'Foul-mouthed' novel is pounds 20,000 Booker winner

Robert Winder Books Editor
Tuesday 11 October 1994 23:02

JAMES KELMAN was awarded the 1994 Booker Prize last night after a lengthy disagreement among the judges. After a televised dinner at Guildhall, London, his novel, How late it was, how late, was named the winner.

It was the second time on the shortlist for the 48-year-old Glaswegian author - after A Disaffection in 1989 - and it won him pounds 20,000. The chairman of the judges, John Bayley, conceded that the judging process had been rocky: 'We had an extremely complicated and difficult meeting and were very divided. It was finally a question of three votes to two . . .'

It is possible that some of the disagreements centred on the novel's lack of conventional punctuation and its exuberant bad language. How Late it was, how late is almost certainly the most foul-mouthed novel ever to win the Booker. A high proportion of the words in the book have just four letters.

But in an interview with the Independent last Saturday, Kelman said: 'When people talk about the so-called expletives they're not talking abut the real issue, you know. The real issue is to do with suppression - the standard literary voice won't allow it.'

The novel rummages around in the mind of an ordinary man, Sammy, who is baffled by bureaucracy and baffled by life. He veers between anxiety and despair in a voice that gives a bright shimmer to ordinary speech.

The other novels on the shortlist were: Reef by Romesh Gunesekera, Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah, The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst, Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown, and Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh. The other judges were James Wood, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, Alastair Niven and Alan Taylor.

In some quarters this year's shortlist was criticised as boring. One bookseller even referred to it as 'the Mogadon Booker', an odd thing for a retailer to say about a publicity campaign on his behalf. But a certain amount of public dismay has become a well-established part of the Booker proceedings. If the judges pick well-known writers, they are accused of playing safe. If they pick less famous names, people scratch their heads and accuse the jury of overlooking the big players.

If nothing else, however, Kelman's victory seems likely to spark a warm discussion over whether literature is allowed to be as foul-mouthed as life.

(Photograph omitted)

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