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Reading the Bookers: 1969


Sometime in 2008—and now I wish I had kept track of the exact date—for a number of reasons I decided to read the short-listed and winning books for the Booker Prize starting with the inaugural prize in 1969. I picked the Booker because it is generally thought of as “the Anglophone world’s most influential literary prize.”

I was interested in this because I’d been having discussions with The Writers’ Trust and others about the long-term impact of prizes. After the press releases and  the parties, who really cares about prizes? Well, maybe for a while, but for how long? Do prizes influence writers’ careers, visibility and sales of other books? Are there negative aspects to prizes? Do prizes serve writers well?

I’m also interested in the jury process. There is no knowing the discussion that occurred, but are there patterns to be seen by looking at the jury lists?

Is the short-list more interesting than the winning list? How often will I agree with the selection?

And mostly, I’m interested in finding some new, and I hope, interesting writers.

So, here we go….

1969

Jury: WL Webb, Dame Rebecca West, Stephen Spender, Frank Kermode, David Farrer. Webb was a famous literary editor, the three writers are well known, but I have no idea about David Farrer.

Shortlist: Barry England, Figures in a Landscape, Jonathan Cape; Nicolas Mosley The Impossible Object, Hodder & Stoughton; Iris Murdoch, The Nice and the Good, Chatto & Windus; Muriel Spark, The Public Image, Macmillan; G.M. Williams, From Scenes Like These, Secker & Warburg.

I made the assumption that I could get all these books through the Vancouver Library system. Wrong. VPL has no copy of the winner of the first year, Something to Answer For. Hmmm. I checked abebooks.com and bookfinder.com. There are a few copies floating around in distant parts of the globe, but since the book has been out of print for decades those copies are $70 or more. I did buy a couple of the other short-listed books online because they also were not available through VPL. Seems that, early on anyway, winning the Booker doesn’t keep you in print or on the shelves.

Then someone suggested the UBC library. Eureka. I was able to get Something to Answer For through ASRS, which roughly translates as Automatic Shelving Retrieval System. This is where they put the books that are never on course lists and are rarely taken out. In my notes on books I will indicate where I got the reading copy since that does seem to be of importance to one of my concerns. VPL, ASRS, UBC (indicates it came from the stacks rather than the retrieval system) abebooks (that means I was unable to get the books through a library).

It is worth noting that in the first year there was no party. Newby was notified by mail.

Barry England—Figures in a Landscape [purchased through abebooks.com]

Two escaped guys trek their way through an unidentified tropical landscape fighting nature and a helicopter opponent. There are no extra details. The book is grueling, tight, sharp, and raw. For years my favourite war book has been Generals Die in Bed. Figures in a Landscape is as good, and as urgent though no specific war is ever mentioned. At times the tension in the book is almost unbearable. This was England’s first novel. A remarkable debut. About 40 years later he published a second novel and is mostly known (if at all) for his plays. I don’t think this book should have been the winner but I suspect it will be the one I will remember the most vividly for the longest period of time.

Apparently it was made into a film starring Malcolm McDowell and Robert Shaw.

The book is out of print and rare in used editions.

Nicolas Mosley—The Impossible Object [purchased through abebooks.com]

Turns out that Mosley is also Lord Ravensdale, son of Sir Oswald Mosley—founder of the British Union of Fascists and supporter of Hitler and Mussolini. One of the famous Mitford sisters was Mosley’s stepmother. Phew.

The object of the title is love. The form is highly experimental in point of view, narrative patterns, like a Rubic Cube without a solution you know it is never all going to go together. But the pattern succeeds in making what appears to be a collection of loosely-connected short stories into a novel. Not my favourite but I suspect George B will really like it.

This book is also out of print, though it appears to have been reprinted in paperback in 2006

Later George B did read the novel. Here is his report:

Let me say, without critical aim or tools, that I liked Impossible Object because it disabused me of the notion that recent Brit authors are just not interested in post-realist fiction. Yet one’s primordial hankering for narration is gratified because Mosley does not entirely dispense with those 5 things that John Hawkes claimed to be enemies of the novel—plot, characterization, setting, theme and whatever the other one is. One sees a limiting of characterization in the fact that none of the figures has a name. In fact the narrator, if that is not a misnomer, sometimes makes a point of not naming anyone. Of course it would be the godlike author who names people. There you have another nice thing—the fact that you have trouble distinguishing between author and authee. The result is that you do not see the text as something between you and the world, but rather the world that you are reading. Something similar might be said for all the rhymes in the story, the references to Milan, the he knows she knows he knows she knows almost arguments, and so on. One is constantly drawn to the experiencing of the text rather than the experience referred to by the text. What result are questions—we question the need for cause-and-effect or we question the unavailability of it (along with the shadow of it). Some readers, those who really really like Graham Greene, will want to puzzle it all out, or gather all the pieces and put together the whole. Others such as I will be happy reading the book as something added to the world rather than something offering a blurry picture of the world presumably already there.

Told ya he’d like it.

Iris Murdoch—The Nice and the Good [abebooks]

You always know when you’re in a Murdoch book: constant probing. This book does for “nice” and “good” what Austen did for pride, prejudice, sense and sensibility. There is a great Shakespearean ending with lots of surprising coupling. Twists galore. And the most claustrophobic scene I’ve ever read. A splendid thought experiment presented as a murder mystery.

The 1978 edition is still available through Penguin

Muriel Spark—The Public Image [Vancouver Public Library]

Tightly written, with a wonderful twist at the end, about the shallowness of a life built on a public image. It seems to be an experiment for Spark—it’s vastly different from the biting satirical novels that established her reputation, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Momento Mori, and not as good.

The 1993 New Directions paperback is still available.

Gordon Williams—From Scenes Like These [Vancouver Public Library]

Gordon who? In an interview he says he stopped writing novels because he “got bored.” As well as this Booker SL novel, he wrote the novel on which the Peckinpaw movie Straw Dogs was based (Of the movie, Williams says, “it’s crap.” He also wrote the scripts for the long-running TV sit-com, Hazel.)

Endless details of hard life on a Scottish farm. Some have argued it’s a lost masterpiece but I got bored around page 45 and stopped reading.

Out of print

PH Newby—Something to Answer For [ASRS] WINNER

I’ve never heard of Newby. Best known as the director of BBC Radio 3.

The book begins in a classical narrative style, a Brit named Townrow, not much liked by anyone, is off to Egypt. Yeah, yeah, the ex-pat colonist plot this time during the 1956 Suez Canal crisis. Then Townrow gets a boink on the head and when he comes to he’s never really sure again where he is or what’s going on. And neither is the reader. The book is not first-person narrative but the narrative line does follow Townrow’s consciousness—if he’s asleep, or knocked out, or having a memory lapse, the reader gets no details. It’s baffling, and intriguing. But also frustrating. It doesn’t succeed the way Lowry or Quarrington do with confusion of the senses.

On a cheery note, Something to Answer For is scheduled for re-release in fall 2008 after decades of being out of print. Advance notices seem to be cashing in on the current visibility of the Booker rather than the merit of the first winner.

I’d give 1969 to Murdoch (though parts of the book get tedious) with high tribute to Figures in a Landscape.

Murdoch and Spark were literary stars before their books appeared on this Booker list. The others have disappeared, both the reputation of the writers and the books themselves.

In Canada the GG for 1969 went to The Studhorse Man by Robert Kroetsch. It’s better than anything on the Booker shortlist.

For the 40th anniversary of the Booker prize The Guardian asked a judge from each year to comment. I’ll insert these comments at the end of each of my diatribes.

1969 Frank Kermode—from The Guardian:

The first judges were Rebecca West, Stephen Spender, David Farrer and WL Webb, at that time literary editor of the Guardian. We were handsomely treated: in London we haunted Bertorelli’s, but we spent more than one weekend at Michael Astor’s beautiful Cotswold house, where Dame Rebecca strode the grounds authoritatively between bouts of laying down the law. There were perhaps 60 books, which seemed a lot, though modern judges are said to read twice as many. Getting through the 60 was made easier by our not daring to take on Dame Rebecca. “Miss Murdoch writes good and bad novels in alternate years,” she said. “This is a bad year.” Muriel Spark: “clever but too playful.” And out they went.

Two of us favoured Nicholas Mosley’s Impossible Object, but were soon silenced. The choice of PH Newby’s Something to Answer For was the result of a compromise. Dame Rebecca didn’t dislike it as much as nearly all the others. Surveyors of the prize’s history have spoken ill of this good book, perhaps without reading it, or by being too ready to suppose that this industrious writer could manage a novel a year as well as running the Third Programme. Anyway, I remember this, my one experience of judging, with much pleasure and amusement.

1804 words: November 26, 2009

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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