John Fowles, Saul Bellow, Lady Antonia Fraser, Philip Toynbee and John Gross.
I assume we all know the first three (how did they get rid of Dame West?) Philip Toynbee was a British writer and journalist. He wrote experimental novels, and distinctive verse novels, one of which was an epic called Pantaloon. He also wrote memoirs of the 1930s, and reviews and literary criticism, the latter mainly via his employment with The Observer newspaper. John Gross, the respected critic, was the chair.
Thomas Kilroy: The Big Chapel, Faber & Faber; Doris Lessing: Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Jonathan Cape; Mordecai Richler, St. Urbain’s Horseman; Weidenfeld & Nicolson; Derek Robinson, Goshaw Squadron, Pan, Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Chatto & Windus; V.S. Naipaul, In a Free State, Andre Deutsch
A blogger for The Guardian is reading all the Booker winners (just the winners, the lucky sap) and writing about each book. He also delivers some great gossip from time to time. Here’s the poop on the 71 pick:
Perhaps the experience of 1971 was enough to make the prize organizers think twice about including so many free-thinking intellectual heavyweights again. While Gross would cheerily describe the books he had to read as “rather a good lot”, Fowles, never one to mince his words said (probably more accurately): “Some of the publishers’ entries were insults to the judges and the others on their lists.” Bellow meanwhile declared that: “Five per cent were interesting,” and added: “For the rest it was like meeting virgins, who are neither wise nor foolish, but just bald.”
Most egregiously of all, and thus proving that the contemporary debate about whether the prize should go to the writer or the book (pace Ian McEwan and Amsterdam), Bellow also let slip that the prize had gone to: “the best writer, but not the best book.” He did so a full month before the prize was due to be officially announced, and, in fact, a week before the shortlist was even published.
I’ve been unable to discover which book Bellow actually thought better than In A Free State, but that’s by-the-by. Perhaps the most striking thing about the statement is that everybody seems to have assumed from it that VS Naipaul was going to win, even though other contenders included Doris Lessing and Elizabeth Taylor.
The Trinidadian titan’s status in 1971 was especially high, before all those memoirs complaining about his all-elbows personality and after a remarkable decade of writing beginning with A House For Mr. Biswas. This breakthrough comic masterpiece, still regarded as one of his best, had been produced at a price, however. The strain of writing it left him, he said, “a changed man”. He also noted sadly: “One has been damaged.”
Now I’m really looking forward to reading this bunch.
For 1969 and 1970 I reported on the books alphabetically with the winner last. From this point on, I will report on the books in the order in which I read them. My inclination is to try and read the winner last but I’m not always going to be able to do because it depends on how and when I get copies of the books.
Derek Robinson—Goshawk Squadron (UBC library)
The front cover: “A bleak and savage book, full of terror of warfare and shot through with grim humour; a sort of first-world-war Catch 22.” The Guardian.
I’ve read lots of war literature. In grad school I did a whole course on World War I literature. Certainly Goshawk Squadron is well written and stacks up with some of the best but it isn’t the startling revelation it purports to be—or , from the distance of 2008, doesn’t seem so. Sarah Palin might be startled by the suggestion that soldiers are not just doing God’s work, but most of us aren’t.
Robinson takes on the romantic vision of the WWI aviator. Young recruits arrive full of valor and sense of duty. The squadron leader, Wooley, does his best to disenchant them and prepare them for the realities of aerial dogfights.
And that’s where he lost me. On page 134. One dogfight too many. I skipped to the end where, in a 2-page epilogue, Robinson explains that he wrote the book after reading remarks from a former R. F. C. pilot written on the occasion of the 50th jubilee of the R. A. F., “He said that, to be strictly honest about it, the objective of a fighter pilot in the First World War ‘was to sneak in unobserved close behind his opponent and then shoot him in the back.’” That sums up the novel.
Elizabeth Taylor—Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (UBC library)
I’ve seen the movie, and I hate it when I’ve seen a movie before reading a book. I go out of my way to avoid having that happen. That’s how I ended up reading The Da Vinci Code a few years back. Yoicks.
The movie was good. Joan Plowright was good. And it’s hard to get those images out of your head. The book sets the tone for the movie, but there is a richness that the movie can’t capture. It misses the internal monologues of the characters, and thereby often misses the motivation behind their actions.
The novel has a very small canvas—a widow relocating to a London hotel to spend out her last days. Taylor has a keen eye for astute details, and I’m not talking about a Carol Shields-like obsession with superfluous details like the colour of the strips on the tea towels. In this novel each detail is exact, and relevant.
The book jacket talks of the “casual cruelty” of daily lives and relationships. Taylor contrasts the pain and rudeness of youth and old age. Neither is condemned or condoned. All the characters are forgotten, marginalized people full of fears. Taylor’s writing is keen and sure. It’s deceptively simple. A marvelous read.
V. S. Naipaul—In A Free State—WINNER abebooks
Back to grad school, again, where I had to read a lot of Naipaul for a novel course. One of the students was completing her Ph.D. thesis on Naipaul. As I recall, she argued that Naipaul had a very bleak vision, a vision so dark that he is continually amazed that people carry on at all. This novel fits that description. Utterly humourless.
Written in five sections, the first and last as journal entries, the novel is a mosaic of people far from home—foreigners, aliens, misfits. Sometimes we know we are on a Greek steamer, or with a servant newly moved to Washington from Bombay. In other sections the location is unclear, and unimportant; it’s all about displacement. “Tell Me Who to Kill” is disjointed. The combination of pidgin English and non-linear narrative makes it tricky—the reader must really pay attention. Maybe too much attention—I don’t think the piece worked particularly well.
At the heart is the irony of free men in a free state and continually altering notions of happiness, rarely realized. Weddings are more like funerals. Free men are quickly enslaved. “In a Free State” is a race against civil war, a race with no chance to win and no finish line. Nothing remains fixed. Everything seems ambiguous.
It’s a powerful book, with flaws.
Doris Lessing—Briefing For a Descent into Hell VPL
I really wanted to like this book. The premise is so interesting. Charles is found wandering, with no memory and no identification. He is taken to hospital. The text is a combination of Charles inner world with occasional intrusions from the real world—though part of what is being challenged is the line between the two. As the internal narrative increasingly takes over, the inner world (mirrored by the writing style) becomes richer. Or, that’s what’s supposed to happen.
In actuality, it’s tedious. And pretentious. Around page 100 I started thinking of those long indulgent passages in Jonathan Livington Seagull. I read a page and a half to George, who moaned and begged me to stop. George Stanley came over for dinner, declared Lessing “brilliant” so I gave him the same passage to read. He stopped after half a page because he was bored.
As an exploration of “psychic geography” (as the BUMF claims) the book is not persuasive. It works better, but still is tedious, if read as science fiction; Charles’ mind is taken over by powers that he is unable to recall in his right mind.
Mordecai Richler—St. Urbain’s Horseman VPL
Oy. It’s so hard to imagine this book as if it were fresh and new, having previously read it and other Richler novels, which for me often seem to blend together. I had to work hard to put aside some sense of same-old, same-old. I find Richler’s insistent use of shit for humour to be tedious. (Notice how often I am using the word tedious in my reports?) One bathroom scene seems of no importance to the rest of the novel—only there for a cheap shit giggle. Do we need to know that Jake uses suppositories? And even if we do, do we need a complete description of the insertion procedure. It just seems to be gratuitous barroom humour.
But on the topic of toilets, it is interesting that Cousin Herky’s hare-brained scheme to get rich involves the development of a toilet with a variation of flush options depending on need, in order to save water. Cousin Herky was ahead of his time!
The novel captures some nuances of the time, such as the way Canadians, as Richler argues, “were reared to believe in the cultural thinness of their own blood.” It also reflects the sexual revolution of the 60s with some accuracy.
But there are times when it seems heavy handed—trying too hard to be a Big novel with Big themes. Jake is a schmuck. The novel does show Richler’s sure sense of language and great ear for dialogue. Does it deserve to be on this short-list? Yes, I think so. In 1971 I expect it would have had more startling power than it does now. Should it have won? No, not in my opinion.
Thomas Kilroy—The Big Chapel—(bookfinder)
Thomas Kilroy is a playwright. To date, this is his only published novel. Maybe that’s why it was so hard to find. This is the first book I was unable to find at either the Vancouver Public Library or at UBC. UBC has lots of his work, but all of them plays, not this novel. I was able to buy it online, though there weren’t many copies available and they are expensive. No picking up a cheap used paperback. Cheapest I could find was $30, plus shipping.
What a switch from the Richler. It moved from Jewish angst to Irish angst. The novel is based on a real-life incident from the 1870s involving difference of opinions about schools (never fully explained) between Protestants and Catholics. It’s eerie to be reading this novel during the US election campaign where Sarah Palin has people worked up about Barrack Obama, screaming “kill him” at rallies, and no one saying, “Stop.” Some supporters describe Palin as “filled with the spirit of the Lord” which, for them, makes her the right pick, versus “that Nigger who pals around with terrorists.” The novel is about such disparate and ignorant religious intolerance, and how it can turn to mob violence. In The Big Chapel an accusation of being “Godless” justifies bloodshed.
The novel seems a return to Victorian times in more than its topic. I wanted to pitch it after page 60. So, I googled around, looking for some reason for perseverance and found the following from The Guardian, May 2008. The Guardian editors had asked several dozen people to recommend books they would like to see back in print to forward to Faber & Faber since the publisher was looking for such long out-of-print books. Brian Friel recommended The Big Chapel by Thomas Kilroy. Here are his reasons:
‘Thomas Kilroy’s The Big Chapel (1971) is an important novel, a prickly story, an angry story. As in all his angular plays, the people in this novel have their home – a term they wouldn’t be fully at ease with – in the margins. They are not of the centre, of the consensus. But they are not a marginalized people: the margins are their centre. And they inhabit the margins because, as Denis Donoghue says, “the margins is the place for those feelings and intuitions that daily life doesn’t have a place for and mostly seems to suppress. And the most important intuition is of mystery.” Or, as Flannery O’Connor said, “Fiction is concerned with mystery that is lived; the ultimate mystery as we find it embodied in the concrete world of sense experience.”
And now The Big Chapel has a chance to come back to full life after 30 years of catalepsy. The Red Priest will thunder again. The big chapel will be desecrated. The Master will be felled. And the mystery life of its people, agitated and baffled by an unease just that bit beyond their comprehension and control, will unfold again as if for the first time. And the novel will be acclaimed and garlanded again. But what will keep it permanently vital will be the response it evokes once more from its astonished and grateful readers.”
If it’s a modern Irish classic, as both the book jacket of my copy and Friel claim, why has it been out of print for decades? Then I poked some more and found that Friel and Kilroy have frequently worked together, which makes sense. Friel is generally acknowledged to be one of the best, if not the best Irish playwright of the last half-century.
I know and really like Friel’s work. Translations is one of my favourites, and I read many of the plays for my comprehensive exams (more confessions about that when we get to Edna O’Brien). The subject of this novel may be of great interest to Irish scholars, and to Friel, but as a novel it is a slog. And because of the non-linear jumping around of the storytelling technique, it is a confusing slog.
I guess I would give this year to Elizabeth Taylor. Nothing really knocked my socks off.
John Fowles comments above point to the huge influence of publishers on this prize. A publisher can only submit 2 books (a third can be sent if that author is a previous Booker winner). Jury members can request a book but how can jury members know every book published by Commonwealth writers?
How do jurors deal with this task? I’m only on the third year, and only reading the short-list, supposedly the best, and I’m feeling bogged down. How much time do they have to read them? How much are they paid? (It can’t possibly be enough). More importantly, who picks the jury? To some extent that process must also be picking the winners. And finally, what is the mandate for the make-up of the jury? I’ll have to do some homework and report back.
John Gross—from The Guardian
A faint aroma of the Nobel prize – or of Nobel prizes yet to come – hangs over the 1971 Booker. First, the award went to VS Naipaul (who was to be Nobel laureate in 2001) for In a Free State. It was a result with which I agreed. Second, the organizers had succeeded in persuading a distinguished writer from abroad to be one of the judges: Saul Bellow (who was to be Nobel laureate in 1976). It seemed a thrilling prospect.
In the event, one of the things I remember most clearly about Bellow is that he insisted on being put up at the Ritz (which must have burned a big hole in the budget), and then complained because he hadn’t been given a room overlooking Green Park.
Another recollection is his response when I advanced the claims of Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, which apart from the Naipaul was the book on the shortlist I most favoured. “Oh,” he said, “that’s one of those little tinkling teacup things that the British always do well.” He was quite wrong – Mrs. Palfrey is a work of deep feeling – but his dismissiveness effectively put paid to its chances.
But an even better piece of gossip comes from the Booker website itself:
This was the year when the Booker Prize had its first controversy, in the form of one of the judges, Malcolm Muggeridge. Having read his way through most of the submissions he found himself ‘out of sympathy’ with them and withdrew his services, ‘nauseated and appalled’. Needless to say that year’s winner, V S Naipaul’s In a Free State, chalked up record sales.
What do they mean, “needless to say”? The Booker claims that it “promotes the finest in fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year” but even the material the Booker itself produces indicates it’s all really about branding and marketing. The following is again from the Booker website:
Derek Johns on the impact of the Man Booker shortlist
The Man Booker Prize for Fiction heaps great rewards on those authors who win it, ensuring a world-wide audience for their books, and a good chance of seeing their winning novel adapted into a film. What may sometimes be overlooked, however, is the rewards that even a shortlisted author may receive.
Since the longlist of the Man Booker Prize began to be published in 2001 (hitherto it was a closely guarded secret, even after the shortlist was announced), literary agents have become accustomed to receiving numerous inquiries about the books featured on it. And now that the long-list has been reduced from about twenty or so to the twelve or thirteen it now is (the so-called ‘Booker Dozen’), these inquiries have increased in number. It is when we get to the short-list announcement, however, that things become interesting.
It is generally the case that books which reach the shortlist have already established some sort of market for themselves. But many shortlisted books will not yet have secured either American or translation publishers, and certainly will not have been placed with a film or television producers. The announcement of the shortlisted books nowadays is certain to lead to a rush of inquiries from these sources.
American publishers are especially well-attuned to the Man Booker Prize. Since no American prize has a comparable effect on sales (the Pulitzer boosts a career rather than a single book, and the National Book Award goes largely unnoticed), for many years now American publishers have taken a lively interest. Last year’s winner, Anne Enright’s The Gathering, has by reliable estimates sold over three hundred thousand copies in America, a remarkable number.
Given the dominance of the English language around the world, publishers in Europe and beyond are similarly alert to the possibilities that the Man Booker Prize affords. Publishers in certain countries, such as Holland and Greece and Portugal, will respond very quickly. It is often the case that the major foreign markets – Germany, France, Italy, Spain, etc. – will already have been sold; but a shortlisting may easily boost the number of translations from a modest three or four to ten or more (and winning will boost this number even further, to thirty or more).
Film and television producers are similarly alert to the possibilities. The recent ‘Booker at the Movies’ programme at the ICA demonstrated how many books – short-listed books as well as winners – have been adapted for film or television. Of this year’s short-listed books, I confidently expect at least two to be realised on the screen, and perhaps more.
The Man Booker Prize acts as a lightning-rod, drawing attention to the lucky (and talented) authors who feature on it. It is a truly international prize, one of the very few literary prizes that have a world-wide influence. In its forty years it has demonstrated year after year the strength and depth of fiction writing in the English language.’
Derek Johns is joint managing director A P Watt, the longest-established literary agency in the world. www.apwatt.co.uk
How is this about anything but marketing, sales, sales, sales, not great literary quality? What will work in the literary aftermarket? And that dismissive comment about the National Book Prize! I tend to agree with Margaret Drabble in the following article, this time from the Independent:
At a meeting of alumni in her old Cambridge University college, Newnham, Dame Margaret suggested that she felt pressure from Penguin, to “rebrand” her fiction, The Independent has been told. At the discussion, alongside the novelist Sarah Dunant, she said: “I have had a weird feeling that I’m being dumbed down by my publishers and it’s interesting there’s an agenda of how it should be in the marketplace.
Dunant also commented on the idea of remarketing an author as a “semi-celebrity”:
There is also… anxiety over the whole role of prizes in this. We have more prizes than ever before. Who are they really for? Are they to celebrate the writer and the work or is this another arm of marketing in the books trade? Looking at publishing … it has been saturated with the notion of the creation of celebrity as a marketing opportunity … There has to be a box, a place they can put you. I just find it annoying but it doesn’t stop me from writing exactly what I wish to write. This conversation between Margaret Drabble and myself was part of the larger observation that everything needs to be packaged, that writers cannot be who they are,” she said.
Bang on, Dame Margaret. Celebrity and markets, not literary excellence.
3661 words, January 20, 2010