Tuesday, February 19, 2019

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Booker Prize, 1970

(An addendum appears at the end of this article)

1970

 

Jury: David Holloway, Dame Rebecca West, Lady Antonia Fraser, Ross Higgins, Richard Hoggart. Holloway is not the guy who played in the CFL. I assume he’s the critic. Fraser is Harold Pinter’s second wife and a detective novelist and historian. Higgins? No idea. The Australian actor? Richard Hoggart, best known for  writing The Uses of Literacy.

Hey, at least I knew who that Rebecca West dame was.

The Books: A.L. Barker, John Brown’s Body, Hogarth Press; Elizabeth Bowen, Eva Trout, Jonathan Cape; Iris Murdoch, Bruno’s Dream, Chatto & Windus; William Trevor, Mrs. Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel, Bodley Head, T.W. Wheeler, The Conjunction, Angus & Robertson, Bernice Rubens, The Elected Member, Chatto & Windus.

A. L. Barker—John Brown’s Body

Barker’s first book, a collection of short stories won the inaugural Somerset Maugham prize. In 1970 she was made a member of the Royal Society of Literature. She died in 2002 so there is some material on the web, obituaries, etc.

The book blurb for the republished Virago edition in 1999 says, “A.L. Barker explores the tug between body and soul, life and death, truth and fantasy.” Okay, maybe. There is a carefulness of detail that reminds me of Anita Brookner, and Barker is sure-handed with her language. But the premise of the book—a tenant in an apartment building is mistaken as a murderer and the wife of another tenant finds this exciting and terrifying—is more interesting than its realization.

 

Elizabeth Bowen—Eva Trout

Highly stylized. Tedious use of commas, used often as decoration. It creates a breathless quality to the prose that’s irritating. And all the characters speak the same way. I’ve read that this is the weakest of Bowen’s work, and a poor introduction. It is interesting that all the action happens between the chapters, so the book is about what happens after something momentous takes place which may be a pretty accurate reflection of life. It wouldn’t make my list.

 

Iris Murdoch—Bruno’s Dream [VPL]

How did Murdoch pull this off—another hulking book in a year? She weaves such intricate lives; in this novel the dying Bruno is obsessed with spiders and stamps. How apt. Again the Shakespearean coupling at the end, even more unexpected than the previous book. At the heart of this one is love, and its relationship to death. Murdoch refuses easy answers.

Out of print

 

William Trevor—Mrs. Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel [abebooks]

A novel set in Dublin, what a surprise. Mrs. Eckdorf is a photographer come to Dublin to capture the “local interest” of a tragedy that happened 30 years before, a tale she learned from a barman on a ship. The other foreigner, Mr. Smedley, the traveling salesmen, is “a man of vigour who didn’t mind spending a bob or two” but can’t get the bartenders to point him to a whorehouse in Dublin, claiming “no such persons were permitted to exist in this city of godliness and decency.” O’Neill’s Hotel and the streets around it are occupied by a cast of weird characters. The term Stage Irish comes to mind. Agnes Quin who began as a nun and ended up a whore. Mrs. Sinnott, the deaf and dumb 91-year-old matriarch who resides on the third floor, communicates by writing (and being written to) in school scribblers, and is the confessor for all the others. Her sherry-sodden son has let the once-glorious hotel fall into ruin and be turned into a brothel. And a large cast of orphans that Mrs. Sinnott has taken in over the years. And so on, and so forth.

Mrs. Eckdorf (described by her ex-husband as “the cruelest woman that ever lived”) sets out to expose these people, “for it was right, she knew, that the fears and faithfulness of poverty-dogged peasants should be seen and understood on the coffee-tables of the rich.” She falls under the spell of the goodness of Mrs. Sinnott and has an epiphany. The silence of Mrs. Sinnot is the silence of forgiveness. Eckdorf’s insight doesn’t last, she goes mad and the other characters carry on in the Irish fog.

After many paperback editions it appears this book is now Out of print

T W Wheeler—The Conjunction [UBC]

I’ve never heard of Wheeler. Apparently neither has anyone else. I could find nothing on the Internet. Even Wikipedia has no entry. When I picked up the book from the UBC library I did note there is one other book on the shelf by Wheeler. But online, other than the name on lists of Booker short-lists, there is virtually nothing. I did find out the book was never released in paperback despite the short-list. But I could find no biography. I did find some Gale entries written by T W Wheeler, so maybe the mysterious Wheeler became an industry hack (or it could be Tom Wheeler who was book editor for the Daily Mirror in the 40s). Finally I found Terence Wheeler, author of three books—the other two are From Home in Heaven and Wreck of the Rat Trap. And that’s it. No reviews. No obituary. Not a word. Since the copy I read is from the UBC library, it has no dust jacket so no hints there.

And I’m intrigued because nothing about this book makes sense to me, particularly its appearance on this short-list. It is set is 1962, “The twelve months from the liberation of Goa until the collapse of Indian military power in the face of Chinese aggression saw also the collapse of a generation.” The collapse of this generation is seen through the takeover of power at Nawab College (run by the Jaimer Mineral Combine at Jhalawat) from Dr Jobwal by Suresh Nayyar. This information is provided on the first page otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to follow. It’s confusing. A while back I read Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call. I learned more about the politics and bad feelings behind the Air India crash than I ever learned from the mainstream news. This book does not provide that level of information, nor does it provide any  clarification. It’s muddled.

As for the writing, how about this?

“Situated as it is upon the plain, like an ant on an orange, the Jhalawat oasis stands wide open to the first light of day, which in winter comes up thin and white and unimpeded like the headlights of a truck breasting a hill. With twenty minutes remaining before it sets, the moon sits like a pebble on the rim of the sky, and the sky itself is starless and the colour of a dead furnace. The dawn rustles the scrub and loose sand, and strums the telephone wires overhead.”

I can’t believe I read the whole thing.

Out of print. Not even the guy with the blog about collecting first editions of Booker winners and short-listed books has a copy of this one.

Bernice Rubens—The Elected Member [abebooks]—THE WINNER

Before chapter one, “If patients are disturbed, their families are often very disturbing” from The Politics of Experience by R. D. Laing. Ah, the Blame Mom theory. Did Rubens write the novel to prove this assertion? It certainly seems so. Norman is the brilliant oldest son of a London Jewish family, now mad from abuse of amphetamines. His smothering mother is dead. The father and one sister (who still lives at home at 40) are desperate about his madness. A second sister is estranged from the family because Norman lied to her and the result is the suicide of her fiancé. This family brings new meaning to the term dysfunctional. Norman and the other sister have an incestuous relationship. The mother lies about Norman’s age to make his brilliance with languages seem even more remarkable.

It’s hard to say why this book won. Part of the novel is from Norman’s perspective—inside the mind of a madman—but I’m not persuaded by it. Once again I would point to Lowry or Paul Quarrington. By the end, which is highly unsatisfactory, mere melodrama.

I’d give this year to Murdoch, again. I can see why Murdoch’s novels are still around, and still being read and taught while many of the others here have disappeared.

Something else that may reflect the longevity of influence of a prize is to check how many of the books are available in alternative formats—audio books and Braille, for instance. I asked a friend who is blind to check. None of the books from 1969 are in the CNIB or alternative catalogues. Willy says, “In fact, hardly any of the authors are there. There are several Iris Murdoch books in the CNIB catalogue but none in the other. Both catalogues list books by Muriel Spark.

“Of the 1970 candidates the only one represented among the Surrey Public Library audio books is William Trevor, with 10 titles. Mrs. Eckdorf is not one of them.

“The CNIB has Iris Murdoch’s Bruno’s Dream on order. I think that means that somebody is recording it on a DAISY audio disk. There are 19 books by William Trevor in the CNIB library, but Mrs. Eckdorf isn’t there, either. There are 6 books by Bernice Rubens, including The Elected Member, the only title among the 1970 list that seems to have made it into alternative format so far.

1970 Antonia Fraser—from The Guardian:

The judging of the 1970 prize was a low-key affair except for the feisty behaviour of Dame Rebecca West, a judge for the second year running. At one point she denounced Margaret Drabble for her novels of domestic life on the grounds that “Anyone can do the washing-up; just get a big bowl and some liquid; so why complain about it?” The novel in question was The Waterfall, which both Richard Hoggart and I admired greatly (and didn’t think was about washing-up). I knew Rebecca West, since she was a friend and neighbour of my parents in Sussex, and was very fond of her; all the same, it occurred to me that she was possibly one of the brilliant old ladies who felt threatened by a brilliant young one in the shape of Maggie Drabble. In the end we were split between William Trevor’s Mrs. Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel and Bernice Rubens’s The Elected Member. I voted for Rubens but today would vote for Trevor.

1971 was much more exacting. The most exciting thing that happened to me as a Booker Judge for the second time was not controversial. I shared a taxi back with fellow judge Saul Bellow on a long, long ride from somewhere in the City: he was nattily dressed in a pale green shantung suit, blue shirt, green tie with large blue dots on it; his silver hair and slanting, large dark eyes made him look like a 30s film star playing a refined gangster. Suddenly he leaned forward and asked: “Has anyone ever told you that you’re a very handsome woman?” I pondered on a suitable reply, modest yet encouraging. But having spoken, the Great Man closed his eyes and remained apparently asleep for the rest of the journey.

1846 words  December 29, 2009

 


Correspondence/Correction:

 

The following correspondence about this article was received on January 20, 2019:

Dear Ms Baird,

As an addendum to the above item, you may be interested to know that my father, T.E.R. Wheeler, referred to as T.W. Wheeler in your item on the 1970 Booker Prize, passed away on 25th December 2018. Information on his work does indeed appear to be scarce. However, you may well find that searching under the correct name might prove more fruitful.

With kind regards,

Rachel Fuller (nee Wheeler)

 

Jean Baird provided the following response on February 5, 2019: 

Dear Rachel:

I am sorry to learn the sad news about your father. Grief is something I know a little about:
https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/review-the-heart-does-break-canadian-writers-on-grief-and-mourning/article1315500/

A bit of background about my Booker project. For a number of years I worked for The Writers’ Trust of Canada. In some ways the sister organization of the Book Trust in England, but not nearly as comprehensive in its programs or scope. The Book Trust is involved with education about reading and writing from the cradle to the grave. The Writers’ Trust doesn’t think it has a role in education, though the roots of the organization are in educational resources. Around 2000 I was commissioned by the Canada Council to do a research project on the use of Canadian books in Canadian schools. The results are dismal. I was pushing the Writers’ Trust on education. The board claimed that it was doing good work, supporting writers well, by administering prizes—at the time WT didn’t do much beyond administering prizes. So I set off to explore the effects of prizes—on writers, the book, readers, the industry, etc. I set the net as wide as possible. I also decided that I would read all the Bookers—short-list and winners, because one of the first things I learned was that more often than not the winning book is a compromise. Why the Booker? It’s the most influential prize in the anglophone world—translation, it sells the most books.

For each year of Bookers, I would do other research and compile a report. At the end of the first year of Bookers I sent my report to my husband, George Bowering, a writer. He found it very interesting, and sent it off to others. Before long I had a list of hundreds of names of people who were reading my reports. It seemed to me that the only thing more odd than reading all the Bookers was reading about someone reading all the Bookers.

In order to keep sane, I started a book club and they would read about every sixth book. It became clear that prizes are arbitrary, but the excellent marketing (and promotion of scandals) of the Booker has persuaded, maybe, the reading public that a jury has really picked the Best Book of the Year. Not likely. Not even close. If you are at all interested in my conclusions, you could have a look at the final reports which list Jean’s Guide for being a Juror, Jean’s Guide for Running a Prize, and so on.

Anyway, what began as private research ended up with a considerable following and readership—and hundreds of interviews. Then when I declared that I was finished, Dooney’s asked to publish my reports, all 234,000 words. To keep some sense of the project—the pace of reading, my frequent frustrations, etc—the editing was light.

Let me step back for a minute and tell you about the reading experience. Before this project it was my habit to be reading 4 to 6 books at a time. One fiction, one non-fiction, a memoir, a history, etc. No formula, just lots of different books. I spent more than five years reading Bookers and would still be at it if I had not restricted my reading to just Bookers. I would have a pile beside my bed. Finish one, pick up the next one. Sometimes someone would ask what I was reading. I could discuss the book, plot, characters, writing, but sometimes couldn’t remember either the title or the author. I wasn’t picking these books to read—I was reading to a list, one I had not created. I dug out my research notes and the list I printed of winners and short-listed Bookers as it appeared on the Booker website when I began. The list says “T. W. Wheeler.” Clearly a typo which I didn’t spot. The website has since been revised.

I will ask the editors at Dooney’s to add a footnote to note the error.

Best

Jean Baird

Jean Baird

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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