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Best ever books and Man Booker books

Best ever books and Man Booker books

In a fascinating exercise the BBC recently commissioned a poll to discover the best 100 British novels of all time. Such a thing has been done before, many times, but the twist is that the contributors the BBC asked were all foreign – none from the UK. The 82 specialists polled are reviewers, literary editors, bloggers and the like from 82 different countries from Australia to Zimbabwe. Each critic submitted a list of 10 novels, with their pick for the greatest novel receiving 10 points. They named 228 novels in all but it is, of course, the top 100 that are the real interest. To British eyes it is a strange list. The winner is George Eliot’s Middlemarch, no surprise there perhaps, but Virginia Woolf at two and three (To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway) and with four books in all on the list? Monica Ali’s Brick Lane as the 29th best British novel of all time? Pride and Prejudice only at 11?

There is of course a great cluster of Man Booker winners on the list: top of the pile is Ian McEwan at 15 with Atonement. Man Booker winning books include Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day at 18; Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending at 39, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall at 44, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children at 46; A.S. Byatt’s Possession at 49. Other Man Booker winners listed include Paul Scott, Pat Barker, V.S. Naipaul, Doris Lessing, Penelope Fitzgerald, Iris Murdoch, Alan Hollinghurst, Kingsley Amis. Shortlistees meanwhile include J. G. Ballard, Muriel Spark, Anthony Burgess, Edward St Aubyn, Zadie Smith, Tom McCarthy, Barbara Pym, Sarah Waters, Andrea Levy, Jane Gardam and Ali Smith (apologies if I’ve missed anyone off).

My rudimentary maths tells me that is 24 novelists or, since some of them appear more than once on the list (Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Doris Lessing and Zadie Smith each has two entries), pushing 30 per cent of the total. Without wishing to hijack the list, that’s a startlingly good hit rate for a prize that has been running for only the last 46 years of British literary history (the earliest book on the list is Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719). It is an indication too of the judges’ ability to spot books and writers of the highest quality.

It is fascinating to see how others view us and for all the quirks (to British eyes) on the list this foreign view sees that Man Booker graduates have a block booking at British literature’s top table. Running the risk of mangling the metaphor, just imagine eavesdropping on that top table chat – Hilary Mantel sitting next to Wilkie Collins, Ian McEwan talking to D.H. Lawrence, Sarah Waters nattering to Virginia Woolf, A.S. Byatt deep in conversation with Joseph Conrad, Kingsley Amis chewing the cud with Charles Dickens . . . the food, one suspects, would go untouched.