Dark horse Jacobson emerges to take prize

 

In Jacobson, the Man Booker has a winner who has written a good novel not a great one

MANY A championship 10,000m final has been won by the runner who stayed quietly at the back of the leading group. In similar style did the British writer and high-profile media pundit Howard Jacobson emerge last night as a popular winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize with The Finkler Question.

The prize, which had seemed destined for Emma Donoghue’s topical and important novel Roomdespite the hype surrounding the early favourite Tom McCarthy’s overrated C, had an unusually relaxed run-up.

The contemporary relevance of Donoghue’s narrative about a mother’s courage in summoning imagination to help her and her small son survive not only a nightmare imprisonment but the intrusions inflicted in the aftermath of freedom, earned her extensive support. It could be argued that she should have won the Man Booker in 2000 with her historical novel, Slammerkin, but it was not even shortlisted.

Now, a decade later, Roomlooked to be a serious and worthy contender, ever growing in strength, whereas divided reviews confirmed that the many cracks in Cwere being noted and the pre-publication hype faded.

Few fancied the chances of former double Booker winner Peter Carey to take the prize for a third time. Parrot and Olivier in America, a confident period romp is lively and although superior to Cnever seemed a likely winner.

The most consistently visible contender in recent weeks, ironically, has been Jacobson, born in 1942, who wrote a long essay for the Guardianreview on the merits of comic fiction. Looking to Dickens among others he made a convincing case.

He has also been profiled and interviewed; many of the pieces had the feel of a career being assessed. Twice longlisted, most recently with Kalooki Nightsin 2006 and also for Who’s Sorry Now?in 2002, Jacobson has long been acknowledged as a satirist with a favoured theme, the British Jewish experience. The Finkler Questionis about a friendship begun in boyhood by two very different men, now middle-aged, who share an old mentor, their former teacher, Libor Sevcik, the emotional heart of the book.

It is a likeable performance and features in Julian a defeated former BBC radio producer, an Everyman figure whose life is a mess.

It also means that for the second consecutive year, the £50,000 (€56,800) Man Booker has gone to an English writer, although Jacobson and Hilary Mantel have little in common. The Finkler Questionis very funny but also sad and very human. It is not a great book, but it is certainly a good one with a wide appeal, not only because of old Libor whose life has found its greatest purpose: that of mourning his beloved dead wife. Jacobson would probably concede that Kalooki Nightsis a better novel, while The Mighty Walzer(1999) remains his funniest. In Jacobson, the Man Booker has a winner who has written a good novel as well as 10 others equally readable.

There is no disputing that for many English writers, he is a writer’s writer in the way of say the South African-born English based Justin Cartwright, and Jacobson revels in writing colourful dialogue that spins on exasperated exchanges, of which there are many in The Finkler Question.

There will be no skin and hair flying on this result. Fiction of the human condition variety has won, no tricks, no issues, although Jacobson’s political intelligence and his awareness of the Jewish international mandate, does surface. He had often been compared with early Roth and there are sub-Bellow flashes in the winning book. Jacobson is an opinionated, persuasive performer. While readers venture to purchase the Man Booker winner it would be a good opportunity to buy another of his novels, The Making of Henry(2004).

As the victory spotlight deservedly lingers over Jacobson, his winning novel and his backlist, it seems fair to applaud the judges for having selected Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, the most personal narrative on the shortlist, and also the most beautiful. For all its lushness, or perhaps of the heightened prose, Andrea Levy’s The Long Songalways remained an outsider.

So a good comic novel won in the absence of a great one. Jacobson’s championing of the comic genre may have worked, it certainly helped. Had Paul Murray’s Skippy Diesmade the shortlist it would have been a thrilling showdown. The 2010 Man Booker has been decided with no suggestion of pistols at dawn. Traditional fiction shaped by everyday preoccupations of love, loss and mortality made for an unanimous decision.