2012 Man Booker Prize
Last Monday, 15th October, I visited the South Bank Centre on the Thames for the second time in ten days. Whereas the week before I had been there to be wowed by J.K.Rowling, this night I was there for a reading and Q&A session from the authors of (allegedly) the six best English language books released in the Commonwealth this year. Yet again, it was nice to see a 900-seat auditorium practically filled for a night of literature, (although not quite as filled as it had been for J.K, which had allowed me to show up and buy a £12 ticket five minutes before kick-off).
The Man Booker Prize was previously the genderless Booker Prize, but since 2002 has turned masculine thanks to…well, the fact that I had to look this up makes me once again question the efficacy of sponsorship: apparently the Man is an insurance company, but who knew? or cares? Since 1968 they have drawn up a (previously secret) longlist of best books published in the remains of the British Empire known as the Commonwealth, then a (never secret) shortlist and then, with great fanfare, a winner.
(In the early years, it was chosen from books published in the previous year, but this changed in 1971 to books from the year of the prize itself. This led to the literary equivalent of the time lost when countries readjusted their calendars from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, as no novel printed in 1970 was able to win the prize, until it was retrospectively chosen in 2010).
This year, the six nominees were Hilary Mantel‘s Tudor novel ‘Bring Up The Bodies,’ one of the favourites not least because it was the sequel to her book which won the Booker in 2009; joint favourite, bad-boy Will Self‘s look at sleeping sickness, ‘Umbrella;’ opium ode ‘Narcopolis‘ by Jeet Thayil; Malay/Japanese tale of war guilt, ‘The Garden of Evening Mists,’ by Tan Twang Eng; and two books published by small, independent publishers, Deborah Levy‘s ‘Swimming Home,’ the story of a girl’s obsession with and stalking of a famous poet, and Alison Moore‘s debut novel, ‘The Lighthouse,’ of a middle-aged Englishman dealing with childhood abandonment issues by hiking across Germany, (this has to be the least enticing blurb I have ever heard for a book, but what do I know?)
Each author was given five minutes to give a reading from their book, which was great to be able to hear the novels as they sound to the one who gave birth to them, (the winners here were Mantel, with her passionate Tudor tales, and Thayil, whose reading of his “six page sentence” of an introduction was beautifully and dreamily produced, as is fitting from a performance poet. Self lost the round with some tuneless singing and sentences so convoluted I couldn’t even concentrate on most of his reading, although critics suggest the density of his prose masks an amazing book).
After each reading, the author had a chat with the Chair of the evening, legendary BBC presenter James Naughtie, and eventually the audience, (both present, and listening live in cinemas across the country, apparently: literature, the new rock ‘n’ roll!), got to put questions to the authors. Interesting themes were that a surprising amount of the books were about mental illness this year, either explicitly or indirectly, and that asking the authors which book they would pick if they were a judge makes Hilary coy and Will angry, (the very same question I was going to ask, but thought better of).
Every year, I pick one of the shortlisted six books in Hatchard’s, the oldest bookshop in the UK, since they always have an obscene proportion of recent releases signed by the authors, no matter who they are. Last year I plumped for Russian thriller ‘Snowdrop‘ which I was reading just over a year ago and was one of my first ever blogs, here. No matter which book I choose, it never wins, so this year I decided to double my odds to 2/6 instead of 1/6, and bought two after the event: a tough choice, but I went for ‘Umbrella‘ because I find Will Self fairly hilarious and thoughtful given what I’ve read of him before, and ‘Narcopolis’ because it had the coolest book cover by far. And they were both far cheaper than the £20 hardback of ‘Bring Up The Bodies.‘
Of course, ‘Bring Up The Bodies‘ won the prize the next night.
The evening ended with a semi-wonderful, semi-awkward climax: all six authors seated along a table, with readers queueing* up to meet them and get their books signed. Except this is the first time I’ve ever been to a signing session where all of the authors were in front of you at the same time, meaning that, unless you were buying all six books, (which many of those present were, but most of us couldn’t really afford), there were bound to be some interesting moments when, stood waiting for ‘your’ author to become free, you were stood humming in front of one of the authors whose books you clearly hadn’t felt worth purchasing.
* Some linguistics trivia: ‘queueing’ is the only word in the English language with five consecutive vowels in it. Another reason English is better than American: ‘lining up’ doesn’t count!!
I took the opportunity to chat to each author anyway, getting my ticket signed as a souvenir of the evening, and eventually got my books signed by Will Self, (who got sushi on it, which he was very apologetic for but which I think adds something to my unique copy), and Jeet Thayit, (who not only had the best book cover and best shirt of the night, but also one of the best autographs ever, all of which I told him).
I began ‘Narcopolis‘ about two hours ago, and will move on to ‘Umbrella‘ in the coming days, and of course post reviews of each, (as well as maybe last year’s controversial winner, Julian Barnes‘s ‘A Sense Of An Ending‘ which I found in a charity shop yesterday morning), and I plan to work my way through Mantel‘s complete works in the coming months, (my Mum, amongst many others, loves her stuff). For those who can’t wait, and are living in the UK, online bookshop The Book People currently** have an amazing offer, all six shortlisted books for £29.99 instead of almost £90, (thanks to my learned friend Sarah for the heads up on this…albeit a few days too late for me to take advantage of!).
** My current may not be your current when you are reading this!