One thing struck me as I watched the 2012 Man Booker Prize readings at the wonderful Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford last night.
If the prize was judged on the best reading alone, then gravelly-voiced Will Self would win hands down for his shortlisted book, Umbrella. And I reckon he’d be closely followed by Indian performance poet Jeet Thayil.
The readings took place at London’s Royal Festival Hall but were also beamed live to 36 cinemas across the country – and I’d snapped up a ticket the moment they went on sale.
The evening, chaired by the redoubtable James Naughtie, was a treat. The six contenders on the 2012 shortlist sat patiently in sleek, black leather armchairs, awaiting their turn to read short extracts from their novels and then be quizzed by Naughtie.
Like most book reviewers, my track record at choosing winners of literary prizes is patchy to say the least.
After reading the six novels, my favourite is definitely Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. No question. The sequel to Wolf Hall (winner of the Man Booker in 2009), it continues the story of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister, in the heady months leading up to Anne Boleyn’s beheading in 1536. As I wrote in my Daily Express review last week, it’s an “outstanding” novel – a book that really will stand the test of time.
I loved Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists and Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse too – and they must stand an outside chance. Tan Twan Eng’s novel is the story of the sole survivor of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and her determination to create a garden in memory of her dead sister while Moore relates how a newly-separated man sets out on a solo walking holiday in Germany.
The other books battling it out for the prize are Swimming Home by Deborah Levy and Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil.
But back to Will Self. Umbrella is his ninth novel and has completely divided critics. A 400-page book without chapters and barely any paragraph breaks at all, it spans nearly a century and tells the story of a young munitions worker wrongly admitted to a mental hospital after the First World War. It’s the most difficult book on the shortlist and even the judges have called it “moving, but draining.”
I much prefer Mantel’s novel (and loved her description of writing as “you sit down every morning and don’t know where your craft will carry you by the end of that day”) but hearing Will Self read the first pages of Umbrella last night was a revelation. A gaunt figure in a bright pink shirt, tweed jacket and jeans, he told the audience that “everything is too easy in this society” and that when he finished writing Umbrella he thought he had “really blown it this time.” He said that it’s important to him as a writer to be “sonorous” and that being read aloud to as a child was “tremendously important to me.” It shows. Read aloud, Umbrella was utterly brilliant.
The judges of the 2012 Man Booker – chair Peter Stothard, historian Amanda Foreman, Downton Abbey actor Dan Stevens and critics Dinah Birch and Bharat Tandon – met this afternoon to decide the winner. All will be revealed at a dinner at London’s Guildhall tonight...