MAN BOOKER PRIZE 1969
Booker Club: Something to Answer For
Looking back at the Booker: PH Newby
Reading this year's Booker longlist was such an enjoyable experience that I've decided to read through all the previous winners, from 1969 onwards. First up, PH Newby's Something To Answer For
Wed 21 Nov 2007
It may be within living memory for plenty of people, but 1969 is starting to seem like the distant past. Just consider. The Beatles were not only all alive, they were still recording music. Monty Python's Flying Circus was a brand new programme. Kurt Cobain was two years old. And, more relevant to this blog, the Booker prize was a brand new event, a world away in scale from today's annual media shindig. There wasn't even a ceremony. The winner, PH Newby, was notified by post.
If all that doesn't convince you of how much has changed in the almost-40-years since the prize was first given, how about the case of PH Newbyhimself. Have you read one of his books? Have you even heard of him, other than, perhaps, as the first ever Booker winner? In 1969, he was a successful and critically acclaimed writer. He might (as he once claimed in an interview) have nursed a secret fear that his books were only read by old ladies, but he still expected to sell a good 10,000 copies of each (compare that to Ann Enright's paltry 834 before the Booker came her way). His record is especially impressive considering that (according to him) he actually devoted nine tenths of his intellectual efforts to his day job as the director of the BBC Third Programme (soon to be Radio 3).
Yet now, where is this cultural and literary titan? Newby died in 1997 and as far as I can tell, not one of his books remains in print. I'm sure there's an Ozymandian moral to be drawn from the way Newby's works have disappeared - and it's certainly cause for despair among anyone else who hopes to ensure him or herself a crumb of immortality through writing. However, now that I've read Something To Answer For, I'm left more baffled than anything else. I had been hoping to be able to make a few sweeping statements about changing literary habits, the fickle nature of public taste and perhaps how much more impressive the Booker Prize has become since its inception. Instead, I'm just left wondering ...
Perhaps something could be said about the attention deficit in today's society and that the book is too demanding for wimpy contemporary readers. It certainly requires careful attention. I, for one, wouldn't buy such an argument, however. Something To Answer For is no harder to follow than this year's Booker-shortlisted Darkmans and a damn sight easier than the average Thomas Pynchon.
There's also the question of how interested modern readers are going to be in the book's historical setting, the 1956 Suez crisis. But I'm not convinced by this either. Most of us will find plenty of resonance in the story of a Middle Eastern oil war and two minutes on wikipedia is enough to fill in any background.
The only firm conclusion I've been able to draw is that this book is a victim of the vagaries of fate. The simple fact is that I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's beautifully written, shot through with crisp, mordant wit, and Newby plays out his narrative with consummate skill to ensure it baffles and intrigues, leaving the readers hooked and thrashing about for meaning, desperate for him to reel things in.
Early on in the story, the lead character, Townrow, is hit on the head. From then on in, he is never quite sure what's going on - and nor are the readers who follow his bemused progress. He knows he's gone to Egypt to see the widow of his recently deceased friend Elie and perhaps defraud her of her estate. He can't say much more with any clarity. He's unsure for instance whether he saw Elie's burial at sea or dreamt it. He misremembers scenes and conversations he's had with Leah Strauss - the woman he's fallen in love with. He's overwhelmed by the ongoing events surrounding the ongoing Suez crisis and can't even remember whether he's British or Irish, involved or neutral in the whole affair.
It's all very distressing for Townrow, who just wishes that he could "point his mind at something". For the reader, however, it's an exhilarating head trip. Scenes are re-written as Townrow re-remembers them; conversations are wilfully and gleefully contradicted; plot strands are wrapped around each other. All that remains constant is the absurd march of history and the brief, bloody Suez invasion, which Newby depicts in a few virtuoso bursts of bracingly sharp detail.
Events are drawn to a singularly satisfying conclusion in a tour de force of comic writing. This concerns the attempted sea burial of the freshly exhumed body of Elie, whose coffin is too light to sink (a sailor on a passing destroyer from the retreating invasion fleet offers to machine gun it) and whose widow wants nothing to do with the whole affair. In the end our hero is left floating alone on his small boat to he knows not where. There can be few more potent symbols for futility in modern literature - which, I guess, is kind of fitting for a book that has been so easily and needlessly forgotten.
Man Booker Prize
1972 G by John Berger1973 The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell