Well, after a lengthy campaign that was beginning to feel something like the American elections (with, thankfully, fewer wigs), the judges for the Man Booker International Prize 2017 finally got around to announcing their winner on Wednesday. In a swanky ceremony (I’ve seen the pictures on Facebook…), the six books still standing were whittled down to one sole survivor, primus inter pares in this year’s fiction in translation field – and that book was, of course,…
Many congratulations to all involved 🙂
Now, you may be detecting a lack of real enthusiasm in this post, and that wouldn’t be far off the truth. While I’m happy enough for Grossman and Cohen, I’d be lying if I said that I was pleased with the judges’ decision, and if I were to describe my gut feeling when I first saw the decision the following morning (this all happened while I was asleep…), the most accurate word would be ‘disappointed’. A Horse Walks into a Bar was far from the worst book on the longlist (I won’t go into that particular debate in any more detail at present…), but it certainly didn’t overly impress me, or the other members of the Shadow Panel. During our own deliberations last week, culminating in our rewarding Mathias Énard’s wonderful Compass with the prize he almost got a couple of years back for Zone, Grossman’s novel was conspicuous by its absence – mainly because it didn’t actually make our shortlist. In fact, it wasn’t even close, with none of our judges putting it among their top six.
Which is not to say that we thought it was terrible. Even if I was disappointed by the official verdict, it came as no real surprise as there had been a lot of support for the book elsewhere. A Horse Walks into a Bar received many complimentary comments on social media over the past week, and a group of readers on Goodreads at The Mookse and the Gripes group had this as their favourite from the start. So, with this groundswell of support pointing to a novel with a great chance of taking out the prize, why didn’t we rate it as highly as they (and the official judges) did?
One interest point is the obvious love for Jessica Cohen’s work on the novel. Yes, most of the translators got shout-outs from colleagues and readers alike, but from my rather subjective vantage point Cohen received more than most. That surprised me as A Horse Walks into a Bar certainly wasn’t among my favourites in terms of writing (although I suspect that, as was the case with Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, the American text was never likely to endear itself to me). What strikes me now is that my (and, to some extent, the Shadow Panel’s) preference is very much for poetic prose, and we certainly stacked our shortlist with examples of some wonderfully evocative writing (Jón Kalman Stefánsson and Philip Roughton, Roy Jacobsen with Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, Énard and Charlotte Mandell). My personal favourite was Nicholas de Lange’s smooth take on Amos Oz’s eloquently told story, and I’m afraid that (for us) Grossman and Cohen’s work simply didn’t measure up.
What probably swung it more was that A Horse Walks into a Bar is a fairly polarising work, as how you see it depends very much on which side of Dov G.s’ audience you find yourself on. I’m certainly no DNFer (I’ve completed every book I’ve started since this blog began…), but I had mentally given up on the hapless stand-up comedian well before the end of the novel. To quote my review:
I can see that this is a well-constructed novel, and there’s certainly something appealing about watching Dov spiral further into darkness. However, this just wasn’t my kind of book: it took far too long to warm up, and the much-hyped first pages left me cold. In addition, there really needed to be more to the story than what we get. There’s every chance that you’ll get to the end, having enjoyed it, and feel strangely flat as you realise that it was nothing more than a couple of hours of light entertainment…
Almost two months on, there’s nothing about that paragraph that I’d change, but I can see that if you do buy into Dov’s story, if you’re (metaphorically speaking) one of those hardy souls that sticks around until the end of his train-wreck of a performance, you’re likely to feel rather differently. By contrast, Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream (translated by Megan McDowell) had me mesmerised all through three readings, and in Bricks and Mortar Clemens Meyer (with the help of Katy Derbyshire) created a far more fascinating book of the night. In terms of both writing and content, then, I can’t help but shake my head at the decision.
But why do I feel compelled to examine the decision made by five people over in London in such detail anyway? And why would I want to stick my neck out and criticise what appears (on the surface, at least) to be a fairly popular decision, risking a bit of a backlash in the process? Because I’ve invested a lot of time in the whole affair, of course. Over the past few months (during a very busy time at work, too), I’ve put a lot of myself into reading, reviewing and discussing all the longlisted titles, and it’s only natural that when the best books (in our opinion) are overlooked there’s an element of doubt, of disappointment, with the proceedings. Yes, Barley and co. may have been the ones with the big novelty cheque, but they weren’t the only people with a sense of investment in the outcome. So, again, well done to Grossman and Cohen, but forgive me if I’ll always think of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize as the one where Mathias Énard finally got his dues, and where Roy Jacobsen stepped into the limelight. You can keep the glitz and glamour – I’ll stay right here in the shadows, thank you very much…