or two.   



Castle October 27, 2007 - 5:53 pm

¿Qué otra cosa hemos perdido que convenciones? Acaso los
premios literarios no son otra cosa que el esqueleto de un mito?
Pero lo que no hemos perdido es la sombra acariciada, la brisa entre las
piernas, la ultima noche,el aroma prendido, y las luces silenciosas.
Lo que no hemos perdido es la cabeza de estrellas, y las manos de
acariciar, y los dedos prodigiosos. Lo que no hemos perdido es la
noche insomne, la mirada critica y si fuese necesario, y al final, la
palabra que mata.

Castle November 3, 2007 - 5:07 am

My friend Rolf:
I was very satisfied about my literary comment on your piece on the Booker´s award: Shakespeare online. As you see it was written in Spanish in order to underline better the fact that world reknown prizes tend to recognize tendencies and trends more than specific topics. These topics can be so subtle and able to vanish…
The Fall is not a rational ground to defend recognition and we must turn down the possibility of any rational decision knowing that for some people, Automn is an explosion of redish emotions, and for others it is simply “I would like to get out of this wind!”.

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