HILARY Mantel has won the Booker Prize for the second time, laying to rest the myth that it is only men from the Antipodes (JM Coetzee and Peter Carey) that can accomplish such a feat.
Bring Up The Bodies is indeed a wonderful, subtle, powerful and engaging book. It is a good and a popular choice, but it may not be a wise or a brave choice.
Sir Peter Stothard and his fellow judges had an extremely difficult job this year, as the Booker brand had been dangerously damaged by the antics of Dame Stella Rimington the year before, when, after suggesting that “zipping along” was her highest aesthetic accolade for a novel, she went on to compare publishers to the KGB. Stothard achieved something rather remarkable: a high-brow, debateable longlist and shortlist, which took due cognisance of smaller publishers, and was unashamedly literary without being needlessly esoteric.
To put my cards on the table, I wanted Will Self to win. His novel, Umbrella, is more intellectually intriguing and linguistically sprightly than Bring Up The Bodies, or, indeed, most novels in the past decade.
Looking back over previous years, I was curious at how often the Booker has made daring decisions about the shortlist and then suffered a conservative swerve when it came to the winner. Back in 1980, William Golding won for Rites Of Passage – a good, and quietly adventurous novel, which begins “Honoured godfather – with those words I begin the journal I engaged myself to keep for you – no words could be more appropriate!” – but against Anthony Burgess’s magisterial and maximalist Earthly Powers, which began: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me”.
Time and again, a novel which expands the possibility of the novel makes the shortlist but misses the overall prize. Carey’s Oscar And Lucinda instead of Bruce Chatwin’s Utz; Anne Enright instead of Nicola Barker; Howard Jacobson instead of Tom McCarthy; John Banville instead of Ali or Zadie Smith. The Booker – and all other prizes – treat the avant-garde like nettles. They admit the existence of nettles, but fear to grasp them, and prefer dahlias. Yet a literature without an avant-garde is one without a future.
And giving the prize to Mantel raises another problem. When the judges convene to discuss her conclusion to the trilogy, it will hang over them dreadfully. If they shortlist it, they’re slavishly following. If they choose not to, they’re iconoclasts. Either way, 11 other books won’t get the column inches they deserve. And the judges could always have given it to Will Self, safe in the knowledge that Mantel has another book a few years away.
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