17 September 2011

Booker Season: Time for Julian Barnes?

Since even before Julian Barnes's latest book, the novella The Sense of an Ending, appeared in the UK last month, it's been making news, and now it's been so widely touted to win this year's Booker Prize (to be announced 18 October) that Alfred A. Knopf has advanced its US publication to 5 October, presumably to cash in on the transatlantic buzz about the book. Weeks ago it was already the most-mentioned current book in my Twitter timeline, and I don't expect that to change any time soon. Today's blogpost is just to make sure you've heard about it.

First, a word about the Booker Prize, a word addressed especially to those US readers for whom the Booker is not a constant reference point. The main prize, awarded annually since 1969, goes to a longer work of fiction written in English by a citizen of a Commonwealth country or Ireland or Zimbabwe. Some commentators in the US tend to downplay the Booker (full name, since 2002: The Man Booker Prize) because works by US citizens are excluded from consideration. (The group that established the prize in the 1960s felt that there were enough comparable prizes for which US authors received primary or exclusive consideration. There's now also a Man Booker International Prize, given for the body of a novelist's work, for which Americans are eligible; Philip Roth is the most recent winner.) Most readers internationally, however, would describe the main Booker as the greatest formal distinction that a novel written in English can receive. Past winners have included V. S. Naipaul's In a Free State, John Berger's G., Iris Murdoch's The Sea, the Sea, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (which has twice won the 'Booker of Bookers', a prize for the novel voted the best to date of all winners of the main prize) and J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace. In the UK both the press and the public follow each stage in the selection process with an avidity unequalled in the run-up to and awarding of any comparable prize in the US.

Julian Barnes (born 1946) has been on the Booker shortlist three times in the past but has never won. All of his work is inventive and highly readable, starting with his first novel, Metroland (1980), but the book that put him on the literary map was Flaubert's Parrot (1984), a free-wheeling novelistic account of events in the life of Gustave Flaubert, told from the perspective of a fictitious amateur scholar. In the 1980s he also wrote Duffy and three other crime novels under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh, and for four years in the early 1990s he wrote the 'Letter from London' in The New Yorker.  He's published three volumes of short stories, and The Sense of an Ending is his eleventh book-length work of fiction. In recent years, Barnes has continued to confront what in a dustier author would be called themes of human shortcomings, but his perspective seems to have turned from wry to somber. He continues to dedicate his books to his wife, the high-profile literary agent Pat Kavanagh, who died in 2008.

I've called The Sense of an Ending a novella, for want of a better word (it's about 150 pages in length, and it's best read in one or two sittings), although the cover of the US dust jacket calls it 'a novel'. The story contains some surprises, big enough so that readers are best off if they read no plot summaries beforehand, but modest enough so that some may be misled and expect bigger surprises than are in fact forthcoming. I think it's best just to say that it's told in the first person, from the perspective of a man a bit past middle age who is still sorting through the events of a lifetime in which he may not always have behaved nobly, events about which he still has something to learn. I would recommend that you read it not for its surprises but for its insights, its sensibility, its characterizations. In addition, if you're like me, The Sense of an Ending may lead you to examine your own life a bit differently. That's not what I was looking for in 1980, but in 2011 I'll take it.

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