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Howard Jacobson, “the British Philip Roth,” is the surprise Man Booker winner.

October 13, 2010

Howard Jacobson

The darkest of dark horses in this year’s Man Booker Prize, Howard Jacobson, took Britain’s top literary award yesterday for his comic novel, The Finkler Question. Sad face for Tom McCarthy, whose C was the overwhelming favorite among gamblers, but grins all around for London’s bookmakers.

Before Jacobson was announced the winner, Graham Sharpe, spokesman for the bookmaker William Hill, told the Guardian his firm faced a “six-figure loss” if either McCarthy or Damon Galgut, whose In a Strange Room was the other leading contender “carried off the £50,000 literary award.”

“If either of the other four win,” Sharpe said,  “it’s a good night. And we could do with a good night after the hammering we took on Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall last year.”

Like McCarthy, Mantel was the overwhelming gambler’s favorite in the lead-up to last year’s Man Booker Prize. I’ve become fascinated by how much attention the British literary press gives to the betting lines in its coverage of the contest. You’d think the Man Booker was a football game or a jai alai match or something.

This year the betting grew so fevered that another bookmaking outfit, Ladbrokes, suspended betting on the Man Booker last week after “after a flurry of bets supporting” McCarthy. Ladbrokes had C at “prohibitive odds” of 4-6. William Hill had McCarthy’s novel at “even shorter odds of 10-11,” but kept betting open.

Sharpe last week explained the decision by saying he doubted the Man Booker jury was leaking deliberations to gamblers, and suggested someone — presumably publisher Jonathan Cape — was manipulating betting in McCarthy’s behalf. It took a surge of only £15,000-worth of wagers to lead Ladbrokes to close betting.

A spokeswoman for Jonathan Cape made the obligatory denials, adding she was “delighted by the faith the betting public have been showing in Tom McCarthy’s brilliant novel C.”

And in the end it was Jacobson, who at 10-1 odds, was the “rank outsider” in the contest. The Finkler Question is Jacobson’s 11th novel. At 68, he is the oldest winner since William Golding in 1980. He’s been called “the British Philip Roth,” but refers to himself as “the Jewish Jane Austen.”

“I’ve waited a long time for this,” Jacobson told the Telegraph. “There has been a little bit of bitterness, I would be a fool to pretend otherwise. But the bitterness has gone now. I’ve been discovered. I’ve been around for nearly 30 years, but at least they’re discovering me.”

The Man Booker will also turn The Finkler Question into a bestseller. Until yesterday, it had the lowest total sales (8,300 copies) of any of the finalists, lagging far behind the shortlist bestseller, Emma Donoghue’s Room (34,400). Publisher Bloomsbury is rushing to get out a new printing of 50,000 copies.

The prize is not only a recognition of Jacobson’s long and productive career, it’s also a long overdue triumph for the comic novel. No comic novel had ever won the Man Booker Prize.

“It’s either a very funny book with very sad bits in it, or a very sad book with very funny bits in it,” said poet Sir Andrew Motion, chairman of the jury. “It is a book about Jewishness but it is so much more than that. It is a profound, wise book and a very entertaining one. It would be a bit over-the-top to say it’s Shakespearean, but he certainly knows something that Shakespeare knew – that the tragic and the funny are intimately linked.”

American readers wondering who the heck Howard Jacobson is can turn to an appreciative essay by the Guardian‘s literary editor, Claire Armistead, who argues that his win is “long overdue,” though she likes his 2006 novel, Kalooki Nights, even better. Sarah Crown, also writing at the Guardian, agrees on all points, adding this nod, though well deserved, has the “faint aroma” of “a lifetime achievement award.”

For his part, Jacobson announced he planned to spend the prize money on a handbag for his wife. The entire £50,000, asked an incredulous reporter for the Telegraph? “Have you seen the price of handbags?” replied Jacobson.



6 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    October 13, 2010 12:10 pm

    It’s always good when the underdog wins. Would you suggest this book, Chauncey Mabe?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 13, 2010 12:32 pm

      I’ve not read it, but on the basis of his brand being “the British Philip Roth,” I’d definitely give it a chance.

  2. Joe Agbro permalink
    October 13, 2010 4:03 pm

    This man must really have loads of humour

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 13, 2010 10:41 pm

      I hope to find out, but I’d bet you’re right.

  3. October 13, 2010 9:10 pm

    “… the tragic and the funny are intimately linked.” I love that quote, Chauncey. And I’m totally delighted that an author who had barely a toenail in the game won it all! Good for Howard Jacobson. I’ll definitely buy his book. Tragic-Comedy or Comic-Tragedy has always been my bag. Thanks hugely for giving us the word.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 13, 2010 10:42 pm

      I’m not exaggerating when I say that I had you in mind, Duff, as I tapped at my keyboard.

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