Celebrating 50 years of The Man Booker Prize

Celebrating 50 years of The Man Booker Prize

Andy Taylor reports on the Golden Man Booker Live at the Southbank Centre, and discusses the relevance of this prestigious literary award

The Man Booker Prize was established in 1968 with the aim of celebrating the very best works of fiction written in the English language. The award was originally restricted to citizens of Commonwealth countries, but in 2014 the criterion was extended to any English-language novel – a decision that has both heightened the significance of the award, and bolstered the reputation of previous prize-winners. The words Man Booker themselves have come to be associated with literary greatness, serving as a definitive stamp of exceptionality and originality. Consequently, the ‘Man Booker 50’ celebration, held at the Southbank Centre in early July, was met with great anticipation by recognised writers and loyal readers alike.

The purpose of the ceremony was to identify the best work of fiction from the past 50 years – a daunting task considering the prodigious talent of previous winners. The panel comprised of five great talents in the world of literature – author Kamila Shamsie, poets Lemn Sissay and Hollie McNish, broadcaster Simon Mayo and the Observer’s Robert McCrum. Each were assigned a decade of winners and tasked with identifying one book of truly exceptional merit. The five shortlisted books were then pitted against each other in a public vote to decide the overall victor.

The shortlist gives a flavour of the sort of talent under evaluation: the late V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State, Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo are all masterpieces in their own right. Not only have these authors provided invaluable insights into highly controversial topics, they have experimented with bold styles of writing and helped establish new boundaries for the novel.

For instance, in Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders acts as playwright and historian, merging fact and fiction into a fantastical, melancholy, yet humorous blend. Saunders focuses on an often-overlooked part of history: the death of Willie Lincoln (Abraham Lincoln’s supposedly favoured son). Saunders describes Willie’s existence in a fictitious, purgatory-like state following his death (he is, so-to-speak, ‘in the bardo’). As with Moon Tiger and The English Patient, Saunders’ novel is one of fractured narratives – the tale is told from numerous perspectives and the chronology of events is of little importance. The challenge of the fractured narrative approach is to make the transition from one event to the next seamless and natural, and these novels are exceptional in this regard, for the authors – in their own idiosyncratic manner – achieve this subtle orchestration to great effect.

The ceremony included readings from the shortlisted books, followed by author speeches. It emerged that many of them had scarcely read their books since publication, and that the ceremony had given them cause to re-read, reconsider and occasionally redress the views they once held. The value of the Man Booker 50, then, may lie in the prompting of authors to consider different times and perspectives and to trace the evolution of their thinking over a period of many years.

The prize was awarded to Michael Ondaatje, for his novel The English Patient (adapted into an award-winning film in 1996). The film focuses almost exclusively on the life of an anonymous ‘English patient’ being nursed to health in an Italian villa by Hana, who simultaneously attempts to reassemble the jumbled fragments of his past. The book follows a different course entirely, focusing instead on the blossoming relationship between Hana and Kip, a Sikh Sapper. Shamsie stressed the importance of this story, observing that whilst the film focuses on Almasy’s affair, the novel’s central love story is between Hana and Kip. While defusing the mines laid by the retreating German forces, Kip finds himself at the Villa San Girolamo in the hills of Tuscany (the make-shift hospital erected by Hana), and quickly becomes the unwitting third edge to a love triangle. Ondaatje weaves a touching tale as the two characters try to balance their feelings for one another with the harsh and perilous nature of the sapper’s work and the scars borne by those living through times of war.

The novel is a testimony to Ondaatje’s extensive knowledge. He speaks with great authority on matters as diverse and varied as the deserts of Libya and Egypt, to British bomb-disposal during the Second World War. The thoroughness of Ondaatje’s research is matched only by his profound analysis and deep understanding of human relationships in the most bleak and sombre situations – of love in times of war and hardship. Despite fitting a great deal of historical content into the novel, Ondaatje maintains a magnetic writing style throughout, best evidenced by his enchanting and poetic descriptions of the desert, and the tenderness with which he views these harsh environments .

Ondaatje’s acceptance speech was short and characteristically humble. Self-deprecatingly, he stated that, ‘Not for a second do I believe this is the best book on the list…especially when it is placed beside a work by V.S. Naipaul, one of the masters of our time, or a major work like Wolf Hall’. Indeed, his success was something of a surprise, for there were many who believed that Mantel’s Wolf Hall would win the popular vote, and Shamsie herself was somewhat taken aback, acknowledging the strong support mustered by Mantel’s Cromwellians. Evidently, voters saw the true value of Ondaatje’s work.

Ondaatje’s closing remarks expressed the need to recognise works of fiction that had not won the Booker Prize, referring explicitly to the writings of William Trevor, Barbara Pym and Alice Munro. Ondaatje is right to draw attention to this foible; there is a natural tendency to overlook runners-up, and when the literary world sees an exceptionally prolific year, many great works are lost to the pages of history. Indeed, one would do well to remember that many masterpieces only come to be recognised for their true value years after publication. Nevertheless, Ondaatje’s praise and admiration for the award was boundless, and particular emphasis was placed on its ability to bring like-minded people together. Indeed, if the prize achieves anything, it is simply the recognition that art, no matter how challenging or simple, deserves to be rewarded when expertly crafted.

Featured Image Credit: The Week

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