Kingsley Amis, The Old Devils, Booker Prize 1986

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Back in 1986, most of the literary world was surprised when Kingsley Amis won the Booker Prize. After all, this is a prize associated with young modern authors such as Kingsley’s son, Martin Amis. Kingsley Amis was associated with the new wave of British writers of the 1950s. How had Amis Snr won a prize more suited to Amis Jnr’s generation?

The Old Devils is a straight-forward tale of growing old disgracefully. A group of old friends; Malcolm, Peter and Charlie live in Wales, and they spend their retirement drinking in every pub they can find. However their routine is interrupted when a celebrated poet or ‘Professional Welshman’ called Alun Weaver comes back to the area with his wife Rhiannon, with whom one of them previously had a relationship.

In truth, the novel’s plot was plodding in parts, but there can be no doubt that The Old Devils is funny. The rants and conversations between the main characters are amusing and entirely relatable to the time it was written and their age. Personally, I found it hilarious about how much ale, bitter, wine, port and whisky they get through. One particular highlight was some of the characters being thrown out of one pub for ‘bad behaviour’.

What sort of statement is Amis trying to make with this novel? Are we really only as old as the people we are inside? Does retirement bring about a re-evaluation of our past? Or is there nothing better to do in our retirement that simply get sozzled and moan about the world? I think Amis is trying to say all of these things in The Old Devils. Through their numerous days spent in pubs, the main characters reflect and rethink all that has happened to them, or what they have done in the past, and they find reconciliation, forgiveness and second chances.

The reader gets a sense that this is a very personal novel for Amis. He was sixty-four when he wrote the novel. Like the characters in his novel, he enjoyed drinking, and some critics thought that his drinking had ‘robbed him of his wit and charm’. They also said that his best work, that standard being set by Lucky Jim, was well behind him. Well, this novel is a clear ‘Fuck you, I’ve still got it’ message to those critics.

Personally, I did find The Old Devils a bit of a stretch to read at times, but I did appreciate the themes and humour of the novel and as Amis has shown in this novel, spending most of your days in the pub with your friends sounds like great fun!

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending, Man Booker Prize 2011

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When reading Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, you are constantly reminded of how the mind plays tricks on you; makes you miss things that other people are trying to tell you; and makes you remember things in a certain way. Barnes toys with the idea of memory in a short, poignant and thought-provoking novel.

Some of the most interesting chapters in the novel are at the beginning, with our protagonist Tony Webster reminiscing about his school days and particularly his history lessons with Old Joe Hunt. In it, their teacher talks about the perspectives of history, where one of Tony’s friends, the intelligent and bright Adrian, tells the class that ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation’, in a deliberate echo of the novels main themes. Also, these early experiences of making friends and falling in love are all things which we can directly relate to. Tony’s reminiscences are intertwined with nuggets of philosophy which he has picked up over the years, which really brings his character to life and makes you as the reader feel that you are in direct conversation with him.

The novel reads as not just as a conversational piece, but also as a confessional. The main narrative drive of the novel is Tony revealing what happened or what he thought happened with his first girlfriend Veronica. After they broke-up, Tony convinced himself that Veronica was cold and indifferent, however years later, certain items come to light through Veronica’s mum’s passing which make him reconsider his own perceptions of their one-time relationship.

Ultimately, Tony is on a quest to understand his life and once he has found that, seek redemption for any harm he may have caused people; however, Barnes doesn’t make it that simple for our hero. As most people will probably tell you, saying sorry can be a bit too late sometimes.

On a different note, I would like to thank my good friend Claire for lending me a copy of the book and for willing me on, despite myself not fully grasping what I was letting myself in for when starting this challenge. Thanks Claire!

One more for the list…

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Richard Flanagan Man Booker prizeSo we now know who the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2014 is. This year’s judges awarded the prize and £50,000 prize money to Richard Flanagan for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Based on the experiences of Australian POW’s building the Burma Railway for the Japanese in the Second World War, Flanagan wrote about this particular event  because his own father had been one of the POW’s who built the Burma ‘Death Railway’.

Flanagan has faced some stiff competition to win this year. For the first time, the prize can be awarded to any author writing originally in English and published in the UK, which has meant that two American authors have been in the running. Also, Howard Jacobson, who won in 2010 with The Finkler Question, was in contention with his dystopia novel, J. The bookies favourite was Neel Mukherjee with The Lives of Others.

The shortlist was made up of genres which push all the Man Booker buttons. For example, Mukherjee’s novel follows in tradition of the Indian novel, which has include past winners Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. Flanagan himself follows Thomas Keneally (Schindler’s Ark) and Peter Carey (True History of the Kelly Gang) as Australian authors who tap into historical events to create powerful works of literature.

I am looking forward to reading this years’ winner, particularly as I am already a fan of fiction which use historical context (I don’t use the term ‘historical fiction’ because it’s just too general and inaccurate, but hey, that’s just me), and judging from the reactions it has already received, I’m in for a powerful and gripping read.

J.M.Coetzee, Disgrace, Man Booker Prize 1999

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20141012_212447‘Disgrace’ and the reactions of those who have to bear it is the central theme of this novel. The main characters of David Lurie and his daughter Lucy both suffer from forms of disgrace. The attitudes of some of the minor characters to their predicaments can be seen as disgraceful, as indeed does the recent Apartheid past of South Africa, which is the home of its author, J.M.Coetzee.

Rarely has a novel created such sympathy for a character that doesn’t really deserve it. Lurie, who breaks one of the chief taboos of being a University Professor and has an affair with one of his students, is dismissed from his job and relocates to the Cape to spend some time with his daughter. When events there take a dramatic and awful turn, suddenly you begin to feel for David, and not just in a pitiful sense, but in you actually agree with his thoughts and his feelings. Coetzee skilfully creates a compelling, human and ultimately tragic character. Through his writing, you can see why a middle-aged, divorced academic who writes about the English Romantic poet Lord Byron may think that he is some sort of latter-day Byron. Of course the reader knows better. We know he is a deluded womaniser and that seducing one of his students is wrong, but there is something noble about Lurie’s pushing against modern political correctness in the name of his own romantic ideals.

Coetzee’s writing is also heavily influenced by its setting. The shadow of Apartheid is still strong in this novel; the main characters constantly live with reminders of the racial divisions which scar South African society. You see Lurie’s fears around a Black African farmer called Petrus wanting to drive him and his daughter out of her small-holding and using violence and intimidation to get it. However, Coetzee’s doesn’t make it that simple; Is Lurie’s imagining that Petrus is trying to get Lucy’s land or is it just his racial prejudices clouding his judgement?

The novel itself is quite short, but it follows the Ernest Hemingway rule of using short sentences and short paragraphs which are direct and to the point, which benefits a novel which tackles such a large and diverse subject as human nature. Overall, Disgrace is powerful and shocking novel which works both as a study on human nature and as a piece of social commentary.

Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children, Booker Prize 1981

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The latest novel I have read has become a modern classic. It regularly makes the top 100 lists of the greatest novel of all times. It has also won a Booker prize twice; originally in 1981 and recent in 2008, when it won the Best of the Booker in order to celebrate the prize’s 40th Anniversary. So does Midnight’s Children deserve the honours it has gained?

Let’s start on the length of the novel. For saying I am to read all Man Booker Prize winners in 18 months, it took me a month alone to read this. It is split into three books, chronicling the life of the narrator, Saleem Sinai, who was born on midnight on 15th August 1947; the day when India and Pakistan were born as well. He is also one of many ‘Midnight’s Children’ who were born in that hour and became endowed with magical powers. The first book covers the fantastical events which led to his birth; the second covers his childhood up to his late teens; and the third book covers his adult life. The length of the novel didn’t really put me off. The more I read, the more I was engrossed by it.

This was partly down to Salman Rushdie’s writing. Rushdie is more of a public figure now than a writer. Martin Amis famously said that after the execution order or ‘fatwa’ was placed on Rushdie by the Iranian government after the publication of The Satanic Verses, “He has vanished into the front page”. He’s been there ever since. But for those, including myself, who had never read his works until now, you actually discover why he is such a good writer in the first place. Midnight’s Children is a demonstration of Rushdie’s talent as a storyteller. Throughout the novel, Saleem tells numerous tales about all sorts of things; family, friends, famous events in India and Pakistan’s history, all of which are tied together by destiny. It is Rushdie’s storytelling in its simplest form which is the greatest strength of the novel.

Circumstance, and most importantly, destiny, are key themes in the novel. When Saleem looks back at his life, he sees that everything happened for a reason. Aadam Aziz, Saleem’s grandfather, had a unusually large nose which was runny a lot of time. When facing a column of British soldiers at Amritsar, Aadam sneezes just as the soldiers open fire into the crowd. Aadam survives the Amritsar Massacre, and ensures that Saleem will be eventually born. All events in Midnight’s Children are interconnected; he feels the weight of history on his shoulders and everything that happens to India after independence is mirrored in his own life. Saleem’s life is, as Prime Minister Nehru puts it, “a mirror of our own”.

Magic and other fantastical elements appear throughout the novel. Saleem develops telepathic abilities and is able to communicate with other people like him such as a witch called Parvati who can actually do magic; Soumitra, a boy who can travel through time; and Saleem’s rival Shiva, who possesses unusually large knees and whose fate is intertwined with Saleem’s. One of my favourite aspects of the novel is its sense of the extraordinary and that everything isn’t as it seems. The novel is part of the ‘magic realism’ genre in which magical and mythical elements are brought into a realistic historical context. Rushdie uses magic, mythology and destiny to make sense of the turmoiltious events which took place in India and Pakistan after independence.

In answer to the question I posed at the beginning, does Midnight’s Children deserve to be a modern classic, I would say that it is a great novel and the critics are probably right that the novel will be celebrated for many years to come.

Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty, Man Booker Prize 2004

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What is the line of beauty? This was one of the first questions I asked when reading Alan Hollinghurst’s award-winning work. A brief explanation is given by the narrator as a theory by the 18th century artist William Hogarth about curved, serpentine lines, like the letter ‘S’, possessing natural qualities of life, activity and beauty, as opposed to straight lines which are harsh, direct and cold.

The line of beauty, or the concept of beauty, is what guides the novel’s protagonist Nick Guest. He is obsessed by it, driving him every waking moment of his life. He looks for beauty in the classical music he listens to; the society parties he attends; and the lovers he spends his time with. The irony is that underneath the beauty which Nick sees around him, there are ugly and dark things in the world of 1980s London.

The novel perfectly catches the zeitgeist of the time. It covers the boom time of the Thatcher years’, which were from the Iron Lady’s second election victory in 1983 to her third in 1987. At the beginning of the novel, Nick has just finished Oxford University and has moved in with his friend Toby Fedden and his family, which include his mentally-fragile sister Catherine; his aristocratic mother Rachel; and his Conservative MP father Gerald. Nick is thrust into the high society life, whilst trying to build a romantic relationship with a young black council worker called Leo.

The tragedy of the novel is that Nick’s ‘line of beauty’ is an illusion in 1980s London. Admittedly, there are beautifully written scenes in the novel, such as Nick and Leo’s first date; the numerous parties which are held at the Fedden household (one of which the Prime Minister herself attends) and the hot summer’s day in which Nick and his new boyfriend Wanni go swimming. But for all those scenes, Hollinghurst writes in a sense of uneasiness and menace. As the novel moves into its second act, Nick increasingly resorts to snorting cocaine to get through all those parties. In fact, Nick goes through so much coke and promiscuous sex that in almost becomes mechanical to him. Likewise, the AIDS epidemic takes away those whom Nick loves, but it doesn’t end there. Just when it doesn’t seem that the Fedden’s are bothered by Nick’s sexuality events occur in the third act which sees Nick built up as a scapegoat for the misdemeanors of others.

In the reviews I have read, most seem to view Nick’s motives as questionable. Hollinghurst chose ‘Guest’ as his surname because a guest can either be welcome or unwelcome. In other words; is Nick a genuine family friend or is he an interloper simply using the Fedden’s as a means to end in order to pursue his quest for the line of beauty? In my opinion, he is a bit of both. I believe Nick is genuine to begin with. He swept away by the opportunities provided for him in London as both a gay man and as someone with an opening into the world of the privileged elite. However, he then goes headfirst into the hedonism of the 1980s, the consequences of which finally catch up with him in the end.

The Line of Beauty seems like a 1980s equivalent of William Hogarth’s A Rakes’ Progress. Although it could be laborious at times, it is hugely vivid world in which beauty is everywhere, but is fragile and much like a good party, can’t go on forever.

Roddy Doyle, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Booker Prize 1993

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Since breaking through with his debut the novel, The Commitments in 1987, Roddy Doyle has been raised to the status of national treasure in Ireland, with his works such as The Commitments and The Van being adapted for stage and screen; however it was this novel, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha which won him the Booker Prize in 1993.

The titular character of the book is a schoolboy growing up in the Barrytown area of Dublin. Paddy and his mates play football in the street, pretend to be Cowboys and Indians and set things on fire, as young lads generally did in 1960s Dublin. Paddy is a particularly inquisitive child, trying to get his head round what is going on in the world, from the Vietnam War to the Japanese ritual of suicide, or Seppuku. He and friends are also very cheeky, much to the chagrin of their teachers. Their classroom antics provide the book with some of its funniest passages.

Doyle’s world, much like Ireland, is built on the two pillars of Catholicism and family. Paddy’s world is very much centred round his family. He looks out for his younger brother Francis, nicknamed ‘Sinbad’ and he loves his ‘Da’ and ‘Ma’, which makes it much harder for him to understand why his Da and Ma’s marriage is falling apart. As the reader, you get some subtle hints at first that things aren’t well in the Clarke household, but as the novel progresses and we see Paddy grow up, the veil of Paddy’s childhood begins to fall, and this is where the real emotional impact of Doyle’s novel is felt.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is written in Doyle’s unique style; punchy and conversational. As the writer, he wants the reader to feel that they are in the heart of the conversation with Paddy and the characters which surround him. The whole narrative structure is based around anecdotes and snippets of Paddy’s life, particularly the experiences of childhood, which are universal to all readers of the novel.

What struck me about Doyle’s novel is how firstly, he manages to capture the reality of being a young child; which is of enjoying life as much as you can, but being aware of getting older and becoming more world weary, and secondly, the importance of family. The last part of the novel tugs at the heartstrings as Paddy realises that family comes first. Indeed, after finishing this book, it made me think of the importance of my own family in my life.