Cracaleured Maenads

October 10, 2005 at 10:18 pm 1 comment

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. 😦


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Posh Bingo? Diff'rent Strokes

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Anonymous  |  February 17, 2010 at 12:45 am

    Do you have copy writer for so good articles? If so please give me contacts, because this really rocks! 🙂


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