Monday, 30 August 2010

Booker also-rans

I've had quite a few emails in response to my last post.

One chastised me, as a known devotee of Lawrence Durrell, for not considering Constance, which is of course the middle book of the Avignon Quintet. In mitigation, I can only plead (1) that I don't think you can really consider these novels separately rather than as part of a larger whole and (2) that, while magnificent, I don't regard the Quintet as highly as I do the Alexandria Quartet. To set the record straight for poor old Larry, I should record that he did in fact win the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Monsieur, the first book of the Quintet, and that most writers would regard this as a greater honour than the Booker.

Somebody pointed out that Iris Murdoch had been short-listed no less than five times, and should therefore qualify if only on the grounds of persistence, as to which please see my recent post on Under The Net.

I will mention Barbara Pym, since I believe she is a very under-rated author, and Quintet in Autumn has all the haunting melancholy of a true masterpiece - but please don't try reading it if you are feeling even slightly depressed, or you may quickly find yourself on the phone to the Samaritans.

I've already given the game away in my first post, of course. Earthly Powers is one of my very favourite novels and, pace William Golding, I still cannot believe that it did not win. I believe it is Burgess's finest work, and that is saying a great deal when you consider that he was undoubtedly one of the major novelists of the twentieth century; any of the Enderby books or the Malayan Trilogy alone would have guaranteed that.

I should also record in passing, without climbing for too long into the saddle of my hobby-horse, that surely Patrick O'Brien was treated unfairly in never being considered.

However, I would like to leave you with two rather quirky suggestions, at least one of whom produces blank looks and queries of "who?" even from fellow book-bloggers. Let's leave him til last.

Under the Frog was the first novel of Tibor Fischer and records life under the Soviet occupation of Hungary in darkly comic terms. In my opinioin it's not as good a novel as The Thought Gang, which represented the peak of Fischer's quality output, and I suspect that the only reason that was not short-listed was because Under The Frog had already been chosen only a year or two previously.

Now for the wild card. Goshawk Squadron by Derek Robinson was short-listed in 1971, the year in which a distinguished panel including Saul Bellow and John Fowles chose V.S. Naipaul's In a Free State. Set at a Royal Flying Corps base in France during the First World War, it details the various defence mechanisms people adopt when faced with extreme and prolonged stress. Note that the Booker was not so fastidiously "literary" in those days. Other shortlisted writers around the same time included Mary Renault, William Trevor, Kingsley Amis and C.P. Snow (the latter nominated in 1974, at the age of 69, and surely in the nature of a lifetime achievment award rather than a genuine suggestion that In Their Wisdom is a great novel).

Derek Robinson is unjustly neglected, and thus very much a Pursewarden writer. In addition to Goshawk Sqaudron he wrote two similar books: Hornet's Sting and War Story. I would also commend The Eldorado Network. As now seems obligatory in the case of a good author, some of his books are out of print, and he has recently taken up self-publishing.

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