Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Julian Barnes Wins the Booker

I am very pleased that Julian Barnes, one of my favourite writers, has won this year’s Booker. He was the only one amongst the short-listed whom I had read, and one of only two I had heard of before the short-list was announced (the other being Carol Birch).

I always feel somewhat cheated when the Booker short-list is announced, as most of the short-listed novels have come out only in hard-back editions which I don’t buy (can’t afford and no space to keep them). The occasional novel which is available in paperback is usually by a less well-known author and I think to myself that I’d buy the novel only if it wins the Booker (it usually doesn’t).

It is not a problem per se. There are so many books which I’d like to read but haven’t that waiting for several months—as in case of The Finkler’s Question, last year’s Booker winner, which I read this year, after it came out in paperback—for the papaerback edition to come out is not a catastrophe. I am a patient person.

At 150 pages, The Sense of an Ending is a slight book (by volume); but there are occasions when slim novels have won the award, for example, Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore which may well be the shortest novel to win the Booker (not her best, though) and Ian McEwen’s Amsterdam (weak story with flawed ending).

It was fourth time lucky for Julian Barnes in 2011. For the third time in a row the Booker has been awarded to an established British writer, and, like Hilary Mantel (2009 winner) and Howard Jacobson (2010 winner) before him, Barnes is a worthy winner. (I hope the next year’s Booker judges will take note of this trend; Martin Amis’s new novel is coming out next year.)

Below are five of my favourite Julian Barnes books.

Published in 1984, this was Barnes's first novel to be shortlisted for the Booker. This is one of my favourite novels. Its Flaubert obsessed narrator, Geoffrey Braithwaite, is tracking down a stuffed parrot that once sat atop the writing desk of the great French novelist.  Flaubert’s Parrot is not a tightly plotted novel in that there are many chapters where Braithwaite (who strikes you as an amusing pedant) pontificates on Flaubert’s life that has no direct relation to the quest of the stuffed parrot. Braithwaite has an animus against literary critics whom he dismisses as professional misinterpreters; yet he remains unaware that what he is doing is literary criticism. I do not think that Flaubert’s Parrot is a post-modern novel, but it certainly has metafictional elements. The fictional element is Braithwaite’s quest for the eponymous parrot, but Barnes uses Flaubert’s life as a springboard to launch into a treatise on art and reality that is embedded within the novel. It is a clever novel, without being  self-conscious about it (unlike many of Iris Murdoch’s novels, which I don’t find clever at all despite their pretensions) and carries its intellectual weight, as it were, effortlessly.  

This novel came out in 1991. It is a black comedy involving a love triangle involving, as love triangles do, two men and a woman. The novel is painstakingly schematised and the shifting angles of the love triangles are very deliberate; but the story is told with great brio and it sucks you in. The novel bursts with witty remarks and observations. I think I first came across the term nicklef**ker in this novel: it describe a person who is reluctant to spend money.

This novel came out in 2001 and tells the story of Stuart, Oliver and Gillian whom we first meet in Talking It Over ten years on. You can call it a sequel. I read the two books in the reverse order. Barnes’s essayist inclinations (very evident in Flaubert’s Parrot) are reined in here, and the novel is much darker, sourer, than Talking It Over. The psychological evolutions of its characters (i.e. if you have read the two books in the order in which they came out, and in quick succession, so that you remembered the first novel) is a bit shaky; but the novel is like a breeze, and even funnier than its predecessor.

This novel has some superficial similarities to Flaubert’s Parrot, but is very different in many other respects. Like Flaubert’s Parrot, the novel has a real-life person at its centre: Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes (the Arthur in the title). However (unlike Flaubert’s Parrot) there was no metafictional element. Barnes employs historical realism as he tells the story—without any deviation from the plot and does not meander into post-modern narrative—of a relatively less known episode in the life of the great writer when he took up cudgels on behalf of George Edalji (the George in the title) and successfully reversed a miscarriage of justice. The novel suffered at times (especially in the second half) from  information overload about Edwardian England, but on the whole it worked for me. Arthur and George was shortlisted for the Booker in 2005, but lost out to John Banville’s The Seawhich I have reviewed on this blog.

This is the only non-fiction book of Barnes, his musing on mortality, I have read. I read it last year and enjoyed it a lot. I have reviewed it on this blog.

I shall read The Sense of an Ending—I’d have read it even if it hadn’t won the Booker. Will I read any of the other short-listed novels? Two seem interesting. A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops which is publicised as a riveting psychological drama that unfolds over the course of one Moscow winter’. I heard A.D. Miller (Snowdrops is his first novel) speak about it on Radio 4 last week. Snowdrops apparently is English translation of the Russian slang for corpses buried under snow. From what I heard, Snowdrops probably does not project the Russian society in favourable light. The other novel that seems interesting is Canadian author Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues which is about black Jazz musicians in Berlin at the outbreak of the Second World War. That sounds promising. (The poor lady came all the way from the Canadian Prairie, with her eight-weeks-old child for the award ceremony, only to be disappointed. Surely she deserves a consolation prize of some sort for her efforts.)

I do not expect The Sense of an Ending to come out before next year. While I wait for the the paperback edition to come out I shall read England England, the third of Barnes’s novels to have been short-listed for the Booker (before he won it with his fourth) and which I have in my collection for a while but haven’t got round to read it.