"But Now I Am Found"
In 1941, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded its Academy Award for Best Picture—formerly called the Outstanding Motion Picture—to How Green Was My Valley. The film, which won a total of five Oscars, including the Directing Award for John Ford, is a compelling story about a coal mining family in southern Wales. But, looking back more than seventy years later, one might wonder how it won the award over both The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane, the latter of which is now considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time. Similar questions could be asked regarding how Around the World in 80 Days won the Best Picture Award in 1956 over The Ten Commandments or how Laughing Boy by Oliver Lafarge won the Pulitzer Prize for a Novel—later renamed the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction—over both Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms and William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury in 1930. What if the Academy or the committee at Columbia University that administers the Pulitzer Prize had the benefit of the perspective that only time can provide? Moreover, what if they opened the voting to the public? Would they—would we—make the same choices?
The Lost Man Booker Prize offered a rare glimpse into the exercise of 40 years of hindsight. In 1971, the Booker Prize, which had only existed for two years at the time, changed the procedure for awarding its prize, deciding to consider only novels published in the same year as the award instead of those published in the previous year. Hence novels published in 1970 were never eligible to be considered for the prize. In 2008, the foundation that administers the award—now known as the Man Booker Prize—set out to rectify this situation, and a panel of three judges was appointed to select a shortlist of six novels from 1970. After the shortlist was chosen in 2010, the winner was decided by public vote via the Man Booker Prize website.
The winner selected by readers was Troubles by J. G. Farrell (1935-1979). The novel is set in Ireland in 1919—a few years after the Easter Rising of 1916 and just after the end of World War I—and it takes place against the backdrop of the Irish War of Independence. Having completed his British military service, Major Brendan Archer travels to Ireland to visit Angela Spencer, an Anglo-Irish woman to whom he believes he is engaged: "Although he was sure that he had never actually proposed to Angela during the few days of their acquaintance, it was beyond doubt that they were engaged." She lives in the Majestic, a hotel owned by her father, Edward Spencer, once a grand establishment but now ramshackle and dilapidated:
Here and there among the foundations one might still find evidence of the Majestic's former splendour: the great number of cast-iron bathtubs, for instance, which had tumbled from one blazing floor to another until they hit the earth; twisted bed-frames also, some of them not yet altogether rusted away; and a simply prodigious number of basins and lavatory bowls.
Its dusty rooms are crowded with cats, and its primary occupants are elderly ladies who stay at the Majestic primarily out of familiarity.
Major Archer's memory of Angela turns out to have been clouded by time: " 'So that was what she looked like in Brighton three years ago, of course, now I remember'; but to tell the truth he only half remembered her; she was half herself and half some stranger." And yet, although they do not marry and she later dies of leukemia, he finds himself ultimately unable to leave the hotel—in part because of his attraction to Sarah Devlin, a local Catholic girl.
For his part, Edward Spencer appears oblivious to the hotel's worsening condition: "One unseasonably warm day the giant M of MAJESTIC detached itself from the façade of the building and fell four storeys to demolish a small table at which a very old and very deaf lady, an early arrival for Christmas, had decided to take tea in the mild sunshine that was almost like summer." Eventually, Major Archer finds himself the de facto manager of the Majestic, and he stays despite increasing violence in the surrounding area and warnings from the locals: "This is no place for the likes of you. … You must leave Ireland, leave Kilnalough, it's no place at all now for a British gentleman like you. Clear yourself out of here, bag and baggage, before it's too late!"
In the end, both the hotel itself and the major's pursuit of a bride are doomed—the Majestic serves as a metaphor for the British Empire, already past its prime by the beginning of the 20th century. At times, Farrell makes this theme rather explicit: "The future of the British Isles could never have seemed so dismal since the Romans had invaded; there was trouble everywhere." Farrell wrote the first pages of Troubles, appropriately enough, on St. Patrick's Day while in New York City in 1967 "with Irish pipers tuning up down in the street 12 floors beneath." His depiction of the Majestic was inspired by a visit to the Ocean View Hotel on Block Island, Rhode Island, during the same year:
Old bedsprings twisted with heat; puddles of molten glass; washbowls that had fallen through to the foundations; a flight of stone steps leading up to thin air; twisted pipes; lots of nails lying everywhere and a few charred beams. I think the way the glass had collected like candlegrease under the windows impressed me most. … Anyway this gave me an idea, which seems to me a good one, for the dwelling place of the family.
As John Banville has noted, the timing of the publication in 1970 was itself noteworthy, taking place during another intense period of the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland. In 1979, Farrell—like Major Archer—moved to Ireland, buying a cottage in remote Bantry Bay on the southwest coast, where he liked to fish off the rocks. Tragically, Farrell died on August 11, 1979, when he was swept out to sea by a sudden storm while fishing.
Troubles was certainly a deserving recipient of the Lost Man Booker Prize, itself a rare example of a kind of literary justice. However, the award raises an interesting question: How is our experience and judgment of literature—or any form of art—influenced by the passing of time? In particular, was the public voting influenced by knowledge of Farrell's work after Troubles? The novel, which earned 38 percent of the votes—more than double the number of votes cast for any other book on the shortlist—was the first book in his so-called Empire Trilogy, which also includes The Siege of Krishnapur (1973) and The Singapore Grip (1978), and which collectively reflects upon the crumbling of British colonial power. Moreover, not only did The Siege of Krishnapur win the Booker Prize in 1973, but it was also shortlisted for the Best of the Booker, a special award created in 2008 in order to mark the 40th anniversary of the prize. Indeed, when Salman Rushdie, whose novel Midnight's Children won the Best of the Booker award, was asked which book he would have selected other than his own, he pointed to The Siege of Krishnapur: "Had Farrell not sadly died so young, there is no question that he would today be one of the really major novelists of the English language." Although it was this later novel that garnered Farrell the Booker Prize during his lifetime, the author himself believed that Troubles was a better work: "I still feel that if anything of mine survives it will be Troubles—though, being more readable, no doubt the S[iege] of K[rishnapur] was a better book to win the [Booker] Prize with." One may well ask, then, with regard to the Lost Man Booker Prize, whether Troubles was viewed through the lens of Farrell's later work and his death at a relatively young forty-four.
Troubles aside, the affair of the Lost Man Booker Prize reminds us that the same work can have quite different meanings for us at different times in our lives. For instance, when I saw Tom Hooper's film adaptation of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, I found myself—now the father of a young child—identifying more with Jean Valjean's fatherly concern for Cosette than with Marius's youthful, idealistic passion.
Traditionally, for Christians, whereas each person is given an allotted amount of time on earth, the triune God is the Lord of all time who created time itself. It is significant, then, that the gospel message includes a temporal dimension in that God's promises, revealed in the particular person of Jesus Christ and his work in the past—accomplished through the events of his life, death, and resurrection—not only bring new life in the present but also have eschatological consequences and witness to God's eternal, saving love. Thus, despite the claims of process theologians and their truncated view of God, in light of the question of the assurance of salvation, it is meaningful that Scripture affirms that God is "from everlasting to everlasting" (Ps. 90:2) and that Jesus Christ is "the same yesterday and today and forever" (Heb. 13:8). Although our experience of time here and now may include crumbling buildings or the influence of hindsight, the promises of the eternal God provide a sure foundation for our hope.
David McNutt is associate editor for academic and reference books and project editor for the Reformation Commentary on Scripture at InterVarsity Press.
1. Lavinia Greacen, ed., J. G. Farrell in His Own Words: Selected Letters and Diaries (Cork: Cork Univ. Press, 2009), p. 109.
2. Ibid., p. 114.
3. Ibid., p. 1.
5. Ibid., p. 282.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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