Since the Booker Prize began in 1969, a total of 55 novels have won the prestigious literary award. This has included three occasions when two novels have shared the prize – including this year’s winners, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo – and a ‘Lost Booker Prize’ awarded in 2010 for novels published in 1970 that hadn’t been considered at the time due to the original rules of the competition (more about that at a later date).
The Booker Prize is awarded annually for the best novel written in the English language and published in the UK and Ireland. Up until 2014, only novels written by Commonwealth, Irish, South African (and later Zimbabwean) writer were eligible, but five years ago that was widened to any English-language novel, a change that has provoked controversy (more about that at a later date) and subsequently led to the prize’s first two American winners.
So why the short history lesson, I hear you ask? It is by way of introducing a new reading project – to read all 55 of the Booker Prize winners, in order of their respective triumph, and hopefully in time to be able to read 2020’s winner as soon as it is announced next October.
‘That sounds like a great idea for a book, Paul,’ I hear you say. You could be right, and if a publisher or two is reading these words, they might think the same thing (more about that, hopefully, at a later date!).
The first ever Booker Prize awards ceremony took place on Tuesday, April 22, 1969, at Stationers’ Hall in London, and the judges arrived at the event having come to their decision on the winner a month beforehand. Nowadays, the final vote is taken on the day of the announcement. The winning novel in 1969 was Something To Answer For by P.H. Newby.
Here are my thoughts on the very first Booker Prize winner…
Something To Answer For is a strange and unusual book with a confusing narrative – or maybe that’s just a confusing narrator – which makes for a challenging read.
The novel is set in Egypt at the time of the Suez Crisis in 1956. The main character, Townrow, heads to Egypt following the death of a friend, with his widow claiming he was murdered. Soon after his arrival, he goes drinking and then wakes up the following morning, naked and with a head injury following a beating of which he has no memory. It makes his subsequent telling of the story unreliable, and questions remain as to what is true, what are lies, and what might be the side effects of the head injury.
The reader is never sure whether Townrow is a British spy, a conman seeing an opportunity to rob a grieving widow, or just a concerned friend wanting to do the right thing by his deceased friend. The whole narrative could just be the ramblings of a man suffering from a head injury, and that he is actually lying in a hospital bed in a coma. It really is that confusing!
The main character, Townrow, reminded me at times of Patricia Highsmith’s character, Tom Ripley, with the first of those novels pre-dating PH Newby’s Booker Prize-winner, and while I know this isn’t incisive literary criticism, I have to point out that the main character’s name annoyed me. As I was reading the book, out the corner of my eye ‘Townrow’ on the page often looked like ‘Tomorrow’, which got progressively more annoying the longer I read the novel.
There were also hints of an Ealing comedy, and I kept seeing Alex Guinness’ face as I was reading, as well as hearing his voice in the narrative. At other times, it felt like a poor man’s Graham Greene and either a homage to or pastiche of Our Man In Havana.
At a certain point, I was just wanting the experience to be over, which is never a good sign, and having got to the end, I still wasn’t quite sure if I enjoyed the novel, or was even sure I really understood what I had just read.
Something To Answer For was P.H. Newby’s 17th novel – he wrote 23 in total, along with six non-fiction books – and it is assured of its place in literary history as the first winner of the Booker Prize back in 1969. However, fifty years on from that achievement, I’m not convinced that it has stood the test of time.
Something To Answer For: P.H. Newby
Figures in a Landscape: Barry England
The Impossible Object: Nicholas Mosley
The Nice and The Good: Iris Murdoch
The Public Image: Muriel Spark
From Scenes Like These: Gordon Williams
– W.L. Webb (Chair): Guardian journalist and literary editor (In 1993 was a judge of ‘Booker of Booker’ prize, won by Midnight’s Children)
– David Farrer: director of Secker & Warburg
– Frank Kermode: Literary critic (Father of film critic, Mark Kermode)
– Stephen Spender: English poet, novelist, and essayist
– Dame Rebecca West: Author, journalist, literary critic and travel writer (Real name, Dame Cicily Isabel Fairfield. She took the pseudonym ‘Rebecca West’ from the rebellious young heroine in Rosmersholm by Henrik Ibsen)