Lost Booker prize shortlist overlooks Iris Murdoch but plumps for Muriel Spark
Alison Flood guardian.co.uk, Thursday 25 March 2010 14.40 GMT Article history
Muriel Spark missed out on the first ever Booker prize in 1969 to PH Newby, and then again in 1981 to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Today, four years after she died, one of the grand dames of British literature has been shortlisted for the third time, with her novel The Driver’s Seat one of six titles in the running for the Lost Man Booker prize.
The award is intended to honour the books published in 1970 which, due to a change in entry criteria in 1971, were never eligible for the Booker. Judges Katie Derham, the ITN newsreader, poet and novelist Tobias Hill and Observer journalist Rachel Cooke considered a longlist of 21 titles, with big names including HE Bates, Melvyn Bragg and Iris Murdoch all missing out on a shortlisting, as well as surprise contenders Len Deighton and Ruth Rendell.
“We all felt slightly guilty about not putting Iris Murdoch’s A Fairly Honourable Defeat on the shortlist – we all love her but we all slightly shamefacedly said ‘did anyone else think this isn’t as good as it should be?'” said Derham. “There were various flaws – we felt some of it was a little bit cartoonish – but who are any of us to undermine the great Murdoch? There was as much discussion about Len Deighton as Iris Murdoch though – how many times have I seen his books in an airport bookshop and thought they’re not for me, but actually when you read [the longlisted] Bomber, it’s really, really good, and it was a good way to remind myself not to be a snob.”
Spark, who won armfuls of literary awards during her lifetime but who the Booker always eluded, is shortlisted for her story of a bored accountant whose search for adventure and sex on holiday becomes a journey to self-destruction. The Scottish novelist, biographer, poet and playwright is one of four women to make the final cut, alongside the late Mary Renault’s historical reimagining of the life of a young Alexander the Great, Fire from Heaven, and two living writers: Australian author Shirley Hazzard’s The Bay of Noon, about a girl in war-torn Naples, and acclaimed British author Nina Bawden’s tale of middle-class parents struggling to cope with their troubled eldest son, The Birds on the Trees. Bawden had previously been shortlisted for the Booker in 1987 for Circles of Deceit.
The shortlist is completed by former Booker winner JG Farrell’s Troubles, about an army major in 1919 Ireland where the struggle for independence is about to begin, and Nobel prize-winning Australian writer Patrick White’s The Vivisector, which tells of an artist who mercilessly dissects his subjects’ weaknesses.
Derham believes the line-up shows a good spread of fiction, from Hazzard’s The Bay of Noon (“I was shouted down when I said this is what ought to be called chick lit, but it’s very appealing to a female audience”), to the “extremely tightly written, bleak, sharp, spiky Muriel Spark”. “We thought we ought to choose books that we ought to enjoy because they’re clever, but in the end I think we’ve chosen six … we loved,” she said. “I don’t wish to undermine the literary quality of these books – they’re all beautifully written – but you can be too precious about it. You want to enjoy them, you don’t want to feel as if you’re eating your greens. It’s about wonderful writing you want to stay up until 3am to finish.”
Reading the longlist had, she said, provided an insight into “the sociological and historical points of view” of the early 1970s. “There were themes of homosexuality being discussed, not for the first time but in a way that was quite new, and there were also a lot of female characters who were frustrated with their lot in life,” she said. “It wasn’t quite like watching television in black and white, but it was almost like that … It was like a snapshot of life at the time, but of course the mark of great writing is when it doesn’t feel dated, and in the main, these books didn’t.”
The Lost Booker prize was dreamed up by literary agent Peter Straus, who realised that two years after it was launched, the Booker moved from April to November and ceased to be awarded retrospectively, so a host of novels published in 1970 fell through the net. The winner, to be announced on 19 May, will now be chosen by a public vote at the Man Booker prize website, which opens today.
The Lost Booker shortlist:
The Birds on the Trees by Nina Bawden
Troubles by JG Farrell
The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard
Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
The Vivisector by Patrick White