The Man Booker Prize judges for 2012. From left to right: Bharat Tandon, Peter Stothard (chair), Dan Stevens, (sitting) Dinah Birch, Amanda Foreman. Photograph: The Man Booker Prizes on Flickr
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The Booker judges have stood up for seriousness

Serious literary debate is what makes the prize worth having.

Here we go again. For about a quarter of every year – from the announcement of the long list to the announcement of the winner in October – the Man Booker Prize provokes speculation and talk, though not much more than that. There are a few agenda-fixing headlines (“Amis snubbed again”, “Big year for small publishers”) and then everyone waits to see who the winner is.

Despite this apparently unbreakable pattern, the prize retains a great deal of dignity. It draws people’s attention to the state of the Commonwealth novel (a category it is more or less alone in recognising) and helps a number of books, many of which received little, if any, coverage, on their way to a readership and a reputation. Its potential positive influence makes it worth caring about. And when, last year, there was a bit of a scrap over how the prize was discussed by its judges (in particular Chris Mullin), the stakes were bigger than is customary in metropolitan sniping (though I would say that).

There is some evidence to suggest that the fuss was worth making. The organisers have done a canny job with the jury this time around, managing to appeal, as it were, to the circle and the pit. (Which is which depends on where you’re sitting.) The chair of judges, Peter Stothard, is an impeccable Establishment figure, a committee type and a former editor of the Times, knighted for his services to journalism; but he is also the current editor of the Times Literary Supplementand, as the occupier of that position, a legitimate, you could say obvious, candidate. It’s understandable that a prize with  a corporate sponsor, seeking national press coverage, should put emphasis on name recognition as well as cast-iron suitability and, within the constraints of this necessary and hardly abhorrent compromise, Stothard is as good a choice as any.

A similarly canny logic underpins the selection of the actor Dan Stevens, who also ticks the relevant boxes. Stevens, one of the stars of Downton Abbey, studied English literature at Cambridge and his Booker credentials are strong – he played Nick Guest in Saul Dibb’s adaptation of The Line of Beauty, he read the audio book of Wolf Hall and he appeared on The Review Show last October to discuss the prize. Stothard was careful to play down the extent to which his jury stands in reproach to Stella Rimington’s but it’s too late for Stevens, who, when discussing the “books that zip along” shortlist, said that the jury last year had failed in their stated aim to pick “readable” books by including Carol Birch’s novel Jamrach’s Menagerie.

I have a few quibbles with Stothard’s rhetoric. I am uneasy about the insistence, as a criterion, on “the shock of language” – it risks constructing a system of judgement whereby Will Self (Umbrella) and Jeet Thayil (Narcopolis) would have to be preferred to Pat Barker (Toby’s Room). And he has been too diplomatic in his stated refusal to pass judgement on publishers who have turned down particular books. He claims that a prize jury is the only professional audience concerned with quality alone – but
a shrewd publisher ought to see that a novel stands a good chance of winning a prize, a reliable route to commercial success. One of the books on Stothard’s shortlist, Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, was published by the independent imprint And Other Stories (AOS), which works by annual subscription (£50 buys you six books), after being rejected by what we are encouraged to call “mainstream publishers”, though, as a result of a distribution deal between AOS and Faber, it is now being distributed by one of the houses that (I am told) turned it down. (Another book on the shortlist, Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, is published by the small but well-established independent Salt.)

It’s part of the job description of a Booker judge to be deflective and non-committal. My attempts to ease secrets out of a judge I spied swaying in a tent about a month ago met with no success. So I will be left wondering – for as long as I keep up the energy to care – how it came about that a jury of intelligent and apparently careful readers produced a longlist containing a clumsy farce by Michael Frayn but neither of the trenchant novels about South Africa, Patrick Flanery’s Absolution and Nadine Gordimer’s No Time Like the Present, both of which were eligible. (That the jury didn’t make use of the 13th spot on the longlist suggests a lack of collective desire to recognise these novels or prominent work by Ian McEwan, Lawrence Norfolk and Zadie Smith.)

As for the shortlist eventually settled on, there is no clear front-runner (as distinct from a book that received the most attention – Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies), though to set the bar low, it looks likely that whatever novel takes the laurels will reflect better on the prize and on the possibilities and reality of the Commonwealth novel than Howard Jacobson’s reflexive cynicism or Julian Barnes’s crabbed cleverness. (A year on, admirers of Barnes’s book The Sense of an Ending appear incapable of agreeing of whether it’s ironic or sincere – whether it’s a narrative of recovery and epiphany or stasis.)

Answering the question before it was put, Stothard said that the books were whittled down – from 145 to six – through “argued literary criticism. There really isn’t any other way.” But one of the limitations, and possibly mercies, of Booker judging is that some variation on good manners prevents judges from describing the process in any detail. It would be invidious or unfair, so the thinking goes, to single out a book for praise or blame and it has therefore to be taken on trust that the discussion was of a high standard and not what Stothard calls “opinion masquerading as literary criticism”. Even if we’re not permitted to hear the individual notes, Stothard has been making the right noises and an unabashed seriousness about literary debate has always been not incidental but central to what makes the prize worth having and even cherishing.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special

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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle