Six novels from 1970 have been shortlisted for the ‘lost’ Man Booker prize. All are good: but which most deserves your vote? Here six writers make the case for their personal favourite
‘Spare, laced with dark humour’: Troubles, by JG Farrell
It has become a standard jibe that authors seldom win the Booker for their best books. But while you’d be hard pushed to suggest JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur was anything but a deserving winner of the 1973 prize, Troubles, published three years earlier, is every bit its equal.
Troubles is trademark Farrell. Spare, laced with flashes of dark humour, and a page-turner, a quality that could easily have disqualified it from the shortlist.
It starts with Major Brendan Archer travelling to Ireland after the war in 1919 to hook up with Angela Spencer, to whom he inadvertently got engaged three years earlier. Angela’s father, a dyed-in-the wool Anglo-Irish protestant, runs the Majestic, a once posh but now dilapidated hotel on the Wexford coast. All the action takes place in and around the hotel as the Major becomes a semi-detached and increasingly confused observer to the goings on of the Archer family and the other guests.
The falling apart of the old order inside the hotel mirrors the political turmoil going on outside, as the nationalists steadily gain the upper hand in the war of independence but the comparisons are never laboured. Farrell has the confidence to let you make the connections yourself. The reader is never battered with self-conscious reminders of the author’s brilliance: there are no long, indulgent passages of description – so often a substitute for having nothing much to say – nor is the dialogue clunky exposition, reducing the characters to mere mouthpieces for the writer’s own ideas.
This may not sound such a big deal, but it’s a trick very few writers pull off. Farrell creates the illusion that his characters are telling the story in their own words and in their own time, and as a result they stay with you well beyond the final page. Troubles has everything: great story, compelling characters, believable dialogue and big ideas. It’s a book good enough to win the Booker in any year. Not just 1970.
‘A shock to the reader’: The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Spark
The Driver’s Seat, like so many of Muriel Spark’s books, is slight in its length and vast in its implications. As the title suggests, it’s a book about – among other things – control, the absurdity of feeling in command of life, and of believing it can be steered to a logical conclusion. It describes one day in the life of Lise, a solitary 34-year-old office worker who has already suffered one nervous breakdown, and is in the throes of another, but who nevertheless, in her confusion, compulsion and desperation, foresees her own dreadful future and delivers herself, relentlessly, to her destiny.
When the reader first encounters Lise she is about to go on a journey, and is buying some clothes to travel in. The shop assistants remember her, partly because she behaves so strangely, and partly because she buys such lurid, garish garments. This clothing marks her out and gets her noticed. The testimony of eyewitnesses is the means by which the information is gathered that allows Lise’s day to be reconstructed.
It is communicated quite early on that, even though Spark is writing in the third person, hers is not an all-knowing authorial voice. Lise’s hair, Spark tells us, is “probably streaked”. The “probably” is a shock to the reader, the first of many. The way that Spark plays out her story is unconventional: a highly controlled, beautifully conducted, strange experiment. The Driver’s Seat could be crudely described as a psychological thriller, because it contains all the elements of that genre. But it is so much more than that.
This is such a perfect book, so precise and beautifully modulated in all of its detail, that it is impossible to categorise, or even to review in any conventional sense. The reader is told near the start, for example, how the story ends. Without knowing the end, the contents of the book are inexplicable. They are inexplicable even then, yet, somehow, also terrifying in their stark and awful clarity. It really is a masterpiece.
‘Strangeness, energy and lucidity’: The Vivisector, by Patrick White
Patrick White had a passion for painting and painters, particularly those who, like him, grappled with the harsh, weird beauty of the Australian landscape – Arthur Boyd, Brett Whiteley, Sidney Nolan. The Vivisector, a sprawling novel about the life of a celebrated painter, was dedicated to his great friend Nolan, who was later fond of pointing out the parallels with his own life. But White never intended a biography: his painter was made up of bits of Nolan, of other artists and of White himself; the paintings drew chiefly on those of Francis Bacon, the ultimate “vivisector”, and a friend.
The novel is the story of Hurtle Duffield, a precocious boy born into poverty and bought for £500 by a society family. Like so many of White’s characters, Hurtle has an ability to see through and into people: even as a child, he is drawing psychological truths rather than likenesses; before he is 10, his adoptive mother has to paper over a painting that predicts his tutor’s suicide. Hurtle grows up a contradictory but brilliant man – prone to destroying his own canvases, love affairs and friendships.
Is The Vivisector White’s best work? It is perhaps his most autobiographical, and his most exacting examination of the artist’s life. Hurtle is accused of great cruelty, as well as achieving moments of astonishing beauty; so too was White. He is not a fashionable writer now, but the sheer strangeness, energy and lucidity of his sentences deserves a far bigger readership. White worried of another story that it had “too much despair and too little grammar for the kids”. He shouldn’t have: he was also funny, tough, disturbing, lyrical – as well as an addictive storyteller. I read all his books in one go as a teenager and find it hard to pick a favourite.
White died 20 years ago. Would he have cared about the Lost Booker? He turned down many other prizes, hated the idea of celebrity, and rarely gave interviews (“I find it all nauseating”). The one award he did want, after being shortlisted for five successive years, was the Nobel – he won in 1973. He was pleased, sort of, and put the money into a fund for older Australian writers who needed it. But he sent Nolan to Sweden to collect it in his place.
‘This is not just a novel’: Fire From Heaven, by Mary Renault
This is the first book in Mary Renault’s classic trilogy on the life and death of Alexander the Great, and it should win this prize by some distance because it’s now clear – thanks to the passing of four decades – that this is not just a novel: it’s also the best imagining we are ever likely to have of a man who tore up history. The language may seem a bit florid at first – a little too “historical novel” – but set all snobbery aside: this is wonderful, scholarly, top-flight stuff.
Fire From Heaven covers Alexander’s childhood in Macedonia: his relatively coddled early years in the care of his suspicious, suffocating, warlike mother; his Spartan military training; his education by Aristotle (yes, that Aristotle); his strained relationship with his father, Philip; and finally the murder that made him a king. (The sequel, The Persian Boy, covers all that conquering-of-the-known-world business and his death in Babylon in 323BC, at the age of just 32. The third book, Funeral Games, covering the aftermath of Alexander’s death, is for diehard fans only.)
Renault’s Alexander is a glittering figure – a boy, and later a man, touched with godliness. He’s golden-haired, tough as a whip, fierce and yet refined, pristine, delicate. He’s a deep thinker, a natural tactician, a born leader. He’s also – never mind Roxanne – gay. His first great love affair is with his beloved childhood friend Haephastion, his second, in the second book, is with a Persian slave who once served Darius. Of course, Alexander frees the boy, but the boy chooses to stay with him anyway.
All very heroic, and also extremely convincing: once you’ve read these books, you’ll have trouble getting the shiny version of Alexander, and of history, out of your head. And nothing else you read, be it Plutarch or Arrian, is likely to change that. My colleague John Crace says that in 1970 this would have been far too populist a book to win; now that Renault is dead, and also firmly out of vogue, perhaps she’ll have a chance. Go Mary!
‘Full of small wonders’: The Bay of Noon, by Shirley Hazzard
Jenny, a young woman, takes a job as a translator at the Nato mission in Naples, not long after the war. She becomes friends with Gioconda, a writer; her lover, Gianni; and a Scottish scientist called Justin Tulloch. Jenny wanders through Naples, or sits in Gioconda’s apartment, or visits Herculaneum and Rome. They tell each other stories about their pasts; Jenny writes of “the moods and incidents that shaded or illumined our four lives”; we watch as the pattern of relationship among them kaleidoscopes into something unexpected and strange.
This apparently simple plot plays out against the “volcanic extravagance” of Naples itself. Naples, in fact, is the book’s fifth principal: Vesuvius, the bay, “the arches and towers and polychrome domes”, the serial cataclysms and sudden grandeurs.
Jenny was born in England, evacuated to South Africa, and worked in Somalia before moving to Naples. Hazzard herself (pictured) was born in Australia, and has lived in Hong Kong, New Zealand, Italy and the US. Her heroines find their stations of belonging in human rather than geographical attachments. Like The Transit of Venus, the brilliant novel that Hazzard would publish 10 years later, The Bay of Noon is a tone-poem on the magnetism between men and women.
One or two of the friends I have persuaded to read Hazzard’s work have found the prose mannered, but once you tune to its wavelength, her style exerts a dreamlike spell. Sensuousness and intelligence are woven together so seamlessly they seem a single quality. Her psychological observations recall Henry James and Edith Wharton: “There was a compensating generosity in his nature, that would rush in to fill the cavities gouged out by his own unkindness.” Sometimes she zooms in on a detail with exhilarating precision: a single escaped hair lying across Gioconda’s cheek “like a fine fracture in porcelain”.
The Bay of Noon is full of these small wonders, rich with sense of place, run through with the mystery of attraction. Somebody should give it a prize.
‘The perils of parenthood’: The Birds on the Trees, by Nina Bawden
It’s never clear which part of leafy London The Birds on the Trees is set in, but as Rachel Cooke, one of the Lost Booker judges observed, this novel shows what the Hampstead novel could do, before it got itself a bad name. Everyone (well, the men) is a psychiatrist, journalist or architect and the offspring have names such as Hugh and Hermia. There are parties aplenty: but fault lines appear in their world as inevitably as cracks in the ice cubes of their Cinzanos.
Charlie and Maggie Flower are in a tizzy because their son Toby has been expelled for smoking “pot”. Worse still, he says he doesn’t want to sit his Oxford entrance exam! Where has the bookish boy who could “charm the birds out of the trees” gone? All they want – they plead – is for him to be happy. Happy? Poor Toby is north London’s answer to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, but instead of a wetsuit he hides beneath a burnous (a hippy take on the hoodie, perhaps).
Like hoary old bushes on either side of these delicate Flowers are posh Aunt Phoebe and Grandmother Evans. For Phoebe life is a question of “grasping the nettle”; for Gran there’s nothing a good smack or cassoulet can’t fix. But Bawden’s subject is the perils of parenthood for the generation born before the war, “Freud in one hand, Spock in the other”. So the Flowers whisk Toby off to a shrink before you can say “teenager”.
The sugariness gives way to something much sharper. Class, infidelity, drugs – all the 60s cliches are here, but there is real pain too: talk of schizophrenia and ECT treatments (Bawden’s eldest son, who would die 10 years later at only 33, had mental health problems). She rails – politely – against the arrogance of believing we can ever fully know ourselves, let alone our partners or children. Nature or nurture? Freud or Spock? She comes down somewhere sensibly in the middle, and her characters learn humility and acceptance. But when it seems she might tie up all the loose ends as neatly and intricately as a macrame flowerpot holder, she leaves a few threads dangerously trailing.
As a writer now much better known for her children’s fiction, this wise, witty novel about the pain of growing up reminds us how finely Bawden wrote for grownups too.
• Cast your vote at themanbookerprize.com. Voting closes on 23 April and the winner will be announced on 19 May
Which book do you think is most worthy of the prize? Discuss the shortlist below