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Irish writer takes Booker bookies by surprise

October 11, 2005 19:21 IST
Veteran Irish novelist John Banville brought about one of the biggest literary coup when he took the £ 50,000 Man Booker Prize for fiction from under the noses of the bookies and the pundits.

A 7 to 1 outsider in the betting odds and hardly tipped by any critic, his novel 'The Sea' was declared the winner over a range of outstanding rivals in a contest that the chief judge, John Sutherland, said had been "painful" in its closeness. The 59-year-old Banville triumphed when professor Sutherland cast the chairman's vote in his favour at an awards ceremony in Guildhall in London Monday night, attended by 550 guests.

Until then, the judges were tied - with two backing Banville and two, supporting the runner-up, Kazuo Ishiguro's 'Never Let Me Go.' The bookies' and literary insiders' other leading favourites, Julian Barnes and Zadie Smith fell at an earlier stage of the hour-long meeting.

The judges described his book as "a masterly study of grief, memory and love recollected." After winning the Britain's prestigious prize Banville said, "This is a great surprise and a great pleasure. "I must thank the judges, who are suddenly my best friends in the world. And to my friends it's a cliche, but it's true - any one of these books could have won." Dedicating the award to his children, he said, "I do say to my colleagues - just hang in there, it will come. I hung around for many years."

Banville's vindication as a prize-winning author with his 14th novel after 35 years of being cherished for elegant writing by a small readership, is a victory of style over a melancholy content which makes his book one of the least commercial on the six-strong shortlist. Other five in the shortlist were Julian Barnes (Arthur and George), Sebastian Barry (A Long Long Way), Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go) Ali Smith (The Accidental) and Zadie Smith (On Beauty).

Banville, who was born in Wexford, had always wanted to be "an artist of some kind." He worked as a sub-editor for 15 years "to make money" and is a former literary editor of The Irish Times and published the first of his 14 novels in 1970. The protagonist in his novel, Max Mordern, a querulous art historian, acutely sensitive to other peoples' smells, loses his wife to cancer and feels compelled to revisit the seaside villa where he spent childhood holidays being alternately cosseted and bullied by wealthier boy and girl twins and their parents.

His ambiguous relations with the twins led, as he remembers in self-disgust, to sexual awakening but also to blighting tragedy. The Guardian said of the author "Banville writes novels of complex patterning, with grace, precision and timing, and there are wonderful disgressive meditations." Sutherland called the story "a masterly study of grief, memory and love. It is an incredible novel. You do feel that you are in the presence of a virtuoso. It is a "grab you by the throat" book. Anyone who reads the first page will read on."

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