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John Berger and the art of the novelist

John Berger and the art of the novelist

2016-17 has not been kind to the Man Booker’s art historian-novelists. Following the death of Anita Brookner (winner 1984) last year, that of John Berger (winner 1972) a matter of days ago is a cause for further sadness. The pair were one-offs: both turned to fiction from other professions (art history for Brookner, painting for Berger), both were very different as novelists and as art historians (and probably in their politics too, but while Berger was an avowed Marxist Brookner kept her views to herself), and both loved France. Their deaths do, however, serve as a reminder of the closeness between books and art, something that marks the work of other MB winners too. Julian Barnes (who became a friend of Brookner’s when she beat him to the prize), A.S. Byatt and Howard Jacobson are among the novelists who have written widely and perceptively about art.

As chance would have it, two of the newly-announced judges for this year’s Man Booker prize, Sarah Hall and Tom Phillips, are also closely involved with art. A painters and paintings were the subject of Hall’s 2004 and 2009 longlisted novels The Electric Michelangelo and How to Paint a Dead Man, while Phillips is himself an artist and Royal Academician.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Berger did not consider himself to be a critic because, he said, the title ‘suggests somebody deciding how many marks out of 20 to give’.

Art is clearly in the air. The Guardian recently started a new series in which it asks a selection of cultural figures to name the ‘works they can rely on to replenish their energy for life’. Among the first batch was Ali Smith, a three times Man Booker shortlistee whose novel How To Be Both heavily featured a renaissance painter), who chose Nan Goldin’s photograph of her friend the writer and actress Cookie Mueller laughing. Smith’s reasoning was straightforward: ‘First, it’s the delight of someone else’s helpless mirth. It’s one of the most infectious pictures of someone laughing I’ve ever seen. The moment I see it, it makes me laugh too. Then, it’s a really stunning portrait as well as a really stunning photograph’. Most important of all though: ‘The picture makes something communal happen, it shares the friendship.’

Congratulations are due to Sebastian Barry, Man Booker shortlisted in 2005 and 2008. He has just picked up the Costa Novel Award for Days Without End. Barry was clearly chuffed: ‘I see it as the re-arrival of a miraculous time, it was just a lovely thing to have happen to me.’ His novel will now compete with the other category winners (children’s, poetry, non-fiction, first novel) for the Costa Book of the Year Award, announced on 31 January.

Barry is 61 but has missed out on being one of those cultural figures named by Culture Trip in their ‘60 over 60 power list’, ‘a celebration of the innovative movers and shakers aged over 60 who are working across the globe to help shape our future for the better’. A couple of Man Booker figures do, however, make the list - László Krasznahorkai, Man Booker International Prize winner in 2015, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Man Booker International nominee in 2009. More power to their respective elbows.