(There I was up at 4 am IST waiting to see who’d win the Booker, thinking I had all the bases covered: Ishiguro was my frontrunner for this year’s prize, Barnes my backup and I had outside bets on Smith n’ Smith. And they gave it to Banville–great writer, wrong year–for a book only a critic could love? Sheesh.)
There’s just one question I have for this year’s Booker judges: what were they smoking?
I come not to bury John Banville. Banville is an honourable writer, an austere but impeccable critic. It’s true that his books remind me a bit of Gerald Durrell’s description of Argentinian tangos: this one is about a man who is grieving, he is very sad and he asks the meaning of life; this one is about a man who has suffered, he is very sad and he asks the meaning of life; the next one is, well, the same. But the quality and the depth of his prose, the weight of experience with which he writes, these always carry me through.
There is no doubt that John Banville deserves the respect of his peers. To use that nasty phrase literature holds out as compliment and kiss of death combined, he is a writer’s writer. He probably wrote the best description of his own writing in Ghosts : “Such suffering, such grief: unimaginable. No, that’s not right. I can imagine it. I can imagine anything.”
In the seventies and the eighties, he wrote a series of intense, haunted portraits of scientists—Copernicus, Newton, Kepler. Between 1989 and 1995, he wrote a classic trilogy– Ghosts , The Book of Evidence and Athena –a study in part of the mind of a man whose obsession with a particular painter leads him into murder. The act of murder was not the focal point of the trilogy; it was the cold heat of obsession that Banville found fascinating. In The Untouchable , he based his protagonist on the Cambridge spy Anthony Blunt. Shroud was a grim, dark exploration of identity, juxtaposing a professor who may not be what he seems and a woman whose madness does not make her necessarily less in possession of the truth.
You cannot fault his prose, you cannot deny the courage with which he lays bare the most pathetic, most obscure corners of the human heart. Should John Banville have won the Booker Prize? Of course.
But not this year. With The Sea , Banville penned a complex tale about a man who had lost his wife to cancer, returning to the childhood resort on the Irish coast where disturbing memories of a family he knew as a child begin to surface. It is an axiom that all of Banville’s narrators are flawed; in Max Morden he has created not just an unreliable narrator, but an almost unbearably mannered one. Critical consensus on The Sea was mixed, but Tibor Fischer caught the problems best when he said reading the novel felt like “sitting an exam”: “There’s lots of lovely language, but no novel.”
In a different year, with a weaker shortlist, The Sea might yet have been an honourable winner: it is exactly the kind of high-literary novel so beloved of Booker judges. But 2005 has been an extraordinary year for the novel, and the Booker judges controversially left three of the biggest names in the literary firmament off the shortlist—J M Coetzee, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan. They’ve all won Bookers before; Rushdie won the Booker of Bookers, in fact, and Coetzee, aside from winning the Booker twice, is a Nobel laureate. By omitting them, the judges were sending out a message: it would be only the book that mattered this year, not the reputation of the writer.
Of the other works on the shortlist, four at least were extraordinary. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is a poignant but unsentimental exploration of what it would mean to be a clone in our world; Julian Barnes’ Arthur and George blends biography and fiction as he impeccably recreates the strange case of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji, a lawyer of Indian descent falsely accused of maiming farm animals. Zadie Smith’s On Beauty is tongue-in-cheek homage to Howard’s End , beautifully contemporarised; and Ali Smith’s The Accidental is an incandescent tale of a stranger who crashes into the life of a family, told from the perspective of a 12-year-old. I have no hesitation in saying that if you’re looking for the best book of the year, any of these fit the bill far better than Banville’s overwritten work.
John Banville was in great company, and he deserves to be there. But The Sea didn’t deserve to win. The Booker judges called it wrong, and this year, they had absolutely no excuse.
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