A S Byatt

A S Byatt on the Booker 1979 shortlist

How do the Booker judges choose the best book of the year from the sixty or seventy books they are sent? Their number has been increased from three to five, and literary academics have been less dominant on recent panels: the result of a larger committee should be, and I suspect is, that the winning book should be accessible to a large number of the intelligent public. Established literary landmarks: Murphy, Ulysses, At-Swim-Two Birds would, I think, have had trouble winning the Booker prize on their first appearance. The founders of the prize had the laudable intention of greatly increasing the sales and readership of the books they shortlisted. This year the judges – Asa Briggs, Paul Theroux, Michael Ratcliffe, Hilary Spurling and Benny Green – have chosen an honourable shortlist which on the whole deserves such increased publicity.

When I was on the Booker panel myself some years ago I think I had a set of rough and adjustable criteria for a ‘good novel.’ Moral and social: have I learned something from this book, has it changed the way I see things? Aesthetic: does it give me that sense of pure pleasure one gets from unexpected felicities of style, or formal innovations, not necessarily obtrusive? And, related to that kind of aesthetic pleasure the more primitive, most crucial one. Is it – because of pace, obsessive imagination, some urgency in the author – a book you can’t put down and can’t forget – I should add that Murphy, Ulysses and At-Swim-Two Birds fulfil the last criterion as well as the first two but it may take more time than a Booker judge has to recognise it in books so uncompromisingly ‘difficult’ on the surface. The year I judged it we had trouble with Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservation, on those grounds, and the book finally won half the prize. The two books I wanted on the shortlist – by Anthony Burgess and Penelope Mortimer – I wanted because of the stylistic pleasures I got from both. My fellow judges didn’t share them: and committee work is a more or less amiable compromise.

Who should win it this year? Thomas Keneally’s Confederates and Julian Rathbone’s Joseph are both long, fast-moving novels about wars – the American Civil War and Wellington’s Peninsula Campaign. They have little else in common. I had read, and not much liked, earlier novels by both authors, so opened these with a careful attempt at neutral curiosity. Keneally is a robust storyteller of considerable swingeing energy. His novel has everything you might expect – a group of innocent Southern volunteers and conscripts caught up in the horror of cannonades in the cornfields: a vignette of Stonewall Jackson: a series of buxom Southern women who give their bodies generously and have no minds: a wholly heroic hospital matron who spies for the Union and is nobly hanged. The novel failed to fulfil my first two criteria. I learned considerably less about war, politics, soldiering or history from it than I did from Burr, August 1914, All Quiet on the Western Front or The Tin Drum or Waverley. I learned nothing not derivatively novelistic about human nature. The style and pace are rapid but a bit dead. There is a touch of the Harold Robbins about this book. (And he is not one of the best sellers I find compulsively readable.) It titillates, in the end, rather than setting the imagination to work.

Julian Rathbone’s book, on the other hand, is a delight. It is a naughty formal imitation of the eighteenth century novels its Spanish/English hero, the ignoble, illegitimate, opportunist, survivor, Joseph or Pepe Basham or Bozzam would have read. It echoes Fanny Hill and Tom Jones as well as the Spanish picaresque tales of which the hero’s father remarks that they tell a kind of truth that cannot be told in other forms. It is an inventive comic, parodic romp through bloody battles, brothels, witchcraft, torture and philosophising: it has things in common with Robert Nye’s return to more primitive fictional forms and characters in Falstaff, and, like Nye, acquires energy from the formal game. The parody and the plot falter sometimes. The message of the book is that Joseph with his skin-saving self-regard, his exploitation of the horrors of war, and the delights of sex, is the true child of the rationalism of Newton, Descartes and Voltaire (whose Candide is never far from our minds), whom his virtuous father believed would father virtue. Sometimes it lacks bite, and sometimes it is a bit cardboard. But it fulfils all three criteria for a good novel, and is a worthy contender.

Nothing could be more different than Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore, 141 pp against Joseph‘s 480, and deliberately slight, suggestive, unfinished as its characters, the shadowy uncertain inhabitants of the decaying houseboats in Battersea Reach. This book too fulfils all my criteria. Its people – Edward and Nenna, neither married nor not, neither in love or not, inhibited, orderly, nautical Richard Maurice, the peaceful male prostitute – are all precisely memorable, as are their unsatisfactory fates, entirely satisfactorily delineated. I have read a very great deal about failed modern marriages but I shall remember this one – as I shall remember every careful, economical understated scene of this novel. (I have already forgotten how to differentiate Kenneally’s characters from each other.) Mrs Fitzgerald is what one used to call a ‘born writer’ (which usually means a very conscientious craftsman). I am only not sure about her rather novelish children, rescuing antique kites in the mud.

That leaves me with Fay Weldon’s Praxis, and V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, both powerful, controlled, chill, finished books, and both worthy to win any prize. I reviewed Praxis when it came out and liked it less then than some of Ms Weldon’s other more glittery, fantastic, fairytale icy comedies. I now think it is (apart from The Golden Notebook) the single best modern novel about the condition of women I know – and to be original and authoritative on this topic in 1979 requires great powers of style, thought, choice of examples, and control. Praxis Duveen is, like all Ms Weldon’s heroines a ‘fifties woman – generous and nervous with sex, anxious to love men and mother children, wrecked by a fairly terrible childhood and terrified by the ‘free’ women, pill-controlled and morally ruthless or casual, her struggles have helped to form Fay Weldon’s cold wit, her deadpan narrative, occasional ferocious but poised authorial judgement, her pace – cumulative brief episodes, momentary horrific visions, wildly hysterical comedy so black that the next step is always the silence of meaninglessness and despair – these are hard to characterise without a string of examples, which space does allow. The novel encompasses the grotesque – for instance the wise 45-year-old teacher who goes out one night, dresses like a tart, makes love to three men, becomes pregnant, and is killed by a bomb, delivered of a live daughter, who becomes a good woman doctor whose mongol child Praxis later smothers, thus becoming a feminist heroine. It also encompasses the female terror of monotony, different from Beckett’s, sounding not dissimilar. ‘It can’t go on,’ thought Beckett’s Praxis. ‘It could. It did.’

V S Naipaul also anatomises nothingness. His message is even more chill than Fay Weldon’s: he is describing to us a world we sense we live in and yet, because of its very nature, have not the language to describe. His narrator, Selim, moves from his Indian, Muslim background with his family slave, to an African State in search of independence, manhood, freedom, horizons. What he leaves is centuries of traditional behaviour – religious, mercantile, domestic, linguistic, sexual. What he finds is the new Global Village in the old Africa, the glittering Polytechnic, the President with his white adviser, a theoretical student of African politics, the young learning a series of international, political and cultural gestures and signs whose paucity and inadequacy open a way for violence and chaos. Two phrases run through the book. The Indian merchants’ ‘There is no right and wrong here. There is no right.’ The arrogant misquotation from Virgil on the mined monument ‘Miscerique probat populos et foedera jungi: he approves of the mingling of the peoples and their bonds of union.’ Aeneas’s God in fact did not approve of this, in Africa. Selim experiences the absence of understood patterns of behaviour – religious, mercantile, domestic, linguistic, sexual – and beyond that absence is only summary execution and people bewildered by their incapacity to think.

Paul Bailey in this Review’s last issue, and other reviewers, have complained that Naipaul’s style is inappropriate to his hero. I think it is the only possible style: austere, neutral, arrogantly elegant and clear it stands alone against the emptiness it dares, against odds, to try to ‘place’. Precisely Selim is neither here nor there: the book is about possible descriptions of incoherent situations and states of mind. Selim appears worst at this best moment, in his affair with the white professor’s wife: Naipaul’s descriptions of sex are never wholly convincing, but in this book that could be seen as intentional or unimportant. Naipaul has forged a style from a despair, which has been done before, but not in this context or this world.

And the winner? Committees act differently from individuals. Naipaul has won the prize before, but I would like to see him win it again, because he most adequately satisfies all my criteria: I learned most from him, I found his style stronger and satisfying, and the scene between Selim and the young African politician Frederick, at the end of the novel, is both terrifying, unpredictable and wholly gripping. If not Naipaul, Fay Weldon, who has authority and wit enough for anyone. I wouldn’t like to have to choose between Rathbone’s occasionally flawed enjoyable excess and Mrs Fitzgerald’s reticent economy.

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