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Irish Writer Wins Booker For 'The Sea'

John Banville's novel about a widower's reflections on life wins the new-fiction prize.

October 11, 2005|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — The Man Booker Prize, the world's most prestigious award for new fiction, was awarded here Monday to Irish writer and critic John Banville.

In a closed news conference prior to a gala dinner at London's historic Guildhall, the five Booker judges said their decision to honor Banville's "The Sea" followed "an extraordinarily closely contested last round in which judges felt the level of the short-listed novels was as high as it had ever been." They called Banville's novel "a masterly study of grief, memory and love recollected."

The award includes a cash prize, which this year amounts to $91,800. (The other authors on this year's short list were Sebastian Barry, Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, Zadie Smith and Ali Smith.)

"It was like a fiercely argued seminar," said John Sutherland, chairman of the judges' committee, which annually awards the prize to the best novel by a Commonwealth or Irish citizen that is published in Britain.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 12, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Booker Prize -- An article in Tuesday's Calendar section about the Man Booker Prize being awarded to John Banville's "The Sea" referred to Guildhall, the location of the award dinner in London, as Guild Hall.

"It was very civilized, and yet at the same time people had very deeply held views," Sutherland said. "The discussion could have gone on for three days. It was by no means unanimous. But no one would have been mortified if any of the other books won."

The 59-year-old Banville, former literary editor of the Irish Times, met with a reporter just an hour before the media were informed of the judges' decision and seemed certain that he would not win. "I tend to think all my books are bad," he said. Sitting in the drawing room of the Athenaeum Club on Pall Mall, Banville described the disappointment of being short-listed in 1989 for his novel "The Book of Evidence."

That year, the author started drinking early in the morning. Dressing for the ceremony, Banville realized that his shirt had freakishly long sleeves. He grabbed a pair of scissors and cut them to the proper length. When fellow writer Ishiguro came to visit him, Banville looked like a small version of the Incredible Hulk.

"We do this for the publishers," Banville said Monday, "but it is a bit barbaric."

There has been a great deal of speculation over the years as to whether a prejudice exists against giving the Booker Prize to an Irish writer. "It's not that they wouldn't give it to an Irishman," said Colm Toibin, a Dubliner whose novel "The Master" was short-listed last year. "It's just that if an Englishman and an Irishman wrote the same novel it would go to the Englishman."

Several members of the media were informed of the winner hours before the official announcement was made over "pudding" at the black-tie dinner at London's Guildhall.

The dinner preceding the announcement can be excruciating. Gossip flies around the room, and British television cameras fix not just on those rumored to win but also on the trembling stiff upper lips of those thought to have lost. Said Ishiguro, who tried to "keep low" after the short list was announced on Sept. 8: "There's always someone in the room at the dinner who thinks they've won when they haven't."

One year, said the one-time winner and three-time short-listed author, "there was hissing when the winner was announced."

In 1980, Anthony Burgess, short-listed for "Earthly Powers," refused to attend the dinner unless he heard he had won (he didn't win). A special Booker hotline, so the story goes, was added to his hotel room.

About 10,000 novels were published in Britain last year.

This year's panel of judges was a "bookish" group, said Sutherland, but not exactly "five Catholic priests." Each of the judges received about $8,600. (It's "a lot less," said Lindsay Duguid, fiction editor at the Times of London and one of this year's judges, "after you take out taxes and the money you spend on the dress.")

There's always disagreement over the merits of the judges. "The chairman," joked Toibin, "is always chosen for his foolishness."

Said Sutherland: Now that the winner has been announced, the judges will "drop away like scaffolding." One year, rumor has it, the panel all went to the South of France for the weekend after the announcement, just to clear the air.

Pre-announcement, Martyn Goff, 35-year prize administrator, worried that Sutherland was focusing too much on somehow organizing the process, namely the two-hour meeting in which the judges traditionally talk it out and decide a winner. "Judges shouldn't be voting in advance," said Goff, who worried that Sutherland, though a "decisive critic," might be "a bit indecisive."

When it comes to the Booker, the noise of the chattering classes can be deafening. Zadie Smith, author of "On Beauty," already had her hands slapped by friends and fellow writers for telling a reporter at the Manchester Evening News that "writing a novel is quite stupid work ... novelists aren't intellectuals." Speaking the day after the short list was announced, she added, "They're just intuitive if they're lucky."

Last year, after Alan Hollinhurst's novel "The Line of Beauty" won the Booker Prize, some of the headlines were along the lines of: "Gay Novel Wins Prize," which many readers and writers found offensive.

"In a way," Sutherland told the Los Angeles Times in the days before the announcement, "novels weren't meant to be judged. They're not like 100-meter sprinters."

Still, said Sutherland of being a judge, "it's a wonderful privilege. The Booker is, after all, one of the conduits through which literary history is made."

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