MAN BOOKER PRIZE 1974
Booker club: Holiday
Looking back at the Booker: Stanley Middleton
Stanley Middleton's Holiday makes its few readers wince - and for all the right reasons
Thu 13 Mar 2008
It's easy to criticise the Booker prize on the grounds that many of its early winners have faded into obscurity. That so many have supposedly failed to weather the test of time is a frequently recurring theme in articles and blogs debating the forthcoming Best of Booker shortlist.
It's equally easy to turn that notion on its head, and say that one of the very best things about the award is that it keeps alive excellent books that would otherwise have disappeared. Holiday by Stanley Middleton is a case in point.
That a book like Holiday wouldn't even see the light of day in the current publishing climate was notoriously demonstrated in the Times when they sent its first chapter to a number of publishers and literary agents together with an extract from VS Naipaul's In a Free State. True, Middleton fared slightly better than the Nobel prizewinner, but the fact that only one agent expressed an interest in seeing further chapters - and none called the newspaper's bluff - does speak (empty) volumes.
But perhaps I'm wrong to take that unoriginal Times stunt seriously. Maybe it isn't surprising that a book with such a curiously dated opening (set in a full church, of all places) failed to strike a chord with harassed publishing types. Maybe if Barbara Levy (the one agent perceptive enough to ask for more chapters) had read on, she might have been moved to try and persuade publishers to take the book. Though his churlish tone may be understandable, Middleton's own quoted response certainly puts the case too strongly: "People don't seem to know what a good novel is nowadays."
I would never have read Holiday if it weren't for this trawl through past Booker winners, nor heard of its author (even though he's written more than 40 well-regarded books). I'd also be prepared to wager that few readers of this article have encountered Holiday or Middleton, outside the context of the Booker. (It might even be instructive to run a straw-poll in the comments below - be honest!) More to the point, if it weren't for the Booker, I'd have missed a treat.
Holiday is one of those books that the enemies of literary fiction often complain about: a novel in which "nothing happens" - or at least, all the action takes place inside the head of a determinedly average middle-class character. In the physical world, little more takes place than that the protagonist, a lecturer in education called Edwin Fisher, goes on holiday to an old-fashioned "nineteen-thirties sunshine shoddy" seaside resort, has a few awkward bed-and-breakfast fry-ups, chats to some girls on the beach, mooches on the prom, meets his father-in-law a few times, has an inebriated fondle with a married woman and then returns home to the wife he has recently left.
Inside, Fisher's head, however, all systems are go. Middleton adopts the role of the writer as God with glee, but shows no mercy. He opens up his leading man like a scallop. First we see his hard shell; his anger with his wife, his quiet contempt for his parents and their mode of life, his awareness of his intellectual superiority to those around him in the fading east-coast resort (a strange place for a young professional like Fisher to take a holiday, even in the 1970s). Soon, Middleton inserts a sharp edge and twists, prizing open defences and filleting through the vulnerable insides with a merciless attention to detail. These details are revealed with such a deft sense of surprise and timing that to detail them here would lessen their impact, suffice to say he puts on such an intimate display that I started to feel voyeuristic. I was embarrassed for Fisher and troubled that I'd been shown so many of his secrets.
The contrast with The Conservationist, the book with which Holiday shared the 1974 prize, could hardly be greater. Everything has symbolic weight in Nadine Gordimer's book, and what is implied is often far more important than what is said; Middleton's book couldn't be more direct. He spells out every painful detail and lays bare every passing thought, before cutting it up again for further examination. It's a strange, slow way of writing, taking three steps back in time for every one forward, and it relies far more heavily on the author's imagination than on any independent input from the reader. Still, Middleton's dissections are every bit as satisfying and challenging as Gordimer's allusions.
Personally, I'd have plumped for Holiday. In 1974 Ronald Blythe said in his Sunday Times review of the book that "we need Stanley Middleton to remind us what the novel is about. Holiday is vintage Middleton. The result of Mr Middleton's analysis is so satisfying that one has to look at nineteenth-century writing for comparable storytelling." Perhaps that puts it too strongly. But I agree that it demands to be read - and it seems a terrible shame that no one would read it, if it weren't for the Booker.
Man Booker Prize
1972 G by John Berger