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Michael Prodger on Julian Barnes and the Man Booker Prize

Michael Prodger on Julian Barnes and the Man Booker Prize

Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize 2011 with his novel The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape - Random House).

Earlier in 2011, Michael Prodger gave an overview of Barnes' history with the Man Booker Prize. 

"This is Julian Barnes' fourth appearance on a Booker or Man Booker Prize longlist, a fact that must give him mixed feelings. He has not always been very complimentary about the prize, famously likening it once to "posh bingo", claiming that when he was shortlisted in 1984 for Flaubert's Parrot one of the judges said to him "I hadn't even heard of this Flaubert fellow until I read your book" and indeed generally berating the judges for being "inflated by their brief celebrity". And yet his numbers keep coming up and those inflated judges keep calling his name. This year it is for his short and resonant The Sense of an Ending.

The full list of his nominations runs Flaubert's Parrot, England, England (shortlisted 1998), Arthur and George (shortlisted 2005) and The Sense of an Ending. Should this year's book be shortlisted Barnes will be fast closing in on William Trevor and Beryl Bainbridge as the most nominated of all Man Booker writers (five each). For all his strategic distancing he must be doing something right.

Perhaps it is something to do with his variety. Barnes's Man Booker works have been extraordinarily dissimilar. Flaubert's Parrot, for example, is a book of the sort that is rarely written now. It is a postmodernist experiment in form that nominally follows a Flaubert amateur, Geoffrey Braithwaite, as he travels around France visiting places with links to the writer and in particular as he tracks down the stuffed parrot that sat on his writing desk. Outside this narrative it keeps digressing into such byways as Flaubert's love life, trains or why he was likened to a bear. At heart it is a book about obsession and its structure is a mirror image of the mental boxes and solipsistic thought processes an obsessive utilises. The richness of the book's construction and themes means it has generated a vast amount of po-faced critical comment with such enticing titles as "Parrot as Paradigms: Infinite Deferral of Meaning in Flaubert's Parrot" and "Towards a Description of Atypical Narratives".

The next of his quartet, England, England excited the metafiction faculty a little less, largely perhaps because it is both a satire and a piece of off-beat science fiction. The story centres on the plans of the brothel-habitué and entrepreneur Sir Pack Pitman and his plans to turn the Isle of Wight into a sort of theme park encapsulating the best of Britain, complete with scale versions of Stonehenge, Big Ben, Harrods and the White Cliffs of Dover and recreations of pea-soupers and even the Battle of Britain. His amanuensis in this project is Martha Cochrane and it is her wider story - from childhood to old age - that forms the setting for both Pitman's scheme and rambunctious character. As well as the comedy, Barnes's scenario also gives him scope to contrast his national microcosm with a national dystopia as the attractions on the Isle of Wight take on a life of their own.

Britishness reappears in Arthur and George, although with an altogether different feel. The book recounts in three parts the real-life stories of Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji. The one is a world famous author, the other a half-Indian provincial solicitor. What brings their two orbits into contact are the "Great Wyrley Outrages" - a series of horse-rippings in Staffordshire for which, in a miscarriage of justice, Edalji was convicted after racially-motivated innuendos pointed the police in his direction. The author of the Sherlock Holmes stories turned detective to get Edalji's conviction quashed. As well as following the crimes and Conan Doyle's attempts to exonerate Edalji the book also follows Conan-Doyle's relationship with his wife and the succour he finds with a platonic lover. These vivid reimaginings together create a rich layering of Edwardian life and a study (a regular Barnes theme this) of the infinite complications of the human heart.

Barnes's latest fiction, The Sense of an Ending, is a perfect example of his miniaturist technique. It is a tragic story about childhood friendship, suicide and the imperfections of memory. Tony Webster and Adrian Finn are schoolboys whose closeness is strained first by Adrian taking on the difficult ex-girlfriend of Tony and then severed by Adrian's unexplained suicide. In later life Tony's world and reminiscences of the past are shaken by an unexpected bequest that makes him seek out the truth of all those years ago and reassess long-held assumptions. It is a painful process of revelations that teeter on the brink of appearing and pieces that - until the very last page - don't quite fall into place. When they do comes the horror of understanding not just how wrong one person can be but of the pain suffered by others that remained unknown. The novel may be slight in size but in its power and the depth of its themes it is anything but.

Barnes has claimed that the Man Booker process "usually produces some psychosomatic malady - a throbbing boil, a burning wire of neuralgia, the prod of gout" in the writer. Hopefully he has an appointment with his GP already booked."

By Michael Prodger

Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize 2011 with his novel The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape - Random House).
Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize 2011 with his novel The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape - Random House).