Only when we went to the loo did the winner emerge

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The Independent Online

The day after the Man Booker Prize awards ceremony, I awoke feeling sad and guilty, with all the symptoms of what writer Debbie Moggach, a veteran of adjudicating circles, identifies as "judges' tristesse". This essentially means that however many times you reread the books and put your keenest analytical energies into the process, you can never be complacent about the decision you came to: your conscience aches too much for the other authors you admired.

The day after the Man Booker Prize awards ceremony, I awoke feeling sad and guilty, with all the symptoms of what writer Debbie Moggach, a veteran of adjudicating circles, identifies as "judges' tristesse". This essentially means that however many times you reread the books and put your keenest analytical energies into the process, you can never be complacent about the decision you came to: your conscience aches too much for the other authors you admired.

It was particularly true this year, when three novels emerged as leading contenders early on, and raced neck and neck until the final meeting. David Mitchell'sCloud Atlas, comprised of six interlinked novellas which dazzlingly pastiched as many literary genres, was the hottest favourite in the history of the prize. But not every section enthralled equally and you sometimes resented abandoning a captivating character for some more dreary cove. Having said that, Mitchell's Letters from Zedelghem are a work of genius and represent fiction at its finest, funniest and most communicative pitch.

Then there was Colm Toibin's The Master, the most humane and touching of the contenders, which in lingering prose took a fine scalpel to the life of Henry James and his creative motivation. There will probably never be a finer book written about James, or about repressed homosexuality, or about life lived vicariously. But the reader who knows nothing of James may well feel cast adrift in a sea of longueurs.

And finally, there was Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, an Eighties tale of Tories, treachery, jeunesse dôrée, gay sex and the quest for aesthetic gratification, which followed a parabola as elegant as its title and owed much to Waugh and - yes, him again - Henry James. No contemporary writer has a better grasp than Hollinghurst of social nuance and the relationship between money, avarice, art and desire. As one judge remarked: "It's a novel that is deep about being shallow." But the sheer unpleasantness of many of the characters meant Hollinghurst risked creating an anti-magnetic force between some readers and the page.

With barely a cigarette paper between these three, we five Man Booker judges faced an almighty dilemma. At 5pm on Tuesday we went into a meeting in a discreet hotel in London's Victoria and talked in increasingly dizzy circles round these books for two hours. We tried three voting systems and came up with three different results - which should hearten Lib Dems everywhere. Two other methods of selection were mooted and one novel was eliminated.

Now things represented the last presidential elections and it was increasingly clear that I was Florida, the swing state. At this stage, the chemistry between the judges was as important as individual preferences. We had read 130 novels, argued fine points and developed ever less grudging respect for one another's opinions. It was important that no one left the room feeling that a travesty of justice had occurred. At this climactic point, Fiammetta Rocco realised she was desperate for a pee and then we all wanted a trip to the loo, like infants in a classroom.

As I perched on the porcelain, I realised I was going to have to bloody well jump off the fence. In another cubicle, the judge whose favourite book had been ousted was reallocating the vote. The Line of Beauty emerged from the lavatories the victor by a whisker. Not because it was a "gay novel" and chairman Chris Smith cheer-led a pink vote (he didn't), but because it was the book that most insistently pressed its claims on the day.

But I don't wish to do a disservice to the other great novels of 2004. Many readers will prefer another of the shortlistees: the carnival ride of Sarah Hall's The Electric Michelangelo, the political and sexual punch of Achmat Dangor's Bitter Fruit, or the hilarious tale of family dysfunction that is Gerard Woodward's I'll Go to Bed at Noon. Some excellent novels didn't even make the shortlist - may I passionately recommend James Hamilton-Paterson's Cooking with Fernet Branca, Ronan Bennett's Havoc in its Third Year, John Bemrose's The Island Walkers and Sam North's The Unnumbered.

At times, I felt the refrain of Hollinghurst's bumptious Tory MP Gerald Fedden ringing in my head: "All must have prizes!" But life isn't like that, and on Tuesday night it was little Alan's party and the other children had to understand that it was his turn to win pass-the-parcel.

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