MAN BOOKER PRIZE 1979
Booker club: Offshore by Penelope FitzgeraldA slight but witty tale of middle-class Londoners, this isn't awful, but it should never have beaten both Naipaul and Golding to the prize
Friday 13 March 2009
Piqued that the name of the winner of the 1978 Booker winner was leaked long before the ceremony, the organisers in 1979 were keen to make sure the press were kept in the dark this time around. The judges swore themselves to secrecy and only reached their decision an hour before the envelope was opened on the big night. It worked. The announcement came as a complete surprise. Indeed, no one could quite believe it. Rather than VS Naipaul's masterful A Bend In the River, rather even than William Golding's typically impressive Darkness Visible, the committee had plumped for Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald.
Hilary Spurling, one of those judges, noted that the decision had surprised them as much as everyone else: "We'd spent the entire afternoon at loggerheads, settling at the last minute by a single vote for William Golding's Darkness Visible, by which time the atmosphere had grown so heated that I said I'd sooner resign than have any part in a panel that picked a minor Golding over a major imaginative breakthrough by Naipaul. So we compromised by giving the prize to everybody's second choice."
|An unworthy winner ... Penelope Fitzgerald. Photograph: Jane Bown|
It's a pretty damning indictment of judgment by committee. Because there was no agreement – and because everyone was annoyed – two modern classics were overlooked for … well … a book that WL Webb (then-literary editor of the Guardian) accurately damned with this faint praise: "Offshore is indeed an elegant short novel with the kind of sensibility that tends to do well in literary London."
Continuing in this sardonic vein, Offshore could easily be described as a novel about a bunch of middle-class mediocrities who do their chattering below decks rather than around dinner tables because they're slumming it on houseboats on Battersea Reach. There's the attractive, intelligent but scatty Nenna, struggling to bring up two precocious children in the absence of her husband. There's middle-manager Richard and his wife, who would rather be elsewhere. There's a painter of naval scenes called Willis and there's Maurice, an only mildly campy stereotype of a male prostitute. To all of them, nothing much happens.
It's hard to be too cynical, however, when the writing is so clear and effective. Everywhere in the foreground is Fitzgerald's amiable wit, but behind that a deeper plangent tone. The two combine like a well-made gin and tonic: light, but heady.
This is a book where we are told the kind "never inherit the earth … they just get kicked in the teeth", but where even the sinking of a boat (and with it the entirety of its owners life and ambition) is a cause for uproarious comedy. There are plenty of other complementary contrasts to get stuck into, all feeding from the central contradiction of the liminal existence of the boat people, which frees them from the pressures of London, but also traps them. Most notably, there's the splendid writing about the river itself, which seeps into, dampens and destroys everything – but is also the element that buoys up the drifting boat dwellers. A source of life with "a dead man's stench".
So far, so good. But then, not really good enough to beat Naipaul. And that's why on the night of the award ceremony there was an unusual scene as various hacks (supposedly drunk and annoyed about having to refile the copy they'd already prepared about Vidya) put the chairman of the judges, Lord Briggs, through what Webb described as "a stiff viva voce". Briggs protested that Offshore was "flawless". That was too much. For a short, book, it presents a lot of problems. The children don't talk – or think – like children at all (even allowing for their supposed precocity). We're repeatedly told that the boat-dwellers can't tear themselves from the river, but never really shown or made to feel why. Worst, after the first 130 stately pages of scene-setting, all the action comes in the final 30 in a precipitate flood. It's overwrought, unconvincing and – although occasionally still brilliant – ends on an absurd bum note.
Hillary Spurling also said the widespread incredulity that greeted this unexpected triumph caused Fitzgerald "pain … and humiliation ever after". The author was probably all too aware that this wasn't the best book on the shortlist – or even her best. It's perhaps also the reason her later, far better historical novels didn't even get a look-in for the prize. Injustice all round.
Man Booker Prize