Sunday, 17 October 2010

Jacobson Wins the Booker

Earlier this week I was at a friend’s house with another friend—the friend’s friend, that is. So there were three of us: my friend with her two friends—that is me and the third person, a woman with pie-eater’s jowls—, both of us—that is I and the pie-eater—having my friend—although she was not just my friend, she was her—the third person’s—friend too—as the common link. We were, the three of us, having a light lunch, which I was disappointed to note consisted of red grapes (sour), strawberries (watery and soft), slices of cantaloupe melon (tasteless), salted pea nuts (couldn’t she have been less tight-fisted and served cashew nuts?), sourdough bread and brie (not brie de meaux which I prefer) and canned orange juice. (What’s wrong with a glass of wine; you can have a glass or two at lunch, can’t you? Drinking in the afternoon does not make you an alcoholic, does it? Alcohol for me, at whatever time of the day I drink it, is just fuel to be chucked on the conversational pyre; once I have bathed my tongue in it, I feel more relaxed, and the words flow more smoothly out of my mouth.) We were sitting in my friend’s rectangular dining room. On the opposite window-sill were three potted chilli plants. The conversation was not flowing smoothly, and I was wondering why the other woman was invited (perhaps she was wondering the same). Perhaps, I wondered, my friend was attempting for the two of us to get to know each other. If that was the case, she had not gone about it cleverly. Firstly, she knows I do not like surprises, so she should have told me about this. Secondly, she ought to have known that wobbly inner thighs do not light my fire. The other woman did not seem in a mood to talk much, and not only because her mouth was crammed with salted pea nuts.  I wondered whether her sex life was an unending eat-as-much-as-you-like buffet. I tried to imagine her in her underwear but stopped as I found the image incompatible with mental well-being. The woman might just be the ticket for some desperate bloke, but not me. (I am desperate, but not that desperate.) Maybe, I concluded, my friend had no hidden motive behind inviting me and the fat woman for lunch.

Trying to wrestle my thoughts away from sex, I looked around the dining room. Behind me, on a shelf were stacked piles and piles of CDs. In one corner was a wooden table on which were arranged porcelain figurines and dishes, the kind of tat you see in low income houses. (You can take a girl out of council estate, but you can’t take council estate out of a girl.) I looked to my left where on another wooden table, amongst all sort of things—from a jar of quality chocolates and hairclips— were stacked five books—all hard-bound—one on top of another. That surprised me. My friend is a bit common (she comes from some Northern town and speaks in this incredible accent, as if she has had a stroke or something) and while I know that she likes to read, I have always assumed that she is not equipped to read anything more intellectually demanding than the Waitrose weekend guide on Food & Drink (she might be a butcher’s daughter, but now runs a successful Interior Decoration business and discusses the relative merits of Gigonda—which she pronounces ji-gonda—and Chateauneuf du pape—I won’t even attempt to type how she pronounces—but it is noteworthy that she has even heard of these wines; and I ‘d have described the fact that I who know how the wine names are pronounced can’t afford them as ironic if I were not pissed off by it), or, in the fiction territory—Jill Cooper or Norah Roberts. The books stacked up on the table—five of them—were the Booker short-listed ones.

‘I see,’ I said, ‘that you are planning to read all the Booker short-listed novels.’

My friends looked pleased. ‘But,’ I continued, ‘one book is missing. Why is that?’

‘Which one?’ my friend asked.

‘Damon Galgut,’ this was the fat friend. I looked at her, impressed, and overlooked the fact that she spoke with pea nuts in her mouth. Perhaps there was more to her than met the eyes (and there was a lot of her that met the eyes).

‘Oh! That! I gave it as a present to my sister,’ my friend said.

‘Have actually read any of the books, yet?’ I asked.

My friend responded by asking me a question of her own: ‘Have you read Room?’

‘No I haven’t. Isn’t it the book inspired by that Austrian pervert who imprisoned his daughter for years in the basement of his house and shagged her?’

‘I wouldn’t quite put it like that, but yes.’

‘I can see why you liked the book,’ I said.

‘I didn’t even tell you I read the book,’ my friend said.

‘Well, have you? You have, haven’t you? Or haven’t you?’

‘As it happens I have. Why did you say you could see I’d like the book?’

‘Well,’ I said, retreating, ‘I thought that was the sort of book you’d like.’

‘You mean, books on perverts?’ my friend looked threateningly at me.

‘Well, you have liked the book, obviously,’ I said.

‘I don’t recall telling you,’ my friend replied with exaggerated slowness, as though speaking to a well meaning but not overtly bright child, ‘that I liked the book. I recall asking you whether you had read the book.’

‘From which I cleverly inferred that you must have read the book. Why else would you ask me about that book? You could have asked me, “Did you read Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America?” But you didn’t. You asked me, “Have you read Room?” There!’

‘’OK Sherlock, I have read the book and as it happens I liked it. Now tell me, have you read any of the books yourself?’

‘Yes I have.’

‘Which ones?’

‘Only one so far. Parrot and Oliver in America. If you had more than ten brain cells, you’d have figured that out,’ I said, watching from the corner of my eyes the fat friend lathering a slice of sourdough with butter, on which she balanced a large chunk of brie.

‘How did you find it?’

‘Dull beyond belief,’ I said.

This was true. Parrot and Olivier in America is a drag. This is the fourth novel of Carey I have read and the second I have not liked. The novel tells the story of a French noble and his English servant travelling in America in the first half the nineteenth century and observing the dawn of democracy. In the 'Acknowledgement' Carey says that he was inspired to write the novel after he read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I haven’t read Tocqueville’s book, but I doubt it will be as dreary as Carey’s novel. The language is incredibly stilted—it judders and clanks like a rusted train on the Australian outback. There is no real plot to speak of; the two protagonists—Olivier and Parrot— are about as lively as mannequins in a clothes shop; and the novel has more stereotypes than fleas in a mongrel’s ears. I lost the will to live after about two hundred pages; the novel sucked out—as one of the characters in the novel might say—the life-juice out of me. And it was only my stubbornness that kept me going until the end.

‘Do you think he will win the Booker?’ The fat friend asked.

‘I hope not,’ I said. ‘But I won’t be surprised he wins.’

‘Who do you think will win?’ She asked.

‘I’d like Howard Jacobson to win.’

‘Have you read any of his books?’ My friend asked.

‘No I haven’t. I want him to win because I think he is stunningly handsome. Of course I have,’ I said.

‘Have you read ‘The Finkler Question’?’

‘No I haven’t,’ I said. ‘But I plan to read it. But before that I will read ‘The Long Song’’.

‘Oh! Isn't she gorgeous?’ my friend said, exhaling noisily through her mouth on ‘s’. ‘Small Island! Have you read it?’

‘Small Island!' I said, mimicking the way my friend said it. 'I have read her earlier novels too, which I liked even more.’

‘I haven’t read those,’ my friend said.

‘No I didn’t think you would have,’ I said. In response my friend picked up a slice of bread and threw it at my face.

The above conversation took place on the day the Booker winner was announced. I was very pleased that Howard Jacobson won the prize for his comic novel, The Finkler Question. This is the first time in years that the writer I’d have liked to win the prize actually won. I should have betted on Jacobson. That would have made me richer too. In the days leading to the announcement, Tom McCarthy’s C was put by the bookies in the prime position to win the prize, with Emma Donghue’s Room in the second position. C apparently received an inexplicable flurry of betting in the last few days prior to the announcement, which triggered rumours of a leak and prompted Ladbrokes to close betting early. Usually, being bookies’ favourite is a guarantee that the novel won’t win the prize, although Last year Hilary Mantel broke the taboo when her historical novel, Wolf Hall won the prize despite the bookies putting it odds on to win. Room, wholeheartedly recommended by my friend, had until then sold the most copies (no doubt because of the prurient subject matter), followed by Andrea Levy’s Long Song. And there were almost 9,000 fools (like me) who had wasted their money on Peter Carey’s dreadful Parrot and Olivier in America, putting it in the third place amongst the Booker short-listed novels.  I don’t know how many copies The Finkler Question has sold, but I should very much hope that the Booker win would give its sales a fillip. It is the first out and out comic novel since Kingsley Amis’s Old Devils that has won the Booker, which is great; it is not often that this genre gets the recognition it deserves.

The Finkler Question, Jacobson’s eleventh novel, an exploration of being Jewish, apparently starts with the sentence, ‘He should have seen it coming’. Did Jacobson see the prize coming his way? He claimed not, in an interview after the award. ‘Often I thought I was not going to win it,’ he said, ‘never thought I’ll eventually win it this time.’ Well, he has. And I hope the Booker prize will introduce this seriously funny (as the cliché goes) and underrated (another epithet Jacobson said after his Booker triumph he was very glad to jettison) writer, who has, at times, been described, much, apparently, to his annoyance, as the 'Jewish Jane Austin’ (I can fully understand his annoyance—Jacobson’s writing is nothing like that of Jane Austen, the most overrated and overhyped writer in English, or any, language, and whose Pride and Prejudice is almost as boring as Parrot and Olivier in America: if you want to have the experience of a minute seeming like a day and an hour seeming like a year, read a few pages of Pride and Prejudice), to more newer and wider readership. 

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Book of the Month: All the Fishes Come Home to Roost (Rachel Manija Brown)

In the early 1980s, a precocious seven-year-old girl left California and, together with her parents, boarded a plane to India. She spent the next five years in Ahmadnagar, a provincial town in western India, in the state of Maharashtra. On the outskirts of this sleepy town was, still is, a spiritual commune formed by Meher Baba, the self-declared avtar of his age, one of the many mystics from India (a land that disgorges more gurus than Afghanistan does Talibans). During her stay, the little girl, named, to her eternal embarrassment, Manija—an ancient Persian name for precious gem, also the name of a female disciple of Meher Baba—was the only child in the ashram that was inhabited by some very curious individuals who, if they were not entirely out of their minds, did not appear to be entirely within them.

Five years in an Indian ashram obviously left a deep impression on the mind of the little girl, and, thirty years (and possibly several therapies) later, she has produced an engaging, highly readable memoir: All the Fishes Come Home to Roost. Uprooted from her idyllic childhood in America, little Manija Brown, the involuntary resident of the Baba-ashram, sets about making sense of the strange world she is unwittingly hurled into, with the enthusiasm of Alice in Wonderland. While Ahmadnagar has its occasional moments of excitement—for example, when a man who, having taken a vow of rolling across India, for reasons fathomable probably only to him, rolls into town, its inhabitants, instead of taking him to a place of safety (and arranging for an urgent psychiatric assessment), declare him to be holy and seek his blessings—it would be safe to conclude that it is not a happening place. Indeed Brown finds Ahamdnagar mind-numbingly stupefying—it is the kind of place where if an aeroplane goes overhead people rush out of their houses. There is no television in the ashram, all the movies in the cinema are in languages she does not understand, the Indian-style toilets (holes in the ground) are populated by giant rats, there are no facilities for hot showers, and the seasons consist of ‘unpleasantly hot, unbearably hot, and, for three months every year, soaking wet’. Brown is not allowed to visit the town library; stepping out of the ashram compound, in any case, can be a life-threatening experience as the entire population of the children of Ahmadnagar seems to have decided to use Brown as a target to practise rock-throwing. The ashram-society, Brown informs, was divided into ‘residents’ (almost all Americans), 'mandali' (a Sanskrit word meaning ‘inner circle’) comprising Indians (with an average age of hundred and eighty five) who were close to Meher Baba, and 'servants'. The 'residents', Brown recalls, in keeping with India’s cast system (which does not appear to be all that different from the class system in the West) did not mix with the 'servants'. Every year the commune was visited by pilgrims looking for inner peace (and, in some cases, lost marbles).  A few went spectacularly mad: such as the Hungarian Vladimir Vladimir who arrived one year dressed like the late Meher Baba declaring that he (Vladimir Vladimir) was indeed he (Meher Baba), and, as a reward, was beaten up black and blue by the Indian policemen (at the behest of one of the senior mandali) with a force and energy that would have had chairman Mao nodding with approval. (The readers are relived to learn that the duplicate, along with his consort (who shared his delusion), was eventually committed to an asylum in a nearby city where the treating psychiatrist got very excited about the rare case of shared delusions and declared her intentions to write a monograph on it.) Unable to adjust to a culture which she finds as different from her parent-culture as chalk is from cheese, not being allowed to fraternize with her peers (who wouldn’t accept her as one of them any way), Brown finds solace in reading about India’s colourful history. In particular she is fascinated by the heroics of Shivaji, a popular seventeenth century hero, an Indian Robin Hood, who fought battles, politically as well as on the battlefield, against the supposedly invulnerable might of the Mughals, and went on to establish his own kingdom, which, in the eighteenth century, grew into a pan-Indian empire. She also likes to read about women warriors from India’s history. Like a hungry caterpillar Brown absorbs these tales that are grisly yet strangely stirring.

The school into which brown is enrolled plays a major role in blighting Brown’s already unhappy existence in Ahmadnagar. She is enrolled into a private—rather than public—Catholic school where the subjects are taught in English as opposed to Marathi, the local language which Brown does not understand and can not speak. In this school, named ‘Holy Wounds of Jesus Christ the Saviour’, Brown, Jewish by birth and a Baba-lover by parental decree, encounters teachers and nuns straight out of Adam’s Family, and children who would make the bullies in the Lord of the Flies appear tame lambs in comparison. The teachers forever are in search of innovative and gory ways of torturing pupils—at one time Brown, with the rest of the class, witnesses the terrifying spectacle of the class-teacher frenziedly and repeatedly knocking the head of a boy on the stone-floor till he passes out and suffers an epileptic fit—while the bullies amongst children steal Brown’s belongings, pour ink on her back, and, when stuck for ideas, throw rocks at her. Brown admits that she was not the only pupil who was subjected to corporal punishment—the nuns just wanted to wring necks and weren’t fussy about whose necks they wrenched; if anything she got punished less than the Indian children— and, for the classroom bullies, she was just one amongst many whom they tormented; but this knowledge—that she was not the only one to suffer the excruciation—did not make the pain bearable. Her parents appear to be surprisingly oblivious to Brown’s plight—her mother claims, years later, that she genuinely did not know that her daughter was so desperately unhappy at school—, perhaps because of the knowledge that the only alternative available, a public sector Marathi school, was, if that was possible, worse than the Catholic school.

Young Brown is a keen observer of the peculiarities and frailties of those around her; and the adult Brown has a wonderful gift of narration. The conclusions she reaches are sometimes revealing, sometimes superficial, and always interesting. By far the most fascinating characters are Brown’s parents—her mother Da-Nonna and her father Joey, both confirmed Baba-lovers. Da-Nonna, we learn towards the end, is still living in the Ahmadnagar ashram; Joey returns to America after five years, having found a new soul-mate in the ashram, and their home in America is adorned by no less than eighty nine photographs of Meher Baba. Brown’s depiction of her mother has a touch of theatricality and farcicality about it. Da-Nonna is the stereotypical Westerner, who, unhappy with her lot in life, possibly damaged by traumatic experiences in her childhood, embraces the benign sect of an Indian mystic and its not-wholly-original philosophy with the avidity of an alcoholic clutching a bottle of whisky. She swallows all the fantastic stories of Meher Baba’s powers and his nifty deeds in previous incarnations (which include Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad, Zoroaster and most mythological figures from the Hindu pantheon), sees Baba’s face in the bark of a tree in the ashram’s compound, is overcome with happiness and gratitude when asked to serve tea to the senior mandali, and has the unshakable belief that Meher Baba is God. While Brown’s mother throws herself into the daily life of the ashram, its rituals and intrigues, her father is a somewhat detached onlooker at the periphery of the Baba-world and whiles his time pontificating with fellow Baba-lovers on whether or not life is an illusion. This man is not gullible, he is habitually inclined to scepticism, he describes himself as an agnostic; yet he travels across half the world and lives in dusty Ahmadnagar for five years. Years later he confides in his daughter that he agreed to go to India to keep the family together as his wife had made up her mind on the matter and would have gone on her own had he disagreed. Then there are a host of secondary characters, all permanent residents of the ashram, whose behaviour, judging by Brown’s account, ranges from eccentric to clinically insane. Ratanji, the librarian, has pathological hatred of all children, and keeps himself busy by grunting outside Brown’s window till late in the night; ‘Malik, the Mast’ is forever searching the ground and collecting items that are visible only to him, and such is the unpredictability of his behaviour that the mandalis feel compelled to put a notice outside of his hut advising women to keep their distance; ‘Coconut’—he is round, brown and hairy—a man in his fifties, insists that seven year old Brown is his mother because it is the Kaliyuga (The age of Kali, bad times, according to Hindu beliefs) age and ‘anything can happen then.’ Overlooking this disparate, ragtag collection of misfits and eccentrics is Meher Baba, rather his portrait, for he died, or, as his followers say, left his body, years before Brown was born. Although Meher Baba, a Zoroastrian by birth, declared himself to be God, he was careful not to start a religion; certainly his philosophy, such as it was, appears to have borrowed liberally from Hinduism and Buddhism. He also took a vow of silence when he was in his thirties—apparently because he was misunderstood in all his previous incarnations—and communicated in a sign language for the next forty-five years, till he died. Towards the end of his life, or, as his avtar as Meher Baba neared its conclusion, he spent his time by giving his disciples tasks such as killing all the mosquitoes in the commune’s campus (which suggests he was probably au courant with public health issues, or wanted to impress upon the disciples’ minds the futility of these tasks and by extension life, or had given up on the local pest-control measures) and asking them questions such as what they would do if he asked them to kill their children (which suggests that he was indeed God, or had read the Bible). The 1960s were boom times for Indian gurus, and Meher Baba was no exception; his popularity reached its peak in this decade, and among his followers at the time was Pete Townsend of the British rock band The Who. Townsend wrote songs inspired by his devotion to Meher Baba. He, Meher Baba, is the Baba in Baba O’rielly and it is probable that Townsend had him in mind when he wrote Parvardigar (an urdu word for God). Meher Baba’s tomb in the Ahmadnagar commune is visited every year by scores of Baba-lovers of whom there are apparently more than 100,000 in the world. By the time Brown comes to live in the commune Meher Baba formed in the 1930s, more than a decade has passed since he left his body, but the ashrmaites behave as if he is still alive. There is a consensus that anything and everything happening in the world in general, and the devotees’ lives in particular, is Baba’s wish. If something good happens, Baba gets the credit; if things don’t go according to plan, Baba is testing you. Baba’s name is on everyone’s lips—‘it is used as punctuation, as a greeting, as an exclamation, as a goodbye, and as a prayer.’ Brown’s mother uses the word ‘Baba’ in her speech the way some might use the word ‘f**k’. Brown clearly is not a believer in all the stories surrounding Meher Baba, neither is she particularly enamoured with his hotchpotch philosophy; however, either because of consideration to the feelings of the ashrmiates, not least her mother, or because of her humane disposition, she does not ridicule Meher Baba and his philosophy which, all things, considered, is essentially benign. Brown tends to view the love of some for the Baba-cult as a form of obsession, which, she implies, like all obsessions, is fundamentally arbitrary. She writes: 'We all have mental magnets for obsession . . . waiting to encounter an idea or person or practice of the opposite charge.' Her mother’s 'magnet was an exceptionally strong one, and it attracted her to Baba.' While Brown can’t identify with the object of her mother’s obsession, she can empathize with the obsession. She writes: ‘...when I was a child, I was obsessed with animals. Now I’m obsessed with martial arts ... some people are obsessed with Star Trek, ferrets or a person they’re stalking. I can understand the fascination even if I can’t understand its object.’ She admits that she probably ‘lacks the God-magnet’.

Wryly funny in parts, an undercurrent of pathos permeates the memoir. You can’t help noticing how isolated, and unnatural was the existence of the little girl. She spent five years in India, yet marooned as she was in the ashram, the diverse Indian culture simply passed her by. All the Fishes Come Home to Roost is an engrossing, bittersweet account of the five years of the author’s childhood that—we are left in no doubt of this—was less than wholesome, told in a manner that is witty, ironic, humane, compassionate and genuinely affecting. Brown is definitely a one to watch. 

Man Booker Short-list 2010

Howard Jacobson has been shortlisted for the first time for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. That is obvious: since there is only one 2010 Man Booker prize, whoever is short-listed, has been short-listed, can be short-listed, only once or for the first time. It is an impossibility to be short-listed for an award in a given year more than once. What I meant was Jacobson has been short-listed for the Booker prize for the first time. In other words, Jacobson has made it for the first time to the short-list of the Booker prize. Or, to put it another way, Jacobson has never been short-listed until now, circa 2010, for the Booker Prize in his career, or in the history of the Booker Prize. It has almost made up for the disappointment that David Mitchell, one of my favourite writers, has once again been overlooked.

Jacobson is one of the funniest (and vastly underrated) writers writing in English today. He was long-listed for the first time in 2002 for his novel ‘Who is Sorry now?’. It failed to make it to the short-list. Who is Sorry Now? was also the first Jacobson novel I read. I must say that I wasn’t enthused a great deal by it. The novel, if I remember correctly, has, as its central theme, the sexual desires and frustrations of two friends. Jacobson’s prose style was quite remarkable:  it was clever, bolshie and sharp. That, coupled with Jacobson’s coruscating wit, ought to have made the novel highly readable. But somehow I did not find the novel all that funny. The impression left on my mind was of a very intelligent writer who had a great way with words trying very hard to show how very clever he was. I decided that Jacobson was not a writer I was going to be very enthusiastic about. I did not buy Kalooki Nights, his next novel. It too was long-listed for the Booker, but did not make it to the short-list. A few more years passed. Last year, while browsing through books in a second-hand book shop, I came across two of Jacobson’s early novels: Coming from Behind and Peeping Tom. A friend of mine, with whom I share, to some extent, a taste in fiction, was with me at the time. We both like Jonathan Coe and Nick Hornby (and agree that their recent novels were a tad disappointing). Both of us are fans of early Martin Amis, although we differ in our views with regard to his recent novels in two ways: first—I like them though perhaps not as much as The Rachel Papers, Money, and London Fields, whereas my friend is scathing about them; second—I have actually read Amis’s recent novels and he hasn’t. My friend believes that I waste my time reading too many substandard novels—‘Life is too short to read crap books,’ he informed me when I told him that I was reading Rachel Hore. On my part, I think he is one of those who will read one book and talk about it for the next three months. Anyway, this friend advised me to buy both the novels. I read Coming from Behind, Jacobson’s debut novel. It is one of the funniest novels I have read. The novel is in the same mode as many of the comedies of Kingsley Amis and David Lodge—a literary comedy for the want of better phrase—and Sefton Goldberg, its lustful protagonist, is a kind of Jewish version of Lucky Jim: every bit as observant, cantankerous and clever. The linguistic fireworks that light up every page are superb. I have since bought two more novels of Jacobson. I ordered The Mighty Waltzer from Amazon after I read in an interview of his that this was his favourite novel. And I bought Redback for the two reasons why I have bought many books in recent times: I spotted it in a second-hand bookshop and it cost nothing; and, having liked Coming from Behind, I have added Jacobson’s name to the list of authors I would like to read more.

Another author whom I would like to read more is also short-listed for the 2010 Man Booker prize for his novel In A Strange Room—the South African writer Damon Galgut. The only novel of Galgut I have read is The Good Doctor, which, I think, was short-listed for the Booker prize years ago (2002 or 2003). It was his third novel but the first one which brought him world-wide audience. I thought The Good Doctor was a terrific novel. Galgut wrote with an economy of prose reminiscent of that other great South African writer, J.M. Coetzee, whom I admire a lot. ‘The Good Doctor’ had echoes of Disgrace, Coetzee’s 1999 triumph (which won him his second Booker), although it wasn’t as relentlessly bleak. In his novel, which told the story of a young White doctor working in a dilapidated hospital in the post-Apartheid South Africa, in a region that was once a Bantu homeland, Galgut tackled big themes effortlessly, in a way that was entirely—alarmingly, even—believable. The Good Doctor is one of those novels that stay in your mind for a long time after you have finished reading them, the hallmark of a great novel, in my books. I am therefore disappointed, disheartened, dejected and downcast that I have not got round to read more novels of this very talented writer. After the world-wide critical acclaim of The Good Doctor one of Galgut’s earlier novels, Quarry, was re-issued (or issued for the first time) in the UK and I bought it. That was a few years ago. I am yet to read it, as also Imposter which I bought for 60 pence last Christmas when ‘Borders’ went into administration and was disposing off its stock of books.

Of the other authors short-listed, I have read Peter Carey, who has won the prize twice already, for Parrot and Olivier in America, and Andrea Levy for The Long Song. Andrea Levy is a favourite author of mine. The Long Room, I think, is Levy’s first novel since the Whitbread (now Costa) award winner Small Island, which was also her first novel I read. I enjoyed reading Small Island (although I felt the narrative didn’t flow smoothly). I then bought all of Levy’s previous three novels and have read two of them (Fruit of the Lemon, and Every House in the House Burnin’). I liked these early novels even more. Every Light in the House Burnin’ in particular was incredibly moving.

Every year, the short-lists of the major literary awards throw up authors you have never heard of (I had never heard of Andrea Levy until she won the Whitbread award for Small Island), and this year’s Man-Booker short-list is no exception. I had never heard of Emma Donoghue who has been short-listed for her novel Room, although she has written six novels before it, one of which, Slammerkin, published in 2000, so the dust jacket of ‘Room’ informs us, was a world-wide bestseller and which (I learnt after I googled Emma Donoghue), according to Wikipedia, won the 2002 Ferro-Grumley Award for Lesbian fiction. I had not heard of it (the novel as well as the award; I do not read much of Lesbian or gay fiction) either. The last of the shortlisted authors is Tom McCarthy, for his debut novel, C.

Whom would I like to win the award? Howard Jacobson is so spectacularly ugly he ought to win. But this is a non-literary reason. If Jacobson wins, it would be the first time in many years that comedy—a genre that, like suspense thrillers, is often overlooked at the major awards—will have won the prize. The great Kingsley Amis won the Booker for The Old Devils in the autumn of his career, and it would be sweet if Jacobson won it. If he does win, would he, nearing seventy, be the oldest writer to win the award?

I would be equally happy if Damon Galgut won. Apart from being a very talented writer, Galgut does not own either a car or a television, which— although it has nothing to do with literature— you have got to admit, is a feat of sorts. For that reason, if for nothing else, Galgut ought to win.

Andrea Levy is not ugly (judging by her photograph) and probably owns a car and a television and (I am going out on a limb here) even a cell-phone. But I shouldn’t hold that against her. Levy, like Jacobson and Galgut, is a terrific author and would be a deserving winner.

I shall not comment about the other two short-listed authors except to say that I shall not be reading their novels unless they win the prize. I wouldn’t have thought that either of them is considered by the bookies as the favourite to win the Man-Booker prize, but you never know. There have been instances in the last decade when rank outsiders like and DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little—2003) Arvind Adiga (White Tiger—2008) have surprised everyone (including probably themselves). If Tom McCarthy wins, it would be the first time in decades that a novel that has as its title only a letter of the alphabet (C) will have won the Booker. John Berger won the award in 1972 for his novel G. For that reason I wouldn’t mind if Tom McCarthy wins the award. That leaves Emma Donghue. Oh, what the heck! She shouldn’t feel left out. I would be very happy if Emma Donghue wins the award although I can’t think of any literary or non-literary reason for it.