The Man Booker Prize for Fiction was first awarded in 1969 and originally called the Booker-McConnell Prize after the Booker-McConnell Company that was sponsoring the event then. In 1971, the Booker Prize ceased to be awarded retrospectively and became – as it is today – a prize for the best novel of the year of publication.
When administration of the prize was transferred to the Booker Prize Foundation in 2002, the title sponsor became the investment company Man Group, which opted to retain “Booker” as part of the official title of the prize.
Any full-length novel published in Britain and written in English by a resident of a British Commonwealth country or the Republic of Ireland, is eligible for the prize.
Julian Barnes won the Booker this year, for ‘The Sense of an Ending’ (the title has been lifted from a work of literary theory by the critic Frank Kermode). At 163 pages, Barnes’s 11th book has been called a novella for its size and simplicity. (Undoubtedly short, but not the shortest to ever win the prize – that record belongs to Penelope Fitzgerald’s ‘Offshore’, which won in 1979 and is shorter by a few hundred words.)
Barnes, 65, had been shortlisted for the prize three times previously; in 1984 with ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’, when he lost out to Anita Brookner; in 1998 with ‘England, England’, losing to Ian McEwan; and with ‘Arthur & George’ in 2005, when he lost to John Banville.
Afterwards, Barnes admitted to feeling relieved at having finally won. “I didn’t want to go to my grave and get a Beryl,” he said referring to Beryl Bainbridge, who was shortlisted five times, never won, and received a posthumous Best of Beryl Booker prize.
Barnes once called the prize “posh bingo” and he said he had not changed his view – it simply depended on who the judges were and what they liked. “The Booker prize has a tendency to drive people a bit mad,” he said, not least writers with “hope and lust and greed and expectation” so the best way to stay sane, he said, was by treating it as a lottery until you win “when you realise that the judges are the wisest heads in literary Christendom”. Asked what he would spend the £50,000 prize money on he said a new watch strap was first on his list. “I could buy a whole new watch.”
It took the judges (Former head of MI5 Dame Stella Rimington, MP Chris Mullin, author Susan Hill, the Daily Telegraph’s head of books Gaby Wood and the former Spectator editor Matthew d’Ancona) just 31 minutes to decide on the winner, after what Rimington called “an interesting debate.” They had been divided 3-2 at the beginning of the judging meeting, but were all agreed by the end.
Every Booker selection brings an annual hand-wringing over the state of the award. This year too, publishers and critics worried aloud that the prize had lost its literary merit in favour of commercial viability and readability. The Booker judges were criticized for their shortlist and for their public comments that they were looking for “readable” and “enjoyable” books, rather than those that would be bought and then placed on a shelf only to be admired. Some critics responded with a rival contest called “The Literature Prize”, and are currently looking for funding.
Barnes was unmoved. The argument made a false distinction between readable fiction and good fiction, he said. As for his novel being a mere 150 pages or so long: “A number of readers have told me that as soon as they got to page 150, they went to the beginning and started again so I now regard it as a 300-page novel.”
If there is a single theme running throughout Julian Barnes’s work, from his 1985 masterpiece, “Flaubert’s Parrot,” to “A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters” (1989), “Love, Etc.,” and recent collections like “Pulse” (2011), it’s the elusiveness of truth, the subjectivity of memory, and the relativity of all knowledge. While earlier books examined our limited ability to comprehend other people and other eras, ‘The Sense of an Ending’ looks at the ways in which people distort or tailor the past in an effort to mythologize their own lives.
Published by Random House imprint Jonathan Cape, the book follows the character of Tony, a man who seems ordinary until he realizes his memories of a long-ago tragedy are unreliable. The Guardian in a review called it “a highly wrought meditation on ageing, memory and regret.”
Sample these excerpts from the book;
“It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age,” Tony says, “when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”
“In the meantime, we were book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic. All political and social systems appeared to us corrupt, yet we declined to consider an alternative other than hedonistic chaos….”
“If Alex had read Russell and Wittgenstein, Adrian had read Camus and Nietzsche. I had read George Orwell and Aldous Huxley; Colin had read Baudelaire and Dostoevsky. This is only a slight caricature.”
Incidentally, in the days leading up to the ceremony, bookmakers in Britain had decisively chosen Mr. Barnes, at a 6/4 favourite, as the likely winner.
And FYI: He also made a guest appearance in “Bridget Jones’ Diary”.
The other books on the shortlist included “Snowdrops,” by A. D. Miller, a debut crime novel of greed, murder and morality in Moscow; “Pigeon English,” by Stephen Kelman, a novel that examines issues of urban poverty and violence from the perspective of a charming, inquisitive child in a London housing project; and “Jamrach’s Menagerie” by Carol Birch, an atmospheric historical novel that follows two boys on a sea expedition to the Dutch East Indies.
Also shortlisted were two books by Canadian authors: “The Sisters Brothers,” by Patrick deWitt, a comic novel set in the gold-rush era of the American West; and “Half-Blood Blues,” by Esi Edugyan, a book that explores the black experience in Nazi Germany.
Each of the shortlisted authors receives £2,500.