In this installment of Jean Reads the Bookers, I’ll begin with an analysis of Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize. Over the years there has been lots of fingering-wagging, accusations of elitism over the Giller, mostly to the effect that the award is Torontocentric, and/or Ontariocentric. Certainly many of the jurors and winners are well-established members of Canadian literature located in or around Toronto.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s step back and consider what exactly is Canadian literature. Here is Douglas Coupland’s scathing critique of CanLit from the NY Times:
Coupland is very exacting in positioning himself apart from the CanLit gang, but there’s really nothing in Coupland’s rant that we haven’t heard before. CanLit is boring and conventional, and that it serves official national culture before excellence.
But it seems to me that Coupland is missing a lot, or doesn’t bother to mention it or maybe doesn’t know about it. Although there is only five years difference in our ages, my birth year puts me at the end of the Boomer demographic while Coupland stands at the beginning of Gen X. Do those few years make a difference? Maybe. I was old enough to be aware of the buzz and excitement about Canadian writing in the 1960s, even though I was too young to participate. But Coupland seems to have a chip on his shoulder for anyone older than his Gen X group. And even that isn’t original since it was the Boomers themselves who suggested you shouldn’t trust anyone over 30. And they sure weren’t the first demographic to moan about their elders.
Coupland points to his own writing as experimental but either doesn’t recognize or ignores that the writing scene in the 60s—the decade he claims gave birth to CanLit—was largely about experimentation, and that the experimental tradition continues to be strongly present in Canadian literature. I would point to the body of work by bp nichol, Steven McCaffery, George Bowering, MAC Farrant, Robert Kroetsch, Nicole Brossard, Erin Moure, Gail Scott and Suzette Mayr, off the top of my head. None of these writers were (or are) shoveling out the safe, bourgeois work that Coupland says is most of CanLit. Is Coupland only reading the mass-market-targeted novels, the very ones he is complaining about? That would make him a passive purveyor of the institutional forces that he decries, but then isn’t that one of the traits of Gen Xers?
I would also suggest that at this point, Coupland’s books sell not because they are particularly experimental but because he is Douglas Coupland. He’s worked very assiduously from the beginning to make himself into a saleable brand, in the same way as some of established members of CanLit to which he objects.
Coupland’s simplified and dismissive argument doesn’t seem to have a grasp of what was happening in the literary scene in the 60s and 70s. Does he know, for example, about Coach House? That said, maybe he does have a point about pretentiousness of the establishment, and the “stifling homogeneity” of most modern fiction. Let’s have a look at The Gillers since this is the prize that so often is charged with these offences.
According to the Giller website, Jack Rabinovitch “founded The Giller Prize in 1994 to honour the memory of his late wife Doris Giller, an outstanding literary journalist who died of cancer in April 1993. He was assisted by several friends – most notably the late Mordecai Richler, author Alice Munro, and academic David Staines – in building the Prize’s creative template.”
Here are some excerpts from Richler’s speech at the press conference that announced the award:
Nobody ever suggested that competitions are fair. From the Booker through the Prix Goncourt and Pulitzer, it’s a crapshoot. Eventually, I hope the Giller, like the Booker in England, will do a great deal for writers’ sales and that, most of all, everybody involved will have fun.
I should point out that all three of us [the judges, Richler, Munro and Staines] are politically incorrect. Looking for the first winner of this substantial prize, we will not favour young writers over old or vice versa. We don’t give a damn whether a book has been written by a man or a woman, a black, gay, or native writer, or somebody whose family has been here for two hundred years. What we are looking for is the best work of fiction published by a Canadian in 1994, and we will expect you to correct us if you think we are wrong.
According to Jack Rabinovitch, the Giller “took a leaf from the Oscars” and on the evening of the presentation gala, a video is presented about each writer and each book.
This is done to put emphasis on all the books, not just the winner. Doris Giller was a well-connected journalist and that might be a contributing factor to the great amount of press the prize received in its early years. That, along with an impressive band of supporters and Jack’s ability to throw great parties.
These days Jack and his daughter Elana Rabinovitch jointly administer the prize. Much of the information contained here has come from Elana, and from the prize website. Over the years both the prize money to the winner and to the short listed writers has increased substantially. CTV came on board as a sponsor and the gala is now broadcast. The publicity, says Elana, is pretty well self-sustaining. CTV in particular does a lot of its own promotion. The Scotiabank sponsorship also brings a powerhouse national network for promotion.
The prize has also spawned a party for all those Torontonians who don’t get invited to the gala—The Giller Lite. And controversy, and controversy theories. Stephen Henighan has almost made a writing career bashing the Gillers.
In the early days Rabinovitch, David Staines and Mordecai Richler selected the members of the jury. The first five juries were:
1994—Alice Munro, Mordecai Richler, David Staines
1995—Mordecai Richler, David Staines, Jane Urquahart
1996—Bonnie Burnard, Carol Shields, David Staines
1997—Bonnie Burnard, Mavis Gallant, Peter Gzowski
1998—Margaret Atwood, Guy Vanderhaage, Peter Gzowski
Now, it is Jack and Elana who make the final choices about jurors. They want Giller jurors to be avid readers, to be people who are interesting and have recognizable names, continuing the pattern established in the first years. They find potential jurors by watching who is “in the news” and from discussions with the prize’s supporters. Elana says it’s important that jurors are equals. The Giller expects jurors to comply with its wish for non-disclosure and privacy about jury discussions. Jurors are provided with background information about the prize, timelines, and areasked to find the best books, then the best book. The long list is 15 or so books, short list is 2 to 6 (most juries have picked 5), then the winner. The lists are put together over months of reading and discussion but the winner is decided the day of the announcement, just before the ceremony begins.
Over the years, the prize has often been charged with being Ontariocentric or Torontocentric. Is this accurate? Up to and including the jury for 2010, the prize created 51 juror spots (17 years x 3 jurors per year). Of those 51 spots, 34 were folks from Ontario, mostly Toronto. The other spots—
4 from Quebec, Richler twice, Gallant (though living in France), Judith Mappin was the last jury from Quebec in 1999.
3 from Manitoba—Carol Shields (living in Manitoba at that time), Warren Cariou and David Berger;
2 from Alberta—Rudy Wiebe and Alberto Manguel, who is hardly Albertan, but was teaching at the University of Alberta at the time;
1 each from BC, Newfoundland and Saskatchewan—Bill New, Joan Clark and Guy Vanderhaage.
Now that the prize has gone to an international jury, there have been more jurors from the USA than from BC, even though, after Ontario, BC has the highest ratio of published writers to population than any other province. As I write, the Giller has announced Annabel Lyon for the 2011 jury along with one American and one Scottish writer.
So from the perspective of jury pool, yes the prize does seem to favour Ontario jurors. Whether that is reasonable or even matters is another question, but if you live in BC it is common to refer to the Giller as an Ontario prize, not a national prize.
[By comparison, in the first eleven years of the Griffin Poetry prize (an international jury, one Canadian and two from elsewhere, most frequently USA and UK) there were 11 Canadian jury spots as follows; 3 from ON (though at the time he served on the jury Michael Redhill was living in France) 5 from BC (I’m counting Tim Lilburn as BC since he was teaching at UVic when he served on the Griffin jury, but I always think of him as a SK guy), 2 from QC, 1 from SK (Karen Solie now lives in Toronto but at the time of jury service was SK).]
What about geographic bias of the Giller when it comes to winners? To even raise this is unfair because the administrators can’t and shouldn’t be able to influence the final decision of the jury. But if you subscribe to the belief that you pick your winner when you pick your jury, then the question deserves to be considered.
In 17 years, 14 times the prize has gone to an Ontario writer. I’m including Joseph Boyden in this group, even though he lives in New Orleans. His primary Canadian connection is with Ontario. The prize has twice gone to Quebec writers, Richler and Skibsrud. Once to Manitoba writer David Bergen.
Again, pretty hefty Ontario presence.
[The Griffin winners; 6 to ON (this time I count Solie as ON), 2 from BC, 1 from SK, 1 from NS, 1 from QC. So heavy on ON but compared to the Giller these numbers seem reasonable. What is curious is looking at the International winners of the Griffin during the same time; 1 from Ireland, 10 from USA. One jury suggested that the Griffin juries shun UK poets. Many UK poets have made the short list but to date, no winners. Odd, eh.]
In 2008 Colm Toibin from Ireland was on the Giller jury along with Margaret Atwood and Bob Rae. In 2009 the Giller started an international system—one Canadian and two jurors from outside the country.
Some people think the move to an international jury is provincial, condescending to Canadians and maybe even a throwback to colonial times when we needed confirmation from off-shore to show that Canadians can write good books. These people point out that there are no other national prizes that have an international jury. One person asked, “Can you imagine the Pulitzer asking a Canadian to sit on the jury.” Often these same people dislike the celebrity atmosphere of the Giller. Rather than looking for people “in the news” they’d prefer that the Giller select jurors who are members of the Order of Canada, for example. Or literary critics, academic or otherwise.
But others think the international jury is a great move, given the small size of Canada’s literary community. In part, this side of the fence thinks the international jury makes the process less politicized. They argue that international jurors don’t have debts to pay, or friends to appease. International jurors don’t know the CanLit elite establishment and so are more likely to really take the job seriously and do a good job. (These same people then wonder why international jurors would bother to accept the task in the first place.) Agents I spoke with like the international jury—they say it is easier to sell foreign rights for a book that has been short listed by an international jury.
Elana says the international jury makes sense for the prize because it sets its sights higher. Canadian novels are being read everywhere so it makes sense, argues Elana, that the Giller be judged internationally. Will an international jury affect the outcome? Perhaps, but it’s too soon to tell. But when we examine the Griffin Prize in a future report, you will see that the Canadian Griffin jurors say there are real challenges with the international jurors: the international jurors know very little about Canadian literature and so cannot place books within a tradition, or writing against a tradition, etc. Nor do international jurors understand Canadian humour. They also say that international jurors often condescend to Canadian jurors. Perhaps a new job requirement for the Giller Canadian juror will be to stand up against foreigners
I would point out that the Booker is an international prize. It was designed with the intent to help UK publishers sell books. Although Canadian writers have won the prize a number of times, no Canadian has ever been on the jury. Over the years the Booker has had international jurors, but never more than one that isn’t from the UK on any jury. It actually appears that with regard to the jury, the Booker has moved away from celebrity-based jurors to a formula that always includes an esteemed academic who is also a critic and writer, one magazine editor or journalist, one novelist, etc. In other words, never just 5 writers but always a range of people from the publishing industry. I checked with the Booker administration and it confirmed that these days the Booker includes celebrities as jurors only if they are connected to the publishing industry. That means, from the Booker rulebook, Michael Enright would not qualify as a juror but Eleanor Wachtel would, since her CBC show is about writers.
Another charge often made about the Gillers is that it favours the big Toronto publishers over the small literary presses. The 2011 win by Skibsrud blew that theory out the window, but let’s have a look at how the actual figures shape up:
McClelland & Stewart 7 ON
Doubleday 4 ON
HarperFlamingo 2 ON
Knopf 1 ON
Viking 1 ON
Random House 1 ON
Thomas Allen 1 ON
Gaspereau 1 NS
These are just the winning books, because I believe that despite the effort of some administrating bodies, including the Giller, that the marketplace is mostly influenced by the winning book. The Giller can have a measurable sales impact for a short listed book but it is one-tenth, at best, of the sales impact for the winning book.
But to be fair, I will consider the short listed books as well:
Large presses, multinationals with a Canadian branch
Harper Collins 4 ON
Penguin, including Hamish Hamilton and Viking 4 ON
Knopf, Random House, Doubleday, Harper Flaminco 33 ON
Simon & Schuster—no longer Canadian, sold to US 1 ON
McClelland & Stewart—not any longer Canadian. This one is tricky because the ownership arrangement has changed during the lifetime of the Giller. I’m putting M&S in its own category. When it was Canadian-controlled it was a big publisher—now it needs to be viewed as a multinational, since it is run by Random House, which is to say, Germany’s Bertelsmann. 20 ON
Canadian owned presses
Douglas & McIntyre 3 BC
McArthur & Co. 1 ON
Thomas Allen 2 ON
Raincoast—no longer publishing literary titles 1 BC
Holt/HB Fenn—no longer exists 1 ON
Somerville House—no longer exists 2 ON
Anansi 8 ON
Press Gang—no longer exists 1 BC
Turnstone 1 MB
Cormorant 3 ON
Biblioasis 1 ON
Gaspereau 1 ON
Only 6 books by publishers outside Ontario have been nominated. Only 1 winner. Okay, hang on a minute. The only way to know if Giller juries are really favouring the big presses is to see what happens with the other national prizes. Let’s compare the first 3 years of the Giller with the GGs for the same years, winners in bold:
Margaret Atwood M&S Bonnie Burnard HarperCollins
Donna McFarlane Women’s Press Eliza Clark Somerville
Alice Munro M&S Shyam Selvadurai M&S
Russell Smith Porquine’s Quill MG Vassanji M&S
Rudy Wiebe Knopf Steve Weiner Penguin
GG jury: MT Kelly, Robert Kroetsch, Elizabeth Harvor
Diane Atkinson Knopf Timothy Findley HarperCollins
Barbard Gowdy Somerville Barbara Gowdy Somerville
Greg Hollingshead Somerville Leo McKay Jr Anansi
Julie Keith NuAge Editions Rohinton Mistry M&S
Richard Wright HarperCollins Richard Wright HarperCollins
GG Jury: Joan Clark, Joan Barfoot, Maillard
Guy Vanderhaeghe M&S Margaret Atwood Doubleday
Margaret Atwood M&S Gail Anderson Dargatz Knopf
Elizabeth Harvor HarperCollins Ann-Marie MacDonald Simon & Schuster
Janice Kulyk Keefer HarperCollins Anne Michaels M&S
Cordelia Strube HarperCollins Guy Vanderhaeght M&S
Audrey Thomas Viking
GG Jury: Don Dickinson, Patrick O’Flaherty, Linda Spalding
Perhaps the GG shortlist gives more of a nod to the smaller presses in this small sample. Here’s what happens from 1983 to 2010 with GG winners:
Stoddart 2 ON
Lester & Orpen Dennys 1 ON
M&S 9 ON
Cormorant 1 ON
Knopf, Random, Doubleday, HarperCollins 9 ON
Somerville 1 ON
Coteau 1 SK
Goose Lane 1 NB
Thomas Allen 1 ON
Anansi 1 ON
McArthur & Co 1 ON
Certainly the GGs have given more representation to the small literary presses but there are some other interesting things to note: No BC publisher. Actually, no BC writer either (I’m not favouring BC writers in this examination, just noting that the province does have the largest population of writers after Ontario) has won the GG for fiction since 1983, Leon Rooke. Shut out for Penguin. In 28 winners, a third to M&S, a third to the multinationals and a third to the literary presses. But wait, M&S hasn’t won the GG for fiction since 2000, before the ownership change. That means that the GG sure does favour Canadian presses against the multinationals. But you will note Ontario publishers of all sizes dominate the wins.
Since we looked at geographic location for Giller winners, let’s do the same for GG winners, again from 1983 to 2010. In 1983 Leon Rooke won—at that time he was living in BC, although originally he’s from the USA and is now living in Ontario. Kate Pullinger was born in Cranbrook BC, was educated at McGill but has spent her adult life living in London, England. Peter Behrens was born in Quebec but lives in the USA. Miriam Toews is from Manitoba, lived there when she won but now lives in Ontario. With those notations here are the numbers:
I really don’t imagine that juries consciously consider taking into account the geographic location of the publisher or the author when deciding whether a book is a worthy winner. But there is a clear and measurable pattern here. Are there reasons for these patterns? Perhaps.
Traditionally in Canada the small literary presses have functioned almost as farm teams for the larger literary presses. In 1990 Nino Ricci won the GG with a novel published by Cormorant. When he won again in 2008 he was publishing with Doubleday. In 1995 when Greg Hollingshead won he was publishing with Somerville. He is now with HarperCollins. New writers start with the small presses where, many in the world of the small literary presses would argue, editors work more closely to develop emerging voices. But once writers becomes more successful, and acquire agents, they are wooed away by the multinational branch plants—because those houses can give bigger advances and can offer national promotion.
Another thing to note about these lists of publishing houses is the number that have disappeared in the past decades. M&S is no longer a Canadian house. Stoddart is gone. As a result, there are no large Canadian-owned publishers in this country. And a lot of the smaller literary houses have collapsed. There was a time when a larger house would have picked up the little guys. These days, even the mid-size houses are falling, like Key Porter. All winners of the Giller have been big press writers with the exception of Austin Clarke (mid-size) and Skibsrud (small).
Is there a “typical Giller” book? Some people would say “yes.” This side of the fence points out that the Giller winners indicate a bias toward realistic novels and books that are easily understood through plot and characters—books that are about storytelling rather than experimentation or “expanding the boundaries of its form” as Albee says. Giller winners, says this camp, are often Big theme novels, about Important subjects written in sentimental and poetic language. Historical, famous, glitzy and cliché take the prize.
The other side of this argument points to the Giller effect, that the prize gets people talking about and buying Canadian books. In a time when the book industry is having difficulty getting media coverage and reviews, the Giller provides a huge audience—if you are lucky enough to win.
Then there is the big issue of celebrity. One side says the Giller illustrates a damaging insularity (a phrase used often about the Booker) in the Canadian literary scene. The jurors are celebrities as defined by Toronto, though Toronto may not recognize it as such. Celebrity makes a prize about popularity, not necessarily about merit. When prizes become about celebrity, argues this camp, the whole thing becomes a game and an assault on intellectualism—the corporatization of art.
What do all these examinations, ramblings and various methods of approaching/poking the Giller prove? Richler was right—it’s a crapshoot.
Jury: Douglas Hurd, Baron Hurd of Westwell, conservative politician and novelist. Professor Valentine Cunningham, of Oxford—was a juror in 1992. Penelope Fitzgerald, novelist. Miriam Gross, Lady Owen, esteemed literary editor. Nigella Lawson, food writer, journalist and broadcaster.
Julian Barnes—England, England VPL
Sir Jack Pitman decides to open a theme park of all the famous British landmarks. “Located on the Isle of Wight, his reconstituted ‘England, England’ is everything you imagined the original to be, but cleaner, friendlier, and more efficient. That is, until the King (the real King, on contract to Sir Jack, living with the rest of the Royal Family in a scaled-down version of Buckingham Palace) is suspected of sexual harassment, a smuggling ring begins to wreak havoc with the Island economy, and Robin Hood and his Merry Men decide to unionize.”
Parts of the novel are hilarious. Barnes takes a stab at everything British including the Royal family, post-imperialist attitudes, and nationhood but also uses the ironic, façade world as an examination of reality versus art, true versus recorded, the process of myth making, sexual experiences and explorations of the self. And the corporatization of everything.
The novel is in three sections. 1. England, a 25-page section about Martha as a young girl, at the time her beloved father abandons the family. 2. England, England, the bulk of the book. 3. Anglia, a 25-page section about Martha as an old maid. The book club began with a lengthy discussion about that last section, and whether it was too much of a departure from the rest of the novel. George B suggested it is an invocation of Hardy since it is set in Wessex, a place that only exists in Hardy’s novels. Since the novel is an examination of Englishness, authenticity versus historical recreations, the information about Hardy swayed some opinions. In other words, the final movement is a further exposure—you can’t return to an idyllic past that never really existed.
Rex, and others, found some sections belabored, even tedious. I agreed it didn’t have the spark of Flaubert’s Parrot. But we had the liveliest discussion about authenticity, and does such a thing even exist in our world anymore, except, suggested Rex, at sports events. That’s about the only place where we aren’t sure what is going to happen—where the outcome isn’t predetermined. Watching an NBA team score two 3-point baskets in 2.6 seconds with less than 5 seconds on the clock produces an emotional response that is authentic? Is the novel suggesting that inauthenticity isn’t new, only our obsession with it?
We all agreed that the book has some extremely funny sections (when George was reading it I heard him laughing out loud over and over) and that the Baby Victor scene is absolutely hilarious. No, I’m giving no hints. If you want to know, read the book. It merits reading for many reasons. We ranked the novel between 6 and 7.5 with the understanding that 10 is brilliant/great and rare. George said reading the novel had given him faith that the English can write good modern novels. Then Renee, who had been unusually quiet said, “I hated the book and couldn’t finish it.” Just goes to show.
Additional comments by email:
From George Stanley: “Jeremy Harding in a London Review of Books article (31 March 2011) refers to “opera buffa novelists.” England, England is a comic opera, with some wonderful moments (Baby Victor, Robin Hood, Dr. Johnson) — until Barnes gets serious. His mezzo, Martha, gets religion, and discovers, without any irony, “the little seriousness of life.” In the last part, “Anglia,” also sans irony, England reverts to a pre-industrial paradise (this made me think of a much better book, William Morris’s 1890 utopia, News from Nowhere.)
“An aspect of contemporary England totally overlooked by Barnes is the image of yob-land, louts waving the St. George red cross flag — violent, drunk, racist, anti-immigrant.”
From Rex Weyler: “some clarification about my theory regarding sports & authenticity…
“I did not intend to suggest that sports events were the only place we find authenticity in our world, but one place that we find it on television. We find authenticity every day if we’re paying attention. We feel it in good art. However, most public entertainment is so scripted and so poorly scripted – predictable and cliché – that it becomes mind numbing rather than invigorating.
“I have observed, however, in myself and others, that spectator sports is one area of popular entertainment where the unexpected can happen. I observed this most dramatically while watching my kids play soccer or basketball, noticing how engaged I became and how engaged others became, over a game, the outcome of which was not really important. Likewise, on television or at a live event, especially if the viewer identifies with one of the teams or an individual competitor, since one has to care to feel engaged.
“This suggests one possible value of competition – sports, board games, and game theory in general. We enter a game, and set up the rules (or handicaps) so that we cannot predict the outcome. For example, we play chess with a stronger player, who gives us a pawn handicap. The entire purpose of the handicap is to make the outcome unpredictable. Then we engage. And the strength of the opposition provides a challenge, and we struggle against that challenge without a guarantee of outcome.
“This quality, of not knowing what will happen, makes spectator sports or participatory games engaging. Perhaps this sort of discover of the unknown makes creativity engaging.
“We live in a world of lies, spin, bias and so forth (in politics, media, consumer advertising, etc.). We are starved for authenticity, and yet authenticity exists all around us all the time. We witness authenticity at the bird feeder or in a pub when people lose their inhibition and drop their public image. (By the way, there are theories that this craving for authenticity is one reason people self medicate with alcohol or drugs in the first place, and at a deeper level, why troubled teens might cut or abuse themselves. It hurts, but at least it is a real feeling).
“Perhaps this craving for authenticity drives our attraction to nature, drawing people to the beach or forest for a holiday or picnic: the hunger (often unconscious) for something real.”
Magnus Mills—The Restraint of Beasts VPL
The first novel by Mills who had worked in Scotland as a fencer, then in England as a bus driver. On the strength of this novel and an outline, he received an advance of 1,000,000 British Pounds for his next novel. Penelope Fitzgerald lists this novel as one of her top 5 books. Mills says he doesn’t read modern fiction, but reads the classics and philosophy.
From the bookjacket: “A demented, deadpan comic wonder, this rude salute to the dark side of contract employment has the exuberant power of a magic word it might possibly be dangerous (like the title of a certain other Scottish tale) to speak out loud.” Thomas Pynchon.
Tam and Richie work installing high-tensile fences. Donald, the boss, has just assigned the pair a new foreman, the nameless narrator of the novel. Tam and Richie are sluggish, take lots of breaks for fags, making it through the day in order to linger at the pub in the evenings, speaking to no one. The trio has a disastrous installation, then are sent to England for their next job. And that’s about it. This isn’t a novel of plot. Though there are a few critical events, and to mention those would ruin the novel.
It is a black comedy with faultless deadpan narration. And so deceptively simple that the reader is drawn into this world—this novel is what might happen with a group effort by Kafka, Stephen King and the Coen brothers. The only thing I can think of that comes close to this novel is The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien. Worth reading, and it seems that the second novel, All Quiet on the Orient Express, is even better.
Beryl Bainbridge—Master Georgie VPL
In this novel Bainbridge takes on the Crimean War; her focus is exposure. Three characters each narrate two of the book’s six sections. We learn about George Hardy, the Master Georgie of the title, first from Myrtle, a teen who has lived in the Hardy household since she was taken in as an orphan, then kept on because Georgie’s sister Beatrice takes a liking to her, until the family gets a dog. Narrator Two is Pompey Jones, a street-wise urchin who learns about photography from George. Number three is the older and uxorious geologist who marries Beatrice. The four are tied together by the death of George’s father, in the bed of a prostitute—an event that must be kept secret to ensure the social position of the Hardy household.
Each of the sections is titled after a photographic plate, dated. During the section, we find out how that photograph came to be taken. The novel is a return, without repetition, of many themes in Bainbridge’s Titanic novel—heroism, social class, peace, war, how history is captured and recorded and how we are ultimately powerless. There is none of the bombast of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.”
Bainbridge, in an interview, said most people have to read the novel three times to really understand what is going on. Close attention to every word is essential. Myrtle’s account of an event contradicts the telling by Pompey. Then George will say Pompey is mistaken. When I finished, I started again and read the first 30 pages again. How did Bainbridge pull this off? No superfluous detail in this book.
The following paragraph is Pompey, reflecting on Mrs. O’Gorman’s response to surgery on the eyes of an ape. Mrs. O’Gorman is the “ignorant soul” who cooks for the Hardy family.
She grew quite pale and said she’d never heard of anything so horrible. That was a lie, or forgetfulness, for hadn’t she suffered worse agonies of her own? Last Christmas, around the time young Mrs. Hardy underwent her third miscarriage, she’d told me, weeping, that she herself when little more than a child had borne an infant by an older brother who’d buried it alive in a turf bog.
Near the end of the novel, Pompey describes his view of battle:
Soon an officer charged up on his horse and ordered us to retreat from the Battery to defend the Regimental Colours. In my head I questioned the necessity of coming to the aid of a tattered square of silk, but did as I was bid. I’d turned into a circus animal and would have jumped through hoops if called upon.
To really give any details about the events would be unfair to potential readers, and ultimately the novel isn’t about plot anyway. The novel has been called an “anti-blockbuster,” which is perhaps the reason it didn’t win. You aren’t likely to find folks reading this at the beach. It’s a deceptively simple read, but is highly demanding of the reader. This novel will make my personal Best of Booker list.
Patrick McCabe—Breakfast on Pluto VPL
An Irish priest sexually accosts a teenager (who looks remarkably like Mitzi Gaynor) who has been temporarily housekeeping for him because his regular housekeeper is ill. The resulting child is abandoned to a drunken foster mother, Whiskers Braden, where he is raised in squalour as the bastard child of the local priest in the claustrophobic boarder village of Tyreelin.
Twenty years after his escape from Tyreelin, Patrick “Pussy” Braden is sitting down to write his story, at the encouragement of Dr. Terence, his psychiatrist. The creation of the voice of Pussy Braden, the transvestite, sensitive prostitute—constantly yearning for his mother while at the same time plotting vengeance on his Father—allows McCabe to illustrate the human costs of the violence of 1970s Ireland. Decked out in Dusty Springfield wigs, glittery stockings and spike high heels, Pussy falls in and out of love, is the victim of abuse and violence and suffers a nervous breakdown.
No Stage Irish characters or melodrama from McCabe. Just the driving and powerful voice of Pussy: “And who was it within my darkened cellbox upon whom mine eyes did gladly fall as there I sat sky-high a-twiddle, ringed around by stars and planets?”
The movie, starring Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy and Stephen Rea, takes the highly sexual Pussy and turns her into the flirtatious Kitten. The movie also takes great liberties with the plot but is worth seeing for the remarkable performance of Cillian Murphy as Kitten.
Ian McEwan—Amsterdam VPL WINNER
McEwan can really write, and that’s what pulls the reader through this slim, and I would argue slight novel. Molly Lane has died. The novel begins with two of her ex-lovers waiting outside the crematorium. Vernon is the editor of a leading London daily. Clive is a brilliant composer. Another ex-lover is Garmony, a slimy politician considered to be the leading contender for the next PM. And finally George Lane, Molly’s controlling husband.
Sorting through Molly’s things, George finds incriminating photos of Garmony, who turns out to have a penchant for dressing in drag. He shares the photos with Vernon who decides to publish the photos, hoping to ruin Garmony’s career and save Britain from another disastrous government. Clive says this is a violation of the trust between Molly and Garmony. Later George offers the photos for sale to the highest bidder.
Clive goes to the Lake District for inspiration, feeling stalled on his commissioned millennial symphony. After an arduous walk, he is hearing the notes in his head, stops to write them down but glances over the hill and sees a man accosting a female hiker. He sneaks several looks and fears the situations is escalating, but if he intervenes he will lose the moment of inspiration. He sneaks off and finishes his notes. Later, he tells Vernon about the event. It turns out Vernon had witnessed the Lake District rapist. The female hiker got away, but later another woman was less fortunate and was murdered. Vernon charges that Clive is an accessory to the murder because he did not report what he had seen. In the end, things fall apart in the most contrived fashion.All of this drivel of a plot is well-written, with the necessary tension to keep you reading. The characters are dislikeable (I suspect McEwan disdained them all) and are subordinate to theme. Deception and morality. All the characters use immoral means to personal gain. There are no deeply nuanced choices to be made.The astute and very funny Will Self ranted that Amsterdam is a “five-finger exercise.” As with 1984 when Hotel du Lac conquered over Empire of the Sun and Flaubert’s Parrot, this jury noted some first-rate novels then awarded the prize to a minor book. Amsterdam is extremely well-written, but it’s empty.
Martin Booth—The Industry of Souls UBC
If you want to know what life is like down a coal mine at a Russian gulag, this is the book for you. Alexander Bayliss, a British citizen, is arrested, charged with spying and sentenced to 25 years in a gulag. Twenty years after his release, on his 80th birthday, Alexander who is known as Shurik, walks through the small Russian community where he has found a home, community and the important role of schoolmaster, and reviews his life. The novel is structured with alternating chapters about Shurik’s life before and after the gulag, and his 25 years of comradeship with the 6 other men on his work crew. One critic said the tone is one of “lyric melancholy.”
Martin Booth was the editor who brought out all those slim volumes of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath poetry. He was also the author of the novel on which the George Clooney movie “The American” was based. The Industry of Souls suggests that Booth liked the ex-pat character, a man removed from his nationality and familiar things.
The novel was much praised when it was published but I wasn’t really smitten. I found some of the symbolism heavy handed. At one point Shurik’s team is given an assignment outside the mine, to help excavate a mammoth with a team of scientists. Yeah, yeah, I get it—the collapse of the USSR.
I have read elsewhere of the friendships that develop during times of extreme hardship such as war. And that sometimes soldiers decades later yearn for that bond and for the sense of urgency that comes with that way of life. Booth captures those ideas. But it is the Oprah-ish ending, and how Shurik finds love, friendship and family in the Soviet-free Russia that I found too pat.
1998 Douglas Hurd from The Guardian
This was a quiet year. There were no sensationally overpowering entries, and no passionate disputes among the judges. The crafty device of holding the final meeting of the judges immediately before the award dinner certainly concentrated the mind. The prize went to Amsterdam by Ian McEwan, not because we thought it was about time he won the Booker, but because in a mild year most people (though not the chairman) thought his offering finished just ahead of Beryl Bainbridge, riding Master Georgie
I thought the quality of the 1998 books was higher than any other year to date. But this judge thought it was a “mild year.” Just goes to show. I would have given it to Master Georgie.