1974


Weather emergencies and natural disasters. Global recession. Escalating oil prices. It must be . . .1974.

This was the year the world population hit 4 billion and the global recession intensified, with energy costs wreaking havoc and creating inflationary spirals in most Western economies (e.g., inflation hit 11.3% in the US and 17.2% in the UK). In the United States, both the 55-mph speed limit and the early imposition of daylight savings time were an immediate response to the ongoing energy crisis. Weather emergencies created their own turmoil.

Droughts caused widespread famine in Africa, the largest series of tornadoes in history struck the United States and Canada, and, on Christmas day, Cyclone Tracy nearly wiped out Darwin, Australia. India detonated its first nuclear weapon and suffered a smallpox epidemic that killed between 10,000 and 20,000 people. Turkey invaded Cyprus; the IRA bombed the Tower of London; Evita Peron succeeded her husband Juan as president of Argentina; and Antonio de Spinola led a bloodless military coup in Portugal. US President Richard Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal and was later pardoned by Gerald Ford.

1974

On a less somber note, Lucy, a 3-million-year-old hominid skeleton, was discovered in Ethiopia. Chicago’s Sears Tower became the world’s tallest building. The Sting,Godfather II, Blazing Saddles, and The Exorcist played in theatres. Dolly Parton, ABBA, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, and Stevie Wonder sold a lot of albums, and Paul McCartney and Wings recorded Band on the Run. The first word processors came into use, and the first UPC barcode scanner was installed in a supermarket in Ohio.

Short list:

Kingsley Amis, Ending Up—a black comedy involving five elderly housemates, who squabble and kvetch their days away in a country cottage.

Beryl Bainbridge, The Bottle Factory Outing¬—a grim farce in which two single Englishwomen arrange an outing for their fellow workers at an Italian-run wine bottling factory.

C.P. Snow, In Their Wisdom—a portrait of 1970s English society through its legal and political system—on display in a contested inheritance case and in the workings of the House of Lords.

Co-winner: Nadine Gordimer, The Conservationist—an intense critique of South African apartheid, largely told from the insular point of view of a successful Johannesburg businessman.

Co-winner: Stanley Middleton, Holiday—a meditation on love and relationships as an education professor who has separated from his wife contemplates his past and his future during an English seaside holiday.

Judges:

Ion Trewin (Chair)
A.S. Byatt
Elizabeth Jane Howard

I thought 1974 was a strange year for the Bookers: only five novels on the short list and two winners—though the winners did seem to be the class of the field. I found both the Amis and Bainbridge novels somewhat odd (with degrees of black comedy), and the Snow plodding. I usually like a good black comedy, but both Ending Up and The Bottle Factory Outing puzzled me. While I thought Bainbridge’s novel was well put together, it had a sadness that overmatched its humor for me. The Amis novel did not earn its ending in my view.* I don’t think anyone not married to Kingsley Amis would have fought me on the prize-worthiness of Ending Up. And as I argued in an individual review, In Their Wisdom felt much longer than 345 pages and featured some odd choices in characterization. (I say this as a lover of nineteenth-century fiction, by the way. Vanity Fair? Middlemarch? Bleak House? Long dogs all. Love ‘em.)

Then we add the controversy: Apparently, Elizabeth Jane Howard, who was married to Kingsley Amis at the time, insisted that his novel be short-listed. I’ll let judge Ion Trewin take it from here:

I looked first at Antonia, and then at Martyn Goff, the prize’s administrator – both remained impassive. We broke for a breather. Martyn said that as chairman it was up to me. Antonia liked the novel (as did I). On literary grounds neither of us had problems about shortlisting it, but what would the press say?

The Booker was already familiar with controversies. Martyn, I know, was not averse to the publicity that our decision would inevitably bring. (This was to centre around a vituperative correspondence in the Times.) But would the burgeoning reputation of the prize be damaged? He thought not. More important was our choice of winner. Antonia and I spoke up for Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist, but Jane was less impressed. She remained keen on Ending Up, but realising that neither Antonia nor I would countenance it winning, she concentrated on Stanley Middleton’s Holiday, a study of middle England that she saw as a “perfect miniature.”

With only three judges, it seemed important to me that we did not compromise or produce a two-one verdict. Might we split the prize between Middleton and Gordimer? Martyn said he knew of no reason why not. We were vindicated by The Conservationist being selected this year for the Best of the Booker shortlist. (“Tears, Tiffs, and Triumphs”)

Maybe so, but I would have gone for Holiday, Best of the Booker or no Best of the Booker.**

The Guardian’s Sam Jordison is with me on this one, saying that he, too, would have“plumped for” Middleton’s novel, which dives deep into the consciousness of decidedly ordinary middle-class protagonist Edwin Fisher. While he admires The Conservationist, Jordison describes it as “a book that demands respect, but is hard to love”—a writer’s more than a reader’s novel.

The Conservationist is, as I hope I’ve made clear in my individual review of the novel, fierce and challenging in subject and style. Its protagonist, Mehring, both solipsistic and safe in a white privilege he never questions, becomes increasingly hard to stomach—which was undoubtedly part of Gordimer’s design. But her characterization of Mehring necessarily keeps the reader at a distance and, combined with the other stylistic experiments she undertakes, makes for a difficult reading experience. Again, this is not something I’m against. I like plenty of modern and postmodern fiction. Further, I don’t mind fighting my way through a book that is worth the fight—and I would put this novel in that category.

Yet I preferred Middleton’s novel, which is by no means simple, even if it is more reader-friendly. In exploring Fisher’s consciousness, Middleton (not unlike Gordimer) moves back and forth through time, gradually building our understanding of the man, his marriage, and the dilemma he finds himself in. In the process, the character’s sense of grievance and what’s right give way. The novel gathers power quietly, as Fisher fumbles his way through his holiday, sifting his own experience and seeking a way forward.

I do have to say that Trewin’s account of the judging made me feel a little sheepish about siding in this decision with Howard, who clearly only gave up on Amis’s book when she realized she wouldn’t win that battle. I can’t help but find something a little perverse about her refusal to defer to the other two judges and make the vote for Gordimer unanimous, but I’m still glad that Middleton got his prize. Holiday is an exceptionally well-wrought novel—complex, deeply felt, and quietly powerful. As Jordison says, it deserves the readership that winning the Booker has helped insure for it.

As ever, head over to Dooney’s Cafe and check out Jean Baird’s evaluation of 1974, which includes her take on the impact of “prize culture” on Canadian publishing.

*I’m open to the idea that I’m just too American to get really black British humor, though, frankly that old “British humor” argument mostly just annoys me. Hmmm. Maybe I’m not so open to that idea after all. Never mind.

**Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) ultimately won the Best of the Bookers prize from a short list that included The Conservationist (1974), Pat Barker’sThe Ghost Road (1995), J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), Peter Carey’sOscar and Lucinda (1988), and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999). I’d have gone withDisgrace, but that’s another post for another day

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