Julian Barnes, the acclaimed English author who has repeatedly dismissed the Man Booker prize as a meaningless farrago, has won the literary award for his novel The Sense of an Ending.
The judging panel praised the 150-page novel, published by Jonathan Cape, for its ability to “speak to humankind in the 21st century, compression of emotion, quality of writing and its readability”.
Mr Barnes’ novel is an account of childhood friendship and suicide narrated by a man who has his world turned upside down late on in life when he slowly realises the inaccuracy of some of his long-held beliefs about his past.
Dame Stella Rimington, former director-general of MI5 turned writer of spy thrillers and chairman of the judges, said : “Why are we reading about this boring bloke? Well, he doesn’t know much about himself. None of us really know who we are.”
“We present ourselves in many different ways but we really don’t know . . . There is a great deal of information in the book which you don’t get in a first reading.”
Mr Barnes is well-known for his critical view of Man Booker, claiming the process “usually produces some psychosomatic malady – a throbbing boil, a burning wire of neuralgia, the prod of gout” in the writer. Twenty-five years ago he likened it to “posh bingo”.
But despite having criticised the judges in the past for being “inflated by their brief celebrity”, his books continued to reach the shortlist. He was shortlisted three previous times for Arthur and George (2005), England, England (1998) and Flaubert’s Parrot (1984).
Mr Barnes is the author of 17 previous novels as well as books of short stories and collections of journalism.
This year’s Man Booker shortlist proved controversial after Dame Rimington said the judging panel had put readability at the heart of its decisions. People should “buy these books and read them, not buy them and admire them”, she said.
This led to criticism of a “dumbing down” but the decision clearly struck a note with the public as the six novels on the shortlist became the most popular Man Booker line-up since records began.
In response to the criticism surrounding this year’s shortlist Dame Rimington said: “I have been through many crises in one way or another and this one pales . . . “
In a pointed rebuke of this year’s judging panel, a group of writers, led by literary agent Andrew Kidd, announced the establishment of a rival prize, “The Literature Prize”, which they said would “establish a clear and uncompromising standard of excellence”.
This year’s Man Booker judging panel includes Chris Mullin, the former Labour MP, and Matthew d’Ancona, the writer and journalist. The prize is £50,000.