Archive for October, 2005

Cracaleured Maenads

Well, well. Yet again the hot favourite hasn’t won. I suspect that it is part of the psychology of judging such a high-profile prize to want to surprise people. If you pick the winner everyone expects then you weren’t really needed, were you?

Congratulations must go to John Banville: officially recognised for his art and no longer a mere journeyman. There’s one less nearlyman in the world, and what other value do prizes have for art? I am pleased for him.

In his acceptance speech, Banville had a few words of encouragement for his fellow writers, telling them that if they hang around long enough “it will come”. He certainly had a long wait: he’s been writing novels since 1970. Surprisingly he has only been nominated once before – in 1989 when The Book of Evidence lost out to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (probably my favourite Booker winner). Tonight the tables were turned. Apparently the judges were split between The Sea and Never Let Me Go – which would have been fifth and sixth on my list! The chairman, Professor John Sutherland (a man, as always) had to cast the deciding vote. Good choice John; and if either of the two judges who wanted to give the prize to Ishiguro ever read this, feel free to explain why.

Now, I have to confess to only having read half of The Sea. I was reading it at the same time as The Accidental and whereas John Banville made me feel as miserable as a wet weekend in a seaside hospice, Ali Smith made me laugh. Compare and contrast. Both books have a poetic sensibility, and are imbued with true humanity – rather than the dry cleverness of more academic writers who shall remain nameless; but where The Accidental is uplifting, The Sea is downbeat, and yet they bring to my mind two stanzas from the same poem – one of my favourites:

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.


Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

– Longfellow, A Psalm of Life –

Ali Smith may not have won, but there seems to be lots of love out there in the blogosphere for her book. She is quickly becoming one of my heart’s favourite writers, alongside Carson McCullers, John Steinbeck, and John Berger. She has soul.

Anyway, I did read some more of The Sea today. Including two more words that will baffle the thousands of new readers the Booker Prize will bring: cracaleured and maenads. They sound wonderful when you put them together though, and what more can you ask of words?

I understand (and I use that word optimistically) that it’s not Banville using obscure words, it’s the narrator. Well, Max Morden may be an art historian, but surely not even they speak (or write) quite like that. With the possible exception of Brian Sewell.

The reviewer in The Times had similar reservations, and concluded that “Banville has a talent for sensuous phrasing, and pungent observation of human frailty, but in other areas important for fiction — plot, character, pacing, suspense — The Sea is a crashing disappointment.”

So The Sea is an old-fashioned Booker winner: overtly literary, observant and descriptive, but with any semblance of plot confined to reminiscences. As Tibor Fischer said in The Sunday Telegraph: “there’s a lot of lovely language but not much novel.”

And as The Guardian says, it is one of the least commercial on the shortlist – something which Banville alluded to in his charmingly self-deprecatory acceptance speech when he thanked his publishers for sticking with him through one “unsaleable” novel after another. This one will sell now – winning the Booker can boost sales by 500% – but I really wouldn’t recommend it as a Christmas present.

According to The Times, Sutherland described The Sea as “a masterly study of grief” and a “slit your throat novel” – while of Banville’s writing he said: “You feel you’re in the presence of a virtuoso. In his hands, language is an instrument.”

Yes, but it’s an oboe playing a requiem for a dying stag. Like life, I’m not looking forward to finishing it. It’s not going to have a happy ending. 😦


October 10, 2005 at 10:18 pm 1 comment

Posh Bingo?

Being the favourite for the Booker Prize usually puts the kibosh on your chances, and if you have also publicly dismissed the prize as “posh bingo” – as Julian Barnes did once – well, that probably doesn’t help either. Even so, Arthur & George is the hot favourite to win tomorrow night. Coincidentally (I don’t think) BBC Radio 4 have chosen it to be this week’s Book At Bedtime. I’ll certainly be tuning in.

I have to say that I struggled with it at first. I thought the early part of the book plodded along: alternating, rather monotonously, between the early years of Arthur and George. Maybe it was my aversion to all things Victorian but, finding it rather pedestrian, I put it down – and for a long time didn’t feel like picking it up again. When I finally did I quickly became engrossed in Barnes’s recreation of this extraordinary miscarriage of justice from a century ago. It should win. I wish I’d backed it at 7-1.

Then again those odds of 12-1 against Ali Smith are still very tempting. Imaginative, vivacious and witty, I suspect that The Accidental is the book which will most reward re-reading – and since the judges will (presumably) have read all six books a second time (at least) that might be significant.

Her namesake can’t be discounted either. From what I’ve read of On Beauty (which still isn’t much – tempus doesn’t half fugit) it is a book I would recommend and, at the end of the day (after it gets dark), judging a literary prize means, effectively, recommending a book to thousands of complete strangers. Although reading Zadie’s updation (if that’s not a word it should be) of Howard’s End is like watching an athlete breaking the record for the 110m hurdles knowing that it won’t count because of ‘wind-assistance’ and wondering how much difference the wind actually makes. And those emails at the start: perfectly punctuated, unabbreviated, grammatical emails from a twenty-year old? Nah. UR avin a larf m8.

I’m still surprised that Never Let Me Go made the shortlist ahead of Slow Man, Saturday, and Shalimar The Clown. As I’ve said before, it left me cold. It feels like a miniature painted in the middle of a large canvas – dwarfed by all the blank space the artist has left for the viewer to fill in themselves. Where are we? When are we? “England, late 1990s” we are told at the start of the book – but, surely it isn’t our world. So is this a parallel universe, or what? Has something just flown over my head?

As for Ireland’s hopes, John Banville’s prose may be the best on show – there are few ordinary sentences in The Sea – but perhaps he over-eggs the pudding. Trips to the dictionary are all too frequent: lineaments; levitant; minatory; velutinous; cicatrice; ichor… To stretch the culinary metaphor, it’s like a fine soup full of crunchy bits you have to pick out of your teeth. And Sebastian Barry’s novel is moving in every sense: A Long Long Way marches briskly along (which came as a relief to me because I was all warred out a long long time ago) while giving us new perspectives on loyalty and conflict.

I wonder how much conflict there will be in the judges’ chambers? With such a wide open shortlist to choose from there could be a long debate tomorrow – they might strive and strive and make them wait but, between thee and me, I think they will call Barnes top of the shop.

Ali is the greatest in my eyes though.

October 10, 2005 at 2:09 am 1 comment

Booker That Wuzn't

The Guardian are asking people to nominate their ‘Booker that shoulda’ [groan] – a shortlisted book from the last ten years that ‘wuz robbed’ of the Booker Prize, with the best entry winning thirty shortlisted titles.

My first thought (me and thousands of others no doubt) was Cloud Atlas last year – a much more intriguing work than The Line of Beauty. Alan Hollinghurst may have toned it down a bit since The Swimming Pool Library but at times his books still read like soft gay porn to me – and I know whereof I speak. Intelligently written soft gay porn maybe, but wank fodder nonetheless.

However, rather than being a voice in the crowd, I decided to be a voice in the wilderness. I was drawn to Quarantine by Jim Crace, and so I chose to use my 100 words to advocate it thusly:

As I perused the Booker shortlists one book leapt out at me: a book so vivid I didn’t read it, I felt it. Is it really eight years since that winter evening I sat reading it by lamplight?

Transported back two thousand years by Jim Crace’s evocative prose. Being there, in the Judaean desert: seeing the harsh landscape; feeling the fierce thirst; smelling the sneeringly real people… (and is that god over there, or just a man?)

How could the judges have preferred the clinically-clever Rushdie-clone style of Arundhati Roy’s soulless and sometimes repulsive book, to Quarantine?

October 3, 2005 at 11:35 pm 1 comment


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