Only when we went to the loo did the winner emerge

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
Queen Elizabeth II with members of the Order of Merit  

Either the Queen thinks that only one in 24 Britons are women, or her Order of Merit is appallingly backward

Janet Street-Porter
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...