March 24, 2011

The newest Booker Prize is for Beryl Bainbridge

Your chance to play a part in the awarding of a special Booker Prize to the woman who called herself the Booker Bridesmaid, for having had more novels shortlisted than any other author, without ever having won the prize.

syndetics-lcThat's Beryl Bainbridge, who died last year at the age of 77 and who, between a drink and a ciggie and a trip over furniture (not a facetious dig, it's from a wonderful anecdote she told The Paris Review about knocking herself out on a piece of furniture and, upon coming to, trying to phone her dead mother and getting the "at the tone, the time is..." voice, and how this surreal incident gave her a fantastic plot for a book) produced a great number of very acclaimed novels, five of which were shortlisted for the Booker, or as we know it now, the Man Booker, Prize.

As a tribute to her, and exonerated by her daughter of any suspicion that a posthumous recognition is somehow a tarnished one ("We are glad that she is finally able to become the bride")-- you can see the bloodline of the woman who, reminiscing about her first novels in the late 60s, said that she hadn't wanted to write dreary stories about girls having abortions as everyone else was doing then -- The Booker Prize Foundation has created the Man Booker Best of Beryl Prize, to be awarded to the best of the shortlisted novels as decided by a public vote on the Man Booker website.

Not to lose any opportunity to gather stats, which I guess could come in handy for deciding what new special Bookers might capture our imaginations in the future, voters are asked to describe themselves through a set of drop down boxes which default to this profile: males, under 18, residing in greater London. If I understand the logic behind defaults, you have to applaud the optimism. I'd so love to know how many teenage boys in Hackney or Barking (random names, I'm not actually an expert on Greater London) are wanting to vote for their favourite Beryl Bainbridge novel.

Even I, over 18, female, erstwhile visitor to Smaller London, have only read one Beryl Bainbridge novel, although I did like it so much I would cheat about the other four just to give it my vote, but I can't because it was never shortlisted. It's The birthday boys, a novel about Scott's final expedition to the South Pole, which set off from England 101 years ago (I know this because the centenary was last year).

I've had a passion for reading about Antarctic exploration for years -- I think it all started when I was first reading and rereading The waste land and there were those haunting lines in What the thunder said:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
- But who is that on the other side of you?

Eliot's notes said that the lines were inspired by an account of an Antarctic expedition, "I think it was Shackleton's", and years and years later -- twenty? we're talking pre-internet, -- I finally found it, it's in South:

I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.

Even so,I ignored this novel, despite coming across it for years on our library shelves, because of its horrible cover with cutouts of black and white photos of the polar explorers amateurishly pasted on a turquoise background. But then I came across it at a library withdrawn booksale, where of course its shabbiness didn't seem quite so much of a drawback, so I bought it. I read it through almost without stopping. It's told in the voices of the five men who perished on the terrible return trip from the Pole -- each one has a chapter in which he tells his version of the story up to that day in time, which is also his birthday, and these accounts are cleverly arranged in chronological order to make one continuous, if many-sided, enthralling narration.

Besides making for a great read, with this conceit Dame Beryl also performed a miracle for me: she once and for all banished another of the doppelgangers which had obsessed me for years - an explorer doppelganger, you might say, as opposed to the literary doppelgangers I wrote about a while back -- namely, Teddy (Edward) Evans and Taffy (Edgar) Evans. Both on the Terra Nova expedition! And both officers! How did all the English schoolboys ever keep them straight? Possibly because even English schoolboys know that a Lieutenant is nothing like a Petty Officer. Anyway, thanks to Beryl, I as well can now distinguish:

Teddy (Edward) Evans: Lieutenant, didn't like Scott (and it was mutual), the men liked him better than Scott, not selected for Polar team, didn't die

Taff (Edgar) Evans, Petty Officer, didn't like Scott (and it was mutual), drank too much, was selected for Polar team, died on the way back from the Pole.

Explorer doppelgangers don't seem to be as common as literary doppelgangers (had I mentioned James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard in the other post?); perhaps because explorers more often have those outlandish names like Mungo or Meriwether. Still, there is always Richard Burton, famous for being the first non-Muslim European to see Mecca, sneaking in at the risk of his life dressed as an Arab, as well as for once letting his extremely devoted wife know that he had left on another voyage with a telegram giving her the destination and the instructions "Pay, pack and follow".

No, I never confused him with Richard Burton, the actor and movie star. But I did sometimes have to double check whether Richard (1800s) or Robert (1600s) Burton translated the The thousand and one nights, or wrote The anatomy of melancholy. You know how it is when you're very young: what are 200 years?

You can read the interview with Beryl Bainbridge in The Paris Review online.

You can get The Birthday Boys at the library.

Voting for the Best of Beryl ends midday Friday, Liverpool time (Beryl's birthplace).

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