THE task of the Man Booker judges every year is to pick the best novel by a writer from Britain and the Commonwealth that has been published between October 1st and September 30th. In fact, the job is even more demanding than that. The judges are given five months to read upwards of 150 books, then they reread the longlist of 12 and, in a final round, go back once more over the shortlist of six.
The Man Booker is not so much a contest of literary merit as a test of indestructibility, the sort meted out to running shoes, Land Rovers and toys for small boys. The winner is the book that takes the longest time to fall apart.
In a strong year, the multiple readings are a crucial final slugging it out. Even in a thin year, such as 2010, they help speed the process by reinforcing decisiveness. This year the judges reached their conclusion in just an hour, and spent the rest of the afternoon drinking tea and waiting to put on their dinner suits.
Three of the novels had fallen out before the final meeting even got started. Tom McCarthy will win the prize one day, it was thought, but not for this book. At its best brilliantly fizzy, "C" is also uneven and appallingly badly edited. It has chrysanthemums and tulips out in the garden at the same time; wisteria is used in the plural. And all this just in the opening chapter.
Even Emma Donoghue's "Room", which has been sold for a six-figure sum and is being considered for the screen, was unable to hide its flaws after a third reading. Peter Carey's "Parrot and Olivier in America" (reviewed by The Economist) is a triumph of the imagination for a man of 67, an age when most writers' talents are waning. A sprawling prairie of a book, it was certainly this reviewer's favourite. But it's about an optimistic, 18th-century United States, not exactly the most fashionable of subjects beyond America's own subjects. And then Mr Carey has won the Man Booker twice before.
Which leaves Howard Jacobson's "The Finkler Question". Mr Jacobson has written ten previous novels. Only one has ever been longlisted for the Man Booker. But, at 68, he has been around so long that many people feel this Jewish Jane Austen has been unfairly overlooked.
"The Finkler Question" is about three old guys. Two of them are Jewish, the third would like to be. Two of them (the same two who are Jewish) have also recently been widowered; the third wishes he'd loved enough to care.
At first reading, "The Finkler Question" is a funny-sad tour of north London at the end of the 20th century. Subsequent readings reveal more and more surprises. When are some Jews ashamed of Israel? Why is sex with a circumcised man deemed to better than the other kind? And why, when it comes to linguistic virtuosity, will a non-Jew never hold a candle to a Jew, or a non-Finkler, as Mr Jacobson calls them in his novel, to a Finkler?
"The Finkler Question" is so old-fashioned, conjuring up an ageing world where the youth are sparse, and for the most part dim, and every page is filled with the open prejudices of white upper-income metropolitan men, men whose rumps are routinely warmed in big black Mercedes. None of the 500 people who attended the Man Booker prize dinner said as much, but victory for "The Finkler Question" was a vote for political incorrectness. Can that be the reason why the Guildhall dinner erupted in applause at the announcement of Mr Jacobson's triumph?