By Jean Baird | October 11, 2010

I think it’s now time to have a closer look at the Booker prize rules and see how they might be affecting the outcomes. Over the years the GG and Giller have had multiple—and different kinds of—winners  and the prize administrators have changed the rules. That is also true of the Booker, which now has a rule that the prize cannot be “divided or withheld.” This rule must have been a response to 1992, when the prize was split between Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth. Every book that is on the Booker short-list “must have the full support of at least one judge in whose opinion it is a valid contender.” So no putting a book on the short-list unless at least one juror is prepared to champion it as the winner.

That presents a problem, in my view. How can the Booker have a short-list of 6 books when there are only 5 jurors? Plus the chairman doesn’t vote unless there is a deadlock. There’s a joke about literary prizes that goes like this: If you win, someone says, “Congratulations, you were everyone’s second choice.” Behind the statement is the understanding that the best book never wins and the winner is always a compromise. I think it was Phyllis Webb who once described prizes as exercises in juror compromise.

A few years ago there was a kerfluffle about the Giller. Some reactionist was trying to argue that the Giller has an entry fee, which it doesn’t. What the Giller does have is a policy that any publisher submitting a book must agree to contribute $1500 to advertising if the book makes the short-list. Considering the claims the Giller makes about book sales resulting from being short-listed that doesn’t seem unreasonable. But get a load of this rule—for the Booker publishers must agree to contribute 5000 pounds to publicity for a short list and a further 5000 pounds for a winner. At today’s exchange rate that is roughly $9,000 Canadian for a short list and $18,000 for a win. I wonder what the reactionist would say about that?

The 2008 winner was The White Tiger. Before the Booker nomination it had sold fewer than 1,000 copies. After the long list was announced and prior to the short list the sales had increased to 1,852. Pre-win the number increased again to 5,188. As of July 2009 the book accounted for 957,000 British Pounds Sterling in sales for the publisher, who I doubt is complaining about the 10,000 committed to publicity. Fora small and relatively new publisher, it was a windfall.

Now here’s the kicker. That wonderful opportunity isn’t likely to happen for most small Canadian publishers. The Booker rules specify that the book must be written by a citizen of the Commonwealth, Ireland or Zimbabwe; that the writer must be living at the time of the award; and finally, that the book must be “published in the UK.” So despite the insistence that the Man Booker is an international prize it is not inclusive. Outside of the UK it is open only to “big” books rather than best books.

So I would argue that the most inclusive and international prize in the Anglophone literary scene is the Griffin Prize for Poetry. Initially publishers were restricted to three books but that changed in the third year. Scott Griffin explains, “some publishers had more than three good poets and others only had one or two mediocre poets. It seemed unfair on those serious poetry publishers not to allow some of their good poets to compete.” That means that unlike the GG or the Booker, publishers have little influence on the Griffin. There are no restrictions about place of publication or citizenship, either. The jury is always one Canadian and two international jurors.

As I read many of these Booker short-listed novels I wonder if there is some preference within the British publishing industry or British readers for certain types of books. It seems to me that the BBC has a passion for period costume dramas. Many of these novels are nostalgic, looking back to a time when Britain was still a major world power and immigration wasn’t an issue.

I should mention that when I was tracking down 1980 books, for the first time there were books that were owned by VPL but were checked out.

Jury: Professor David Daiches, a Scottish literary historian and literary critic, scholar and writer, editor of many literary anthologies and guides. Ronald Blythe, writer and editor, for 20 years editor of Penguin Classics. Margaret Forster, writer and broadcaster probably best known for Georgy Girl. Clare Tomalin, literary editor of the New Statesman and of the Sunday Times, and author of several noted biographies including one on Charles Dickens. Brian Wenham, controller of BBC 2 from 1978 to 1982. This jury reflects the trend to more critics and literary people and fewer novelists—for 1980 only one novelist.

Anita Desai—Clear Light of Day UBC

Not long ago there was a conference that had some, if not all, of its focus on ethnicity. A dear friend of Japanese heritage had been one of the participants. We were trying to sort out a time to meet for drinks and this friend was unable to attend because of a prior commitment to a debriefing about the conference, “Which is annoying because the only reason I was asked to participate is because of the way I look.”

I don’t want to jump too far into the conundrum of white supremacy or post-colonists’ rewriting of the canon. For many years the GG seemed to go mostly to white guys. As more women became members of juries, more women won. The same was true as more non-white writers became jurors. These are all good things, I think, but only if the first concern when the winner is picked is the quality of the book.

A few years ago a significant award for a writer in mid-career was given to a youngish writer who at that point had published only two books. When it was gently suggested to the jury that the prize might be premature, the jury members said they had decided, firmly, that the prize would go to a woman of colour and that was that. In other words, they were using the award to make a political statement rather than following the rules.

I mention these things because I can’t help but wonder if the main reason Clear Light of Day is on the short-list is the ethnicity of its author. The action, such as it is, takes place around the time of Partition. There are some glimpses of the political stresses of the larger community but for the most part the novel’s focus is the nucleus family of four children. One review at the time of publication called the novel Chekovian, I assume meaning that it has some concern about the difficulty of communication. Perhaps. But it is the trap of domesticity in a patriarchal world that is the core of the novel. The traps here exist because of cultural expectations for those who generally live cut off from the larger world.

I didn’t really learn much about ethnicity from Desai: the novel mentions Muslims, Hindus, etc., and the relief that Gandi had not been murdered by a Muslim, but doesn’t explain or explore the trials of Partition, and that isn’t really the point of the novel. This is a novel about the domestic scene in India, not the larger political world. What I most object to about the inclusion of this novel on the short-list is the poor quality of the writing.

“Then Baba, shaded and sequestered in his own room, played ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ once too often. It was what Bim needed to break her in tow, decapitate her with anger. Clutching at her throat, she strode into his room and jerked the needle-head off the record and twisted back the arm. In the silence that gaped like a wound left by a tooth that has been pulled, she said in a loud, loose voice, ‘I want to have a talk with you, Baba. You’ll have to leave that off and listen to me,’ and sitting down in a canvas chair by his bed, she rattled down a straight lien aimed at Baba, shocked and confused before her, like a train racing down a line, driven by a made driver.”

Okay, you might be saying to yourself, Jean has spent a lot of time looking for a paragraph with too many similes. A few pages later:

“Out on the lawn Badshah was following a suspicious scent laid invisibly in the night. His paws made saucers of colour on the page dew drawn across the grass like a gauzy sheen.

“Teacups clinked on the saucers, tinnily.

“The sunlight spread like warm oil, slowly oozing and staining the tiles.”

George and I have been wondering about Indian languages. Is there something inherent in Indian language or culture that, when translated (not the right word when Indian writers are writing in English) seems to our ear to be excessive, too flowery? I couldn’t dig my way into Rohinton Mistry for the same reasons. Too many similes, excessive description. A friend who did read the book said he was fine once he “got past the language.” Hmmm.

A bright young graduate student from Istanbul told me she found language in Vancouver difficult, and rather flat. She’s now in NYC at Brown, where a faculty member read some of her poems and was “quite severe in pointing out how my use of language was ‘very poetic’ somewhat being too rich for 2009 . He said ‘we don’t talk like this’, and so we talked about who that “we” was. The we of the New York school or the we of North America etc.

“More to the point he provoked me into looking at the whole thing again to see why I was pushing the exaggeration in a (according to him) needless or unnecessary way. I have since rewritten the poem and teased the one point that I think it wanted to make by taking out parts of the high language which were there to explain, describe what is unfamiliar to a particular language activity in the native tongue and ear (saying things you don’t necessarily mean in Turkish, saying I’m dying of thirst rather than I am thirsty, saying I’m going to cut your balls off and throw them at your mother when you get angry at a man catcalling at you, or even in terms of syntax; where the personal proverb is only referred to at the end of the sentence hidden inside the verb as a suffix, (so there is exaggeration but also sometimes a diffused subject or a syntax that sounds over emphasized because of the placement of object and verb) all which when ‘directly’ or rather only semantically  translated (continuously in the writer’s mind)  into English sound very plastic and overstated.”

I have been told by juror members on the Griffin prize that the foreign judges have difficultly understanding the humour in Canadian poetry. They don’t get it.

Anthony Burgess—Earthly Powers UBC

In 2006 The Guardian conducted a poll, asking writers and critics etc., to identify the best novels of the last 25 years. Note that A Bend in the River would not be included since it was published in 1979 and only novels from 1980 on qualified.

The best then are, in order,

Disgrace (1999) JM Coetzee. Coetzee became the first writer to win the Booker Prize for a second time.

Money (1984) Martin Amis. This book received no Booker nomination

Earthly Powers (1980) Anthony Burgess, which lost in 1980 to Golding’s Rites of Passage., and Atonement (2001) Ian McEwan. Short-listed for the Booker but lost to Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. (tied for 3rd)

The Blue Flower (1995) Penelope Fitzgerald. Frequently cited as her masterpiece, the novel received no Booker nomination.

The Unconsoled (1995) Kazuo Ishiguro. Likewise no Booker nomination. 1995 went to The Ghost Road by Pat Barker

Midnight’s Children (1981) Salman Rushdie. Winner 1981 Booker.

(tied for 8th) The Remains of the Day (1989) Kazuo Ishiguro. Winner 1989 Booker; and Amongst Women (1990) John McGahern. Short-listed for the Booker.

That They May Face the Rising Sun (2001) John McGahern. No Booker nomination.

So out of ten books, only three were Booker winners and three others received nominations. If, like all prizes, Booker juries are trying to anticipate what will stand the test of time I suppose that isn’t bad, but it does suggest some serious misses, and gaffes.

In 1980 both Anthony Burgess and William Golding were literary superstars. It is often suggested that the competition of this year is what really put the Bookers on the map and moved it from just another prize to the forefront of international prizes in English. You will note from the above list of 10 books that the Burgess makes number 3 and the Golding doesn’t appear at all, though it won the 1980 Booker.

Here’s the Dust jacket synopsis:Earthly Powers is Anthony Burgess’s supreme achievement as a novelist. An enthralling, epic narrative that spans six decades of history, that spotlights some of the most vivid events and characters of the twentieth century, it is a novel about the nature and the origins of evil.

“As told by the central character himself, a distinguished British writer in his eighties, Earthly Powers is the life of Kenneth Marchal Toomey – from the First World War to the final years of sun-drenched idleness in Malta. A homosexual unable to reconcile his nature with the teachings of the Church, Toomey opted as a young man for a life of loneliness and exile – first in the Paris of James Joyce and Ezra Pound and later in Hollywood at the height of its glamour and corruption.

“His travels, his many assignments and, indeed, the affections of his heart, bring him face to face with the most savage manifestation of evil in the modern world; the murder by witchcraft of a beloved friend in Malaya; the brutalities of Mussolini’s fascists; a Nazi death camp; mass suicide in the name of love in California. Breathing the stench of Buchenwald, Toomey sees finally that evil comes from man himself, it is inborn; for his brother-in-law Carlo, the saintly but sybaritic priest destined to be Pope, it is a force at large in the world that must be challenged constantly in all its guises.

“Despite the darkness of its theme, Earthly Powers is a rewarding entertainment – full of invention, of dazzling word-play, of humour and compassion, of brilliantly sustained portraits of the famous, the infamous and the unforgettable. It is a magnificent accomplishment by one of the most prodigiously gifted of contemporary writers.”

The novel begins, “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” Wow, how’s that for an opener? The only bad writing in this book is the blurb on the book jacket, but it is also absolutely correct. I’ve read a fair amount of Burgess and this is the best. Well, that’s not entirely true about the bad writing—there’s lots of it in the novel, but it’s intentional, for example, this ditty from a musical comedy:

Waking and sleeping

It’s always the same,

Sleeping and waking

I call on your name.

Sleeping I cry,

Waking I sigh,

Knowing there’s no reply.

Or this, from Toomey’s rewrite of the Garden of Eden story (originally the lonely Adam was given a male mate but after the apple business God punished Adam by turning Yeded into the woman Hawwah): “’This.’ And the boy took his lover like a beast, thrusting his empurpled royal greatness into the antrum, without tenderness, with no cooings of love, rather with grunts and howls, his unpared nails drawing blood from breast and belly, and the sky opened for both of them, disclosing in blinding radiance the lineaments of a benedicent numen.”

So ends Chapter 29. Chapter 30 begins: “’Benedicent numen my arse,’ Ford Madox Ford pronounced.

Often when I’m reading one of these whoppers (this novel clocks in at 607 pages) I make notes as I’m reading, knowing I won’t be able to hold it all in my little brain. And I can’t figure that out, either. This novel is so huge in its scope, and meticulous in its examination I don’t know how Burgess could have held it all in his head at one time. But there is no sloppiness, no repetition, no chunks when you think, “this could have been edited down.” I was too drawn in by the reading of it to want to make notes.

As well as the events mentioned in the above blurb the novel examines Catholism, gay and lesbian lifestyles and rights, Nazism, black magic, Chicago gangsters, prohibition, and the general state of British literature in the C20th—there are hundreds of stories, and parodies. Toomey is a popular novelist, not a great one, and he knows and regrets the difference (Toomey is based loosely on the life of Somerset Maughan, some P G Wodehouse). I have no disagreement with this novel placing 3rd on the list. I’ll have to revisit that assessment after I’ve read numbers 1 and 2. Highly subversive, including parodies and attacks on Burgess’s own work, particularly A Clockwork Orange.

J L Carr, A Month in the Country VPL

As a little treat, and to give a different viewpoint, following is a guest report from Jim Ison, a long-time friend, and long-time English teacher:

“When I toured Canterbury Cathedral in 1974 I learned that the faces carved into the ornate ceiling of the cloister actually captured the appearance of the many stone carvers involved in the project. There must be ten or twelve faces, each about six inches across, and each is a different carver, unless my guide was having me on.

“In A Month in the Country J.L. Carr creates a first person narrator whose task it is to uncover a fresco on a church wall, dating from the time of those carvings, but in a modest little church somewhere in rural Yorkshire.

“The narrator is 84 years old, writing in 1978 about his time in 1920, fresh from the horrors of trench war in Europe, when at 26 he is a master restorer hired to uncover the mural, depicting well known scenes of guilt and damnation, virtue and redemption. This memoir is about his month in the country. He is shell-shocked. His face twitches spasmodically and he stammers badly when he speaks, a trait that disappears later when he delivers a sermon. He works alone on a scaffold, day after day, uncovering what proves to be the most brilliant piece of medieval fresco painting he has ever seen. He, too, discovers the artist’s face. In the process, we find out who the narrator is and what he has become. The work, therefore, is a device, the man, a familiar type of Englishman, the plot, a journey of discovery. We don’t know how he has spent the years between 1920 and 1978, but that summer was the best and happiest of his life, in spite of an unfaithful wife away in London, a beautiful and unfulfilled parson’s wife with whom he falls in love, and a fellow worker whose life is even more tortured that his own.

“All the clichés are there: bucolic peasant types speaking an incomprehensible dialect which Carr gives us phonetically as an amusement; an uncharitable vicar poorly matched in marriage; his frustrated wife unable to declare herself but obviously in love with our narrator; precocious children speaking truths; a day of harvesting taken right out of a Hardy novel; and all the trappings of class divisions, education, frustrated ambition, and The War. It’s well written, and contains enough ambiguity both of character and action to make it memorable. A lot happens in only 110 pages, and once we accustom ourselves to the clichés, what Carr does with them is original and effective.

“It is likely that England in the late ‘70’s felt nostalgic about a time lost forever, although many writers had dealt fully with that idea before Carr came along. Apart from nostalgia I can’t think why this slim novel was chosen as a competitor in the Booker Prize sweeps. It’s a nice little read, and the dénouement between the vicar’s impossibly gorgeous wife and the narrator is well done, but it has little else to recommend it.”

What a contrast from Earthly Powers. Even presentation. I estimate the Burgess book at approximately 650 words per page. The Carr is a little slip of a book, 250 words per page, at most, and a quick afternoon’s read at a mere 135 pages. I agree with Jim’s assessment. Mrs. Ellerbeck is straight out of The Secret Garden, the all-wise Yorkshire farm woman. Nostalgic, for sure, and sentimental, particularly in the ending. And I must say, though this may be a quibble, that the title bothers me. Unless a month has 8 or 10 Sundays—and since the main action takes place in a church you can’t help but notice.

But considered by some to be a masterpiece. The Spectator review of the time says “unlike anything else in modern English Literature.”

Julia O’Faolain No Country for Young Men VPL

Criminies. Right after the half-title page is a genealogical tree titled “Three generations of O’Malleys and Clancys.” You know what that means.

O’Faolain uses a split narrative technique—Kathleen and Judith Clancy in the 1920s, and their descendents plus Judith as an elderly and rather mad nun in the 1970s. Politics. Women’s rights, or more to the point, the lack of them. But mostly the endless rollercoaster of Irish politics and religion—one hope being that the Pope-fearing and therefore procreating Catholics will eventually out-populate the Protestants and thereby win the vote and the ability to govern. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the two narratives are tied by the unsolved murder of the American Sparky Driscoll come to Ireland in the 1920s with money raised from the US. Judith, and her memories—disturbed and submerged by violence, threats, forced confinement in a nunnery and electric shock—provide the link. To complete the parallelism is an American named James Duffy, in Ireland in the 1970s to make a documentary film about the IRA, who has an affair with Grainne, the grand daughter from the Clancy side married to the drunken Michael, grandson of the fabled Owen O’Malley. James gets pretty frustrated with the Irish, and Grainne”

“’Words! The Irish are great with words!’ he exclaimed. ‘But they don’t mean anything,’ he roared. ‘They obfuscate. They play about with. They lie and deny. They skirmish and ambush. All your whole goddamn literature is about evasion. The exile who had to go away. The lover who lost his lass. I bought a book of popular love songs to fill my empty hours—I told you I’m like a kept woman. I have to fill the time. And I see now what you meant by negatives. Renunciation. Dig my grave both deep and wide. Laments. Goodbyes. No commitment to anything but giving up. The system is the way it is and ochone and mavrone and leave me alone and I’ll sing a song about it.”

I’ve read a lot of Irish novels, in part because of my graduate work on Edna O’Brien. I wouldn’t put this one near the top of the pile. The plot is so contrived and the ending is pure melodrama. In my thesis defense the Irish specialist in the department said the Irish talk about the potato famine as if it happened last week. The novel does explore that urge to hold onto pain and perceived wrongs but the melodrama undermines that analysis.

Alice Munro—The Beggar Maid VPL

This book was first published in Canada in 1978 by Macmillan as Who Do You Think You Are? . The UK edition came out in 1980 with Allen Lane as The Beggar Maid. The Canadian edition acknowledges that some of the stories had been previously published in Ms., Weekend, Redbook, Viva, Toronto Life, and The New Yorker. Man, has the publishing world changed in the last 30 years. Other than The New Yorker are any of these mags still publishing short fiction?

This book won Munro her second GG and has all the familiar Munro concerns—shame, class, have and have-nots, and private tortures.

I asked Michael Mathews, a huge Munro fan who has taught her work for years, to provide a guest report on Munro:

Too Much Happiness.  Oh yes, slurp, slurp, lick, lickitup. Her last book crowned by this ‘novella’ as they call it, as if she’d never before written a story forty or fifty pages long. They’ve now given her a Booker prize for lifetime achievement; it is not certain that she has a novel, a book-length story in her armoury. Well, what shape, what sequence should govern a book-length fiction? Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women was a, oh, let’s call it a kunstlerbildungsroman, a fictional account of the growth and develop of an artist, a young woman on her way to being a writer, a storyteller. The offering considered for the Booker in 1980, Who Do You Think You Are (Americans called it The Beggar Maid), could be seen as the same kind of story, though looser in chronology, more divergent in themes. We remember that novels, from Gil Blas and Tom Jones to Duddy Kravitz have tended to cover a span of time, often follow a main character through the major part or the crucial part of a life span. Edgar Allan Poe, who had a thing for strong effects, told us that a story should hit us with a strong effect, an effect to be delivered at one blow, in one sitting. This idea suggests that a story should be nearer to two dozen pages than two hundred.  Munro’s stories are long ones by current standards, often closer to forty pages than fifteen. The point is that we sit through them, or we come back to them pretty fast next sitting or next morning.

“But now we have the story—is it a story?—‘Too Much Happiness,’ this ‘novella’ first published in the current (August 2009) Harpers. Twenty pages there, and about fifty-eight in the book. We’ve had many Munro stories that go to that length, and we’ve had sequences of stories, such as the first three in Runaway, that are clearly, explicitly related in character and situation, that are an account, history if you like, of a family or group of related characters. But this story? Is it a story? Let alone a novella or any such challenging term. The note at the end of the Harper’s piece identifies the material of the story as coming from a biography and other writings about Sophia Kovalesky, mathematician and novelist. This time it is Nineteenth Century Russia, and Europe beyond, and a meander through the last years and death of Kovalevsky. Munro continues to be gaga for history, history of her own family as presented in The View From Castle Rock, but also history more broadly, history of other folks’ ancestries, really just any seedy old history. What makes this story (I use “story” to refer to a written narrative, whether fictional or not) a story? Aw, it’s a narrative; we follow Sophia through a large part, and particularly the latter part of her life. That’s all.

“What makes it an Alice Munro story? That is the harder part of it. ‘Too Much Happiness’ has characters and events, even a “dramatic” event if you like, the heroine’s fateful journey home with worsening pneumonia that might have been alleviated if the doctor hadn’t warned her (Why did he? Huh? Why?) away from Copenhagen, urged her to take the long way home. What the story does not have is Munro up close and personal, Munro breathing in our ear, breathing the names with a sigh. Point of view. We always know, in Munro’s great stories, like “Powers” in Runaway, or in “Hateship, Friendship…” or in “The Love of a Good Woman” who is looking at whom, sensing whom, hearing whom, smelling whom, whom. There is always that power of the sensing in Munro. We, courtesy of the author, are in the story. Not so in “Too Much Happiness.”

“How good is Munro when she is doing what she usually does? Well, she is good enough, if a mere storyteller, if not an unerring storyteller, that when Jonathan Franzen in The New York Times so enthusiastically described her as “bold, bloody, deep, and broad,” and stated that she might claim to be “the best fiction writer now working in North America” (Franzen himself the author of The Corrections, North America’s finest unbildingsroman in a very long time), I decided, even before I read Franzen’s wonderful The Discomfort Zone and discovered a growing-up-as-a-North-American-male so precisely in emotional if not factual tune with my own growing up, that he surely is a very intelligent reader indeed.

“What is great in Munro isn’t just the stylistic particulars, the remarkable microtexture of Munro’s writing, like “widespread sunshine” in the story “Simon’s Luck,” or an invalid nursed by his wife cursing her with “quite foul names, thickened by his misfortune but always decipherable to her” in “Face.” It isn’t just the zillion mots juste, the quietly right words, in story after story, everywhere. It isn’t the lovely elastic zapping of time back and forth and around again, time now, time then, time sent away and brought ringing back again, times gathered to a summary chorus at the end of stories. It isn’t that Munro wastes little time on idle chit-chat, employing a high proportion of narration, uninterrupted storytelling, to dialogue, like Kafka or Borges. It is something that makes jaws drop, throats tighten, eyes get big.

“There is much to gob-smack us in the new collection. If, for example you want to know what it would have been like to actually drown that other kid, read “Child’s Play.” If you think you might have missed something important when you did not give in to that sex pervert, read “Wenlock Edge.” Maybe you did miss something. Munro herself goes back, seeking “something further, a tone, a depth, a light,” as she confesses near the end of Who Do You Think You Are. And please notice that I do not call this her last collection.  There are the eight stories we’ve enjoyed in The New Yorker and Harper’s over the last few years, and the title story, and….

“On my bookshelf next to my collection of Munro’s books, stands a single issue of The New Yorker, November 24, 1980. Almost thirty years ago. The cover of that magazine depicts a city skyline and a railway station with a crowd of people. Inside, in the fiction slot is an Alice Munro story, in the tiny type used in that era, a story set in rural Ontario and featuring, characteristic of Munro, a very high proportion of narration to dialogue. I’ve kept that issue of The New Yorker on my shelf all these years because I had never seen that story, “Wood,” in any collection of Munro’s fiction until yesterday, when I hiked out to horrible old Chapters and looked around, uselessly, for the new Munro. I found an employee who showed me to their “Fiction and Literature” shelves, alphabetical by author, just where I should have been looking. There it was: Too Much Happiness, and in it the story “Wood” again, and in that story, twenty-nine years later, such a breathtaking evidence of the author’s growth of appreciation for the possibilities in her story. It is now a little bit bigger, and it is immensely wider and subtler in its social and psychological reach, and in its achievement. When they come to their senses and hire me to teach their fiction writing classes, I shall say not a word, but simply point students to these two versions of this one story, and to the two dates of publication.”

As Mike mentioned, Munro has walked away with the International Booker. 1980 was her only nomination for the Man Booker. Her collections of short stories do not qualify for the prize. The Booker is for novels only.

William Golding—Rites of Passage UBC Winner

If this book were not written by William Golding I suspect most jurors, faced with the daunting task of reading more than 100 books in a matter of months, wouldn’t bother reading past the first 50 pages.

The book begins with first-person narration, in the form of a journal, of Edmund Talbot, a blow-hard member of the upper social classes, in part because of his godfather to whom the journal is addressed. Talbot is on his way to Australia to take up some government post acquired through his connections. It’s nearing the end of the Napoleonic wars and the ship is populated with an odd mix of people. The first part is Talbot’s observations about his shipmates. Eventually the focus becomes a parson, Mr. Colley. Colley has unintentionally aggravated the captain who has a vicious hatred for members of the clergy. The captain humiliates Colley, a signal to the rest of the crew that Colley is fair game and as a result, Colley is bullied without mercy.

When Colley takes to his cabin and begins to starve himself and die of humiliation, Talbot is forced by another shipmate to accept some responsibility for the situation. When Shakespeare uses this same device with Malvolio, the audience feels complicit. In the early acts we laughed at Malvolio. In Rites of Passage that device didn’t work for me since Talbot is such a weazly character.

The final part of the novel is a letter written by Colley to his sister that shows him to be a well-meaning innocent who suffered even more than Talbot was aware, including sexual humiliation when he was inebriated thanks to the ship’s crew.

The novel has a large reputation. Golding himself insisted the novel was highly comic. I found it neither comic or brilliant and rather dim compared with Earthly Powers.

Barry Unsworth—Pascali’s Island abebooks

This novel was short-listed for the Booker, and there is a movie of the novel starting Ben Kingsley and Helen Mirren but I had a devil of a time getting my hands on a copy. Nothing in libraries and no bookseller in BC had a copy. Finally I found information tha the novel was published in the US under a different title.

It’s Graeme Greene. A version of Our Man in Havana, except it’s Basil Pascali on an island in the Aegean writing reports to Constantinople. It’s the crumbling end of the Ottoman empire, a world full of corruption and deceit. Pascali, who makes up most of the information in his reports, doesn’t trust anyone and himself isn’t trustworthy. There is an undercurrent of violence (the island goats are always being sacrificed) in the daily life of the island that erupts in the end. I found the rambling first person narration—the novel is one of Pascali’s report—irritating, which might be the point. Some critics have argued that this is Unsworth’s best novel but I don’t see it.

1980 Claire Tomalin from The Guardian

“I was determined that Alice Munro should be on the shortlist, and stuck my heels in to get her there. There were two real contenders for the prize, I believed, Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers and William Golding’s Rites of Passage, and the night before the final judging session I lay awake debating with myself: the Golding beautifully written and constructed, but with a slightly musty feel about it; Burgess a magnificent entertainer, overflowing with good humour, sometimes tipping into the slapdash. Both books thoroughly deserving. The next morning David Daiches, our chairman, began: “We’ll go through the list in alphabetical order. I take it no one consider Burgess a possible winner?” Silence from the others. I exploded into a eulogy of Burgess’s energy, invention and comic gift. I saw I had convinced no one, and felt that left only Golding. And so it was. Burgess sent a message saying he would not come to the dinner unless he won. I don’t blame him. I saw a tear trickle down Golding’s cheek when the announcement was made. I have re-read neither book, and I have rejoiced to see Alice Munro win the recognition she deserves.”

6119 words, October 11, 2010


  • Jean Baird

    Jean Baird is the co-editor, with George Bowering, of The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning (Random House, 2009), and the author of The Booker Project.

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