Who should – and who will – win the Golden Man Booker?
Eileen Battersby weighs up the shortlist for Sunday’s award to mark 50 years of the prize
Michael Ondaatje in the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire, is shortlisted for The English Patient, which won in 1992. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
One of Britain’s most respected if low-profile Man Booker-winning authors may well upset a Trinidadian-Indian Nobel Laureate on Sunday evening as well as an exalted countrywoman who became the third double winner of the popular literary prize.
Yet an obvious and dreamlike challenger to this much-liked Briton, the critics’ favourite, who began her literary career writing children’s books, is the gentle Canadian-Sri Lankan author of a sensuous novel which was to inspire a multiple Oscar-winning love story. The fifth writer nominated in a shortlist devised not only to celebrate 50 years of the award but as always to showcase fiction, is an easy going and revered American short story writer who won the 2017 Man Booker prize with his first novel. Yet his win is so recent as to understandably leave him standing on the side lines watching along with the rest of us.
It is quite a line up: VS Naipaul, Penelope Lively, Michael Ondaatje, Hilary Mantel and George Saunders – each nominated author representing a decade in the life of an annual award which not only divides critical and public opinion but features high in the dreams and aspirations of fiction writers.
Representing the 1970s, the first decade of the then Booker Prize, is the 2001 Nobel Literature Laureate VS Naipaul – never a man to keep his genius concealed. In fact cranky entitlement is his medium. He has been shortlisted for In A Free State, which won the 1971 Booker Prize ahead of no less than Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Decent into Hell. Lessing would emulate Naipaul and, six years after him, would herself be honoured by the Nobel committee in 2007. Also shortlisted for the Booker in 1971 was Irish playwright Tom Kilroy, with his debut, and only novel to date, The Big Chapel.
In a Free State was a controversial choice as it consists of two short stories and a novella, the title narrative, a dark Conradian work. The trio is bookended by two first-person accounts from a writer undergoing a personal crisis. In writing on the theme of displacement Naipaul asserted himself and certainly took many readers by surprise. Gone was the sunny, comedic appeal of his delightful A House for Mr Biswas (1961), which had beguiled with its Dickensian exuberance. Instead, Naipaul openly confronted a reality close to his heart as an Indian growing up in a traditional Indian home in Trinidad.
It was not until he was 29 that Naipaul first visited India and hardly surprisingly this cultural conflict has dominated his work. In a Free State is very good, yet ironically, it was not until 1986 that Naipaul was to write his masterpiece on dislocation when The Enigma of Arrival – which failed to make the Booker shortlist – appeared to high critical praise. It is worth mentioning that John Berger’s G. won the following year, while JG Farrell’s wonderfully atmospheric The Siege of Krishnapur triumphed in 1973. You have to love the conviction of 1977 chairman, poet Philip Larkin, who was prepared to hurl himself from the window if Paul Scott’s Staying On failed to win that year. It did win and Larkin lived on until 1985.
Representing the 1980s and the Booker decade with the lion’s share of fine fiction, many of which reached shortlists, many of which did not, is Penelope Lively, the 1987 winner with Moon Tiger, her seventh and best novel to date. Lively, the choice of the critics for this contest, should be considered the co-favourite.
Not only is she unusual for winning with her best work, she also won with a novel which offered a believable and flawed central character experiencing the all too real terror of revisiting her life while on her deathbed.
Moon Tiger is technically complex, ambitious, ambivalent and demanding. Lively is demonstrating the range of the novel form and on a humanitarian level she is also reminding readers that English-language, and specifically British fiction, can hold its own against the devastating richness of international fiction in translation.
Should this English novel from 31 years ago be honoured as it could be, a case can be made for it. Readers who love it, new readers coming to it, the beleaguered English-language fiction world and the bold decision to select it from a decade of very strong Booker winners including: William Golding’s Rites of Passage (1980), Salman Rushdie’s 1981 Booker of Bookers (1993) and the Best of Booker (2008) triple winner Midnight’s Children; JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K, the 1983 winner; Peter Carey’s first Booker winner Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day which won in 1989 and compensated for his beautifully limpid An Artist of the Floating World being passed over in 1986 by Kingsley Amis with The Old Devils.
Another notable Booker faller of that decade was JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, a hot favourite in 1984 which was foiled by Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac. Worth noting that when Moon Tiger won, it was the outsider and defeated a very strong favourite, Belfast native turned Canadian citizen Brian Moore’s menacing thriller, The Colour of Blood.
For the 1990s, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, here selected, is all conquering. Not only does it remain one of the most, even possibly the most beloved of Booker winners, praised by Toni Morrison, it has long since shaken off the inexplicable decision to share the prize in 1992 between Ondaatje and one of the most forgettable of Booker victors, Barry Unsworth’s worthy Sacred Hunger.
Only once before, 18 years earlier, in 1974, had the prize been divided when Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist shared it with Stanley Middleton’s Holiday. Ondaatje had written better novels before, In the Skin of a Lion ( 1987), and since, most recently with the brilliant Warlight. Yet The English Patient, for some people the novel, for others Anthony Minghella’s 1996 nine Oscar-winning including Best Movie and Best Director adaptation, is a gorgeous, timeless story of tormented romance rich in poetic imagery and set largely in flashback in the most romantic of settings, the Sahara desert – all that sand.
It has acquired what passes for contemporary immortality through the movie – consider close-ups of Ralph Fiennes as a mysterious Hungarian (well, stock central European enigma) brooding and obsessed as Laszlo de Almasy before he became Voldemort…
Yet the novel lives through its own guileless, unabashed beauty. The charming, gracious Ondaatje is a storyteller who balances the intimate with the epic. He is also a poet. It is this poet’s feel for language evident through the dramatic, highly visual word pictures which eases the novel through a complex narrative structure which was rearranged for the movie version.
Best of the 1990s? It is the Booker winner which has remained in the public consciousness and in earning this nomination held off Jim Crace’s Quarantine shortlisted in 1997 (passed over for what? Arundhati Roy’s debut The God of Small Things.) Another challenger for the Best of the 1990s would have to be James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late. Still, The English Patient spoke, and continues to speak, to a wide audience in a way literary fiction seldom does. Place your money.
And so dawned the noughties and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, her first Man Booker winner, represents a decade begun with Peter Carey’s terrific second Booker winner, True History of the Kelly Gang. Mantel crafted a full-bodied, insistent and confident book, which as a bestseller went on to sell more than 500,000 copies in the UK alone. It made Henry V111’s erstwhile adviser, Thomas Cromwell, an unlikely household name in the process. It is colourful history writing, none too subtle, and its sequel, Bring up the Bodies, was to complete a unique double, three years later, in a weak shortlist. True to Man Booker tradition, Mantel did not win either year with her finest novel which remains Beyond Black, published in 2005, and was lamented by me as a notable Man Booker omission that year.
To the Teens; and to Man Booker in our troubled times. George Saunders is popular, even revered and, not 60 until December 2018, is the baby of the list. By winning with Lincoln in the Bardo last year he not only presented a moving portrait of a father’s love, but he depicted a very human leader. Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States provides quite a contrast to the current incumbent, so for many observers Lincoln in the Bardo is a subtle satire. It’s not really. But it is touching and even profound, only perhaps too recent for Man Booker watchers who enjoy trawling our history and complaining about choices made, to expend too much debate on it yet, and not in the company in which it is for the purposes of this contest.
2011 saw the shortlisting of Patrick de Witt’s The Sisters Brothers; 2013 was the year Jim Crace should have won with Harvest, while I was prepared to bet my humble house in 2015 on Tom McCarthy’s wonderful Satin Island….but didn’t and he failed to win. McCarthy was in good company as a runner up; Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread didn’t win either. Whispered aside: Richard Flanagan’s 2014 winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a dramatic war novel, would have been an interesting Golden 50 contender…
Funny things, literary prizes…. Still, Man Booker continues to achieve its objective; it showcases fiction and keeps us talking, arguing, speculating, debating and, above all, reading.
Verdict: A close-run thing between the cool authority of Moon Tiger, which with its laconic tone of regret is certainly deserving a revival, and the lush, seductive, ever enduring, near Shakespearean appeal of doomed love as portrayed by The English Patient in prose which certainly shimmers and remains difficult to resist.