British novelist Julian Barnes finally won the literary prize that has eluded him on three previous occasions when he was presented with the Man Booker prize for his short novel, The Sense of an Ending, on Tuesday.
His victory came after one of the most bitter and vituperative run-ups to the prize in living memory — not among shortlisted writers but from dismayed and bemused commentators who accused the judges of putting populism above genuine quality.
But few of those critics could claim Barnes’s novel is not of the highest quality. The chair of this year’s judges, former United Kingdom security service chief Stella Rimington, said it had “the markings of a classic of English literature”.
“It is exquisitely written, subtly plotted and reveals new depths with each reading,” she said.
Much of the row over the shortlist has stemmed from Rimington’s prioritisation of readability, but she said quality had always been just as important.
“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.”
Size doesn’t matter
The book, at 150 pages, is undoubtedly short but not the shortest to ever win. That record belongs to Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore, which won in 1979 and is a few hundred words shorter.
Barnes’s 11th novel, The Sense of an Ending explores memory, how fuzzy it can be and how we amend the past to suit our own wellbeing. It tells the story through the apparently insignificant life of arts administrator Tony Webster.
“One of the things that the book does is talk about humankind,” said Rimington. “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.”
Rimington said the question of whether Barnes was overdue to win the £50?000 prize never figured in the debate. “We really were, and I know you find it very boring of me to say so, looking at the books that we had in front of us.”
It took judges 31 minutes to decide after what Rimington called “an interesting debate”. They had been divided 3-2 at the start but were all agreed by the end. “There was no blood on the carpet, nobody went off in a huff and we all ended up firm friends and happy with the result.”
Barnes had been nominated three times previously: for Flaubert’s Parrot in 1984 when he lost out to Anita Brookner, England, England in 1998 when he lost to Ian McEwan and Arthur & George in 2005 when he lost to John Banville.
What was particularly striking this year was that Barnes was the only seriously big hitter on the shortlist and the only one to have been shortlisted previously.
The novel becomes the eighth winner to be published by Jonathan Cape, a Random House imprint. —