Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction last night for “The Sense of an Ending,” a slim novel whose narrator must grapple with the fallibility of his memory and sense of self when a friend’s long-ago suicide returns to haunt him.
This is the 65-year-old Barnes’s first time winning the U.K.’s most prestigious literary award, which comes with 50,000 pounds ($78,400), though three of his previous novels were shortlisted.
As he accepted the prize at a black-tie dinner in London’s medieval Guildhall, he said, “Borges, when asked as he continually was why he had never won the Nobel Prize, always used to reply that in Sweden there was a small cottage industry solely devoted to not giving Borges the Nobel Prize.
“At times over the last years in occasional moments of mild paranoia I’ve wondered whether there wasn’t perhaps some similar sister organization operating over here,” he said. “So I am as much relieved as I am delighted to receive the 2011 Booker Prize.”
Barnes famously dismissed the Booker as “posh bingo” back in 1987. After winning it, he clarified:
“The Booker Prize has a tendency to drive writers a bit mad with lust and greed and expectation,” he said at the post-ceremony press conference. “I was saying that the best way to stay sane is to treat it as ‘posh bingo.’ That means unless and until you win it, when you realize that the judges are the wisest heads in literary Christendom.”
Barnes emerged early as the bookies’ favorite, beating five lesser-known finalists. The judges praised the beauty and concision of his prose, as well as the universality of the novel’s appeal.
“We thought it was a book that spoke to humankind in the 21st century,” said the chairman of the judges, author and former MI5 spy chief Stella Rimington.
“The Sense of an Ending” (Cape/Knopf) tells the story of Tony Webster, a divorced retiree whose uneventful middle age is disturbed by a mysterious bequest from the mother of his college girlfriend, Veronica.
Along with 500 pounds, Tony receives a diary belonging to his brilliant school friend, Adrian, who took up with Veronica after she and Tony split and later committed suicide.
This charged legacy is the catalyst for a meditation on friendship, aging and the slipperiness of memory, which along the way reveals just how little we truly know ourselves.
Dedicated to Barnes’s late wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, “The Sense of an Ending” is just 150 pages long, making it one of the briefest winners in the prize’s history.
“We thought that it was a book which, though short, was incredibly concentrated, and crammed in to a very short space a great deal of information which you don’t get out of a first read,” Rimington said.
Runners-up for the prize included two debut novels: “Pigeon English” (Bloomsbury/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Stephen Kelman’s tale of an 11-year-old Ghanaian immigrant caught in the fallout of a London knifing, and “Snowdrops” (Atlantic/Doubleday), A.D. Miller’s thriller-like account of an Englishman whose moral compass drifts in Moscow.
The other finalists were Carol Birch’s “Jamrach’s Menagerie” (Canongate/Doubleday), about a boy who leaves London’s Victorian slums for the South Seas in search of a mythical dragon; Patrick deWitt’s “The Sisters Brothers” (Granta/Ecco), about sibling assassins in California during the Gold Rush; and Esi Edugyan’s “Half Blood Blues” (Serpent’s Tail), a novel of betrayal set among a mixed-race jazz group in WWII-era Paris and 1990s Germany.
This year’s prize has caused its share of controversy, with literary commentators questioning the judges’ credentials and bemoaning a “dumbed-down” shortlist. A group of authors and publishers is even gathering around the idea of a rival award.
While sticking by her previous use of the term “readability,” Rimington said the judges had been looking for quality, too. “You can have more than one adjective when you’re talking about books,” she said.
Now in its 43rd year, the prize continues to promise an almost certain sales boost -- and this latest shortlist is the best selling since records began. Each of the six finalists, including the winner, receives 2,500 pounds ($3,900) and an edition of his or her own book in a unique designer binding.
The contest is designed to celebrate the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the British Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland or Zimbabwe. Established in 1968 by food wholesaler Booker Plc, the prize has been sponsored since 2002 by Man Group Plc, the world’s largest publicly traded hedge-fund manager.
Jon R. Aisbitt, the chairman of Man Group, announced before the ceremony that Man has signed an agreement to sponsor the prize for 10 more years.