Thursday, October 20, 2011
Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending Wins the 2011 Booker Prize
Julian Barnes can finally put aside his fear that he could “go to my grave and get a Beryl,” referring, of course, to the late Beryl Bainbridge, who was shortlisted for the Man Booker award five times and yet never won. Bainbridge was eventually awarded a posthumous “Best of Beryl” Booker for her novel, Master Georgie.
Barnes fared better. Though the Booker eluded him three times previously, on Tuesday evening, October 18, 2011, Barnes won the Man Booker prize for his short novel, The Sense of an Ending.
This was a controversial year for the Booker as many readers accused the judges of putting “readability” and popularity above genuine quality, though no one I know or have read about is critical of Barnes’ beautiful novel. The Chair of this year’s Booker judges, Dame Stella Rimington praised Barnes’ book, saying it had “the markings of a classic of English literature. It is exquisitely written, subtly plotted, and reveals new depths with each reading.”
And, as far as “readability” goes, Dame Stella said, “It is a very readable book, if I may use that word, but readable not only once but twice and even three times. It is incredibly concentrated. Crammed into this short space is a great deal of information which you don’t get out of a first read.”
In accepting the prize, Barnes offered some advice to publishers, “Those of you who have seen my book, whatever you think of its contents, will probably agree it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we've come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the ebook, it has to look like something worth buying, worth keeping.”
Given the plethora of poor and unattractive book covers being churned out today, I heartily agree with Barnes, and I’m glad he issued the challenge to publishers to “up their game” as far as book covers go.
And as for “readability?” Barnes called it a “false hare” and had this to say, “Most great books are readable. Any shortlist of the last ten years that I've read has contained nothing but what you would call readable books.”
Barnes, who once called the Booker “posh bingo” says he hasn’t changed his view, and that what books are shortlisted and who eventually wins the 50,000-pound prize depends largely on who the judges are and what type of books they like. He added that the Booker had a tendency to drive writers mad, until they won, of course, at which time they realized that the judges were the “wisest heads in literary Christendom.” He advised dealing with the madness by treating the prize as a lottery.
Widely praised, The Sense of an Ending, Barnes’ eleventh novel, is one of the shortest winners in Booker history, though it’s not quite “the” shortest. The late Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, Offshore, which won the prize in 1979, is shorter than Barnes’ book by several hundred words.
The Sense of an Ending is the story of dull arts administrator Tony Webster. The book’s theme is the unreliability of memory, and the way we shape and edit and refine our memories to make them into whatever we need them to be.
“One of the things that the book does is talk about the human kind,” said Dame Stella. “None of us really knows who we are. We present ourselves in all sorts of ways, but maybe the ways we present ourselves are not how we really are.”
It took the judges only thirty-one minutes to decide on Barnes as this year’s winner. When debate began, they were divided 3-2, but all agreed on the Barnes book by the end of what Dame Stella calls “an interesting debate.”
Barnes, who is sixty-five, had been shortlisted three times previously. In 1984, Flaubert’s Parrot lost to Anita Brookner; in 1998, England, England lost to Ian McEwan; and in 2005, Arthur and George lost to John Banville. His win this year makes Irish author, William Trevor the most shortlisted author never to have won.
This year, Barnes was the only author to have been previously shortlisted. The other shortlisted authors were Carol Birch for Jamrach’s Menagerie, an adventure on the high seas; Patrick de Witt for The Sisters Brothers, a picaresque western; Esi Edugvan for Half Blood Blues, a heady mixture of jazz and Nazism; and two debut novels, one from Stephen Kelman, Pigeon English, the story of a boy from Ghana who turns London sleuth, and AD Miller for Snowdrops, a tale of corruption set in Moscow.
Last year’s Booker chairman, Andrew Motion, questioned the absence of Alan Hollinghurst, Edward St. Aubyn, and Ali Smith on the shortlist. Personally, I would have loved to have seen Hollinghurt’s The Stranger’s Child as well as Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side both on the shortlist.
Despite the controversy over the shortlist and the “readability” factor, this year’s shortlist provided record Booker sales.
So, what’s Barnes going to do with the 50,000-pound prize money? He says he needs a new watchstrap, then adds, “I could buy a whole new watch.” He sure could.