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.