Forty years on, the Booker that got away
What were the best novels of 1970? And why am I asking? Well, apparently when the Booker prize was inaugurated in that year, its initial award went to fiction published the previous year and so possible contenders for 1970 were never considered.
However, the Man Booker people are always alert to getting as much publicity as they can for their much-hyped prize and their honorary archivist Peter Straus has assembled a panel of judges to give a retrospective award to the best novel published 40 years ago. He's even up come up with a shortlist -- actually, a fairly lengthy list in that it comprises 22 novels from that year.
Some of the titles have been forgotten in the intervening years -- you'll search long and hard in second-hand bookshops before you'll find HE Bates's A Little of What You Fancy, Elaine Feinstein's The Circle, Reginald Hill's A Clubbable Woman or Margaret Laurence's The Fire Dwellers. And some, such as Brian Aldiss's The Hand-Reared Boy and Shiva Naipaul's Fireflies, are not much better known.
But Patrick O'Brian's first Jack Aubrey novel, Master and Commander, is there, as are minor books by Iris Murdoch, Melvyn Bragg and Francis King. And there are two Irish novels up for consideration -- Christy Brown's meandering venture into fiction, Down All The Days, and JG Farrell's ambitious Troubles.
Missing, however, is Brian Moore's Fergus -- not one of his finest novels but anything by Moore is to be reckoned with (though not by the Booker judges, who never awarded him the prize).
For me, there are two memorable books on the list. Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat, about a woman who wills her own violent death, is one of her more unsettling achievements, while Len Deighton's Bomber, which depicts one night's mission of destruction over Germany, is horrifying in its depiction of war's random carnage. That would be my choice.
The winner will be announced in May.