Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending, that won him the 2011 Man Booker Prize on Tuesday evening, could not have been more aptly named. This was Barnes’ fourth nomination, after three previous unsuccessful ones for Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), England, England (1998) and Arthur and George (2005). A sense of conclusion, and subsequent relief, was not Barnes’s alone either. News headlines carried a telling qualifier — "finally" or "at last" — while hailing Barnes’ triumph in a literary competition the writer himself had once described as "posh bingo". Barnes, at 65, was in much danger of appropriating the fate that befell the late British writer Beryl Bainbridge (five unsuccessful nominations in life, and a posthumous afterthought of a special Booker earlier this year). His victory, thankfully, has enabled him to avoid being the ‘eternal runner-up’, an unfortunate stick-it note on an otherwise bright literary career.
The run-up to the final announcement this year, though, had been more eventful and controversial than what could be reasonably expected from a contest of competing literary merit. No sooner had the shortlist been announced that all hell broke loose, with high literature’s guardian angels (also called literary critics and book reviewers) tearing apart the Man Booker judges’ choice as a philistine exercise that would rather push the thinking novel towards extinction. Dame Stella Rimington, a former MI5 boss who chaired the judges’ panel this year and did not help her cause by professing a love for vintage detective novels, merely stoked a raging fire by stressing the ‘readability’ of the short-listed books.
In the end though, the judges — by now bigger media celebrities than the writers they are supposed to celebrate — seem to have cowered under the scrutiny of their understanding of what constitutes prize-worthy literature. To add to the woes, the outra-ged had already announced a prize to rival the Man Booker, unsurprisingly called ‘The Literature Prize’. Barnes’ slim effort, at 150-odd pages, is definitely not his best product. But in dealing with a sufficiently intellectual and sophisticated topic like "memory, ageing and regret", it was probably the safest bet for the judges.