For the real action at this year’s Man Booker Prize, you had to hit the cloakroom. For much of the evening, along with correspondents from all the major newspapers, I was sequestered in a large room in the palatial spread of the Guildhall. It was only when I ventured downstairs that recognizable faces attached to tuxedos and evening gowns began to drift in from the dinner. I ran across one former winner, dreamily improvising at an invisible keyboard while explaining how relieved he was to belong to what he called the great continuity of the prize; a well-known literary editor roamed the corridors, warily peering from right to left in the manner of a displaced meerkat; and Anne Robinson, host of The Weakest Link, was huddled against a wall, unusually hushed by the seashell allure of her cellphone.
Although The Weakest Link will soon no longer grace British television, perhaps its format of staged humiliation might serve as an alternative mechanism for winnowing out one novel from the many that are published over the course of a year. After all, this year’s favorite, Julian Barnes, once described the Booker as “posh bingo.” And such a system might at least deflect the increasingly silly scandal that attends the prize. While this year’s shortlisted novels have enjoyed unprecedented commercial success, they have also been met by an unusual degree of critical disdain. Announcing the shortlist a little over a month ago, the judges declared an interest in readability and, as the Labor MP Chris Mullin put it, a preference for books that had “zip.” The response was one of frankly outraged astonishment. Writing in The New Statesman, Leo Robson attacked “the caliber of the judges” and warned of “a time when the prize will be seen as a way not of celebrating novels, just of selling them.” The agent Andrew Kidd, supported by former winners John Banville and Pat Barker, has established a rival literature prize intended to reward quality rather than, well, rather than what? In response, or possibly for a lark, another judge, Susan Hill, author of The Woman in Black and I’m the King of the Castle, tweeted some classics she considered unreadable. Ulysses and War and Peace anyone?
On Tuesday night, as the chair of the judges, Dame Stella Rimington, rose to announce the winner, the entire Guildhall crackled with anticipation. During her absorbing speech, she drew comparisons with global geopolitics, addressed the moral mission of good critical reading—and proposed an alternative prize of her own “for the most original and thought-provoking literary criticism around the Man Booker prize.” Superficially, such an agenda might recall John Berger’s furious denunciation of Booker McConnell’s commercial practices after he won the prize in 1972. (He then donated half of his award to the Black Panthers.) But Rimington’s speech was defensive, whereas Berger’s spewed radical ire; she quoted F. R. Leavis and Alexander Pope to burnish her credentials, while he channeled the spirit of Frantz Fanon. As she described the friendship that had developed between all the judges and the amicability that governed their discussions, it was difficult to avoid the sense that the public spat had fostered among them the kind of solidarity shared by the skeleton crew of a stricken submarine. Hell is other people’s books.
Everyone seemed relieved when Rimington announced Barnes as the victor. It may have seemed to cynics like an exhausted concession, but, in so many ways, his novel The Sense of an Ending was a very appropriate winner. The novel takes its title from an influential study of literary apocalypses by the late Sir Frank Kermode, a judge for the inaugural Booker McConnell Prize in 1969. In a series of slim and still undervalued books written throughout the seventies and eighties, Kermode tactfully probed some of the enormous questions Rimington raised. What is the purpose of the novel? How many different interpretations or opinions can a single book inspire or contain? Kermode’s History and Value ostensibly surveyed the intensely politicized writing of the thirties, but he also made some judicious interventions on the subjects of taste, literary value, and the canon. Addressing academic iconoclasts, Kermode argued:
[Canon] is a highly selective instrument, and one reason why we need to use it is that we haven’t enough memory to process everything. The only other option is not a universal reception of the past and its literature but a Dadaist destruction of it. It must therefore be protected by those who have it and coveted by those who don’t.
Not unlike the canon, prize shortlists purport to organize and impose a sense of priority on the contemporary literary scene. But precisely because it is so provisional, so fissile and so instantly contestable, the Booker is an unreliable guide to the reading habits of posterity. If it were, some improbable trends might emerge. The Booker would start to be dominated by a few major names, and even by rivalries, like the major tennis opens. In his speech, Barnes reminisced about how he made his fictional debut alongside another former winner, the great Penelope Fitzgerald, in an anthology of ghost stories. I later asked him whether he felt glad to be in Fitzgerald’s company once more and, without hesitating, he announced that he would have awarded her the Booker for each of her last four novels and that “every working novelist can learn from her.”
But seasoned Barnes admirers might detect another literary presence. The Sense of an Ending can be read as a tender homage to the unreliable narrator as perfected in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. Barnes recently presented a BBC Radio documentary on Ford and a few years ago eloquently celebrated “the saddest story” in an essay for The Guardian.
This is a novel which proceeds, both at phrase-level and in terms of plot and character, by moments of disorienting readjustment, some sly and secretive, others dazzlingly brazen. Facts yield and deliquesce before impressions; impressions are crushed by subsequent facts. What can we know?
Much the same could be said for the intricate self-deception within which Tony Webster, the narrator of The Sense of an Ending, cocoons himself.
To point out this debt subtracts nothing from Barnes’s achievement, which is one of consummate technical control and emotional artistry. The unreliable narrator was not the innovation of a single novel. Before The Good Soldier, Ford had worked with Joseph Conrad to achieve the bold chronological elasticity of Nostromo, and alongside these novels stood the marmoreal achievement of Henry James’s later fictions. The same applies over the course of a single literary career. Asked whether The Sense of an Ending was his best book, Barnes abjured the notion that his novels might constitute a totality. But unreliability requires a sureness of touch and a knowledge of what readers expect from narration that comes only incrementally. So behind Tony Webster stand the ghostly forms of Geoffrey Braithwaite from Flaubert’s Parrot and the trio of lovers from Talking It Over and Love, Etc.
At the press conference, Barnes explained how he thought the fuss raised over readability had been a bit of a “false hare.” But The Sense of an Ending is a salutary reminder that fiction is nothing if not the art of false hares and that, at its most unstable, treacherous and elusive, it is also defiantly readable.
Jonathan Gharraie is the British correspondent for The Daily.