Howard Jacobson won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction last night with “The Finkler Question,” a dark comedy about a man convinced that tragic love is his destiny. It is the first overtly comic novel to win the prize in its 42-year history.
Accepting the honor, Jacobson said it strengthened his belief that entertainment and good literature are not incompatible: “The better the writing, the more fun there is in reading it.”
The judges praised Jacobson, 68, for the book’s impressive range of tone, humor and melancholy.
“It knows something that Shakespeare knows in the great comedies -- that the relationship between what’s tragedy and what’s funny is intimately linked,” said the chairman of the judging panel, former U.K. poet laureate Andrew Motion. “The novel is comic but it’s laughter in the dark.”
Jacobson has called himself a Jewish Jane Austen. He overcame competition from the bookies’ favorite, Tom McCarthy’s “C,” as well as two-time winner Peter Carey and three other finalists to claim the U.K.’s most prestigious literary award, worth 50,000 pounds ($78,900), at a black-tie dinner in London’s medieval Guildhall.
At a press conference after the ceremony, Jacobson was asked what he would spend the prize money on. He said he had promised to buy his wife a handbag. What else?
“Have you seen the price of handbags? I might stretch to a pair of shoes,” he said.
“The Finkler Question” (Bloomsbury) revolves around Julian Treslove, a man mugged by a woman while walking back to his London apartment one night. As she slams his face into the window of a violin store, Julian thinks he hears her call him “you Jew.”
This is the calamitous moment he has been waiting for, and it brings the bonus of a religious slur. Though Julian is as goyish as can be, he decides to convert to Judaism. Jewish suffering will bring purpose to his life -- or so he thinks in this mordant exploration of anti-Semitism.
“It’s either a very funny book with very sad bits in it -- or a very sad book with very funny bits in it,” Motion said.
Jacobson said though he’s elated that the prize will finally enable him to shake off his reputation as “the underrated Howard Jacobson,” it does present one problem: His novel-in-progress is about a writer enjoying no success whatsoever.
“I’m a bit stuck now,” he said.
Finalists for the prize included Carey’s “Parrot and Olivier in America” (Faber/Knopf), a comic romp based loosely on the travels of French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville; and Emma Donoghue’s “Room” (Picador/Little, Brown), the story of a 19-year-old college student abducted and held captive for years in a secure chamber, like Elisabeth Fritzl of Austria.
The other finalists were Damon Galgut’s “In a Strange Room” (Atlantic), the tale of a young man who takes three journeys -- through Greece, India and Africa -- that end in disaster; Andrea Levy’s “The Long Song” (Headline/Farrar, Straus and Giroux), about a slave girl born on a Jamaican sugar plantation in the 19th century; and McCarthy’s “C” (Cape/Knopf), a novel of signals, signs and codes centering on a young Englishman obsessed with radio in the early 20th century.
A Man Booker prize promises an almost certain increase in sales. Each of the six finalists, including the winner, receives 2,500 pounds and a specially bound edition of his or her book.
The contest is designed to celebrate the best novel written by a citizen of the British Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland or Zimbabwe and published this year. Established in 1968 by food wholesaler Booker Plc, the prize has been sponsored since 2002 by hedge-fund manager Man Group Plc.
Recent winners have included Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall,” Anne Enright’s “The Gathering” and John Banville’s “The Sea.”