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Man Booker Prize 2015: Manny Roman’s speech

13 October 2015

Thank you, Jonathan and as you stand down from chairing the Booker Prize Foundation, I know that I, Man Group and everyone in this room is thankful for what you have done for the prize and for literature.

Your Royal Highness, fellow guests and friends of the prize, welcome and thank you for being here this evening.

If the late David Foster Wallace could be among us tonight, with his bandanna and long hair, he would be scribbling on his napkin a brief non-fiction piece about the abstract geometry of tuxedoes and the true meaning of literary prizes. Sitting with us, he would probably by now have called to have a pizza delivered. But Wallace thought deeply about the direction of fiction and what it means to write today. I quote "to give the reader a path to other selves."

The path does not have to be easy. One of Wallace’s favourite books was the obscure Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson. Legend has it that the novel was turned down 54 times by publishers. Wittgenstein’s mistress is the novel’s sole character, Kate. She is the last person and, in fact, the last form of life on Earth.

Imagine Kate to be at once Helen of Troy and King Lear's Cordelia. She is a painter whose paintings will never be seen by anyone but her. Ever. Kate's solace is to install her own paintings between Mantegna and Leonardo in the unpeopled Louvre, the dust-blown Uffizi.

With her absolute solitude come questions about what it means to be an artist, but also the madness of being the last person on Earth. One does wonder throughout the book whether she is sane and really is the last person on Earth, or whether she belongs with Ezra Pound in St Elizabeth’s Hospital.

We gather here tonight very much aware that we are not the readers of the last great novel on Earth. We together constitute the genos of literature, first and foremost through the authors of the shortlist, but also through our shared memories of great novels. Remember the words of Sam Beckett, "every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness." We are lucky to live through a time of great novels in the English language and, unlike Wittgenstein’s mistress, we have an eternity to treasure great books and welcome and embrace future generations of writers.

It is imperative for Man Group to continue to support a broad range of charitable activities with a particular emphasis on literacy. Last year, we made significant grants to charities which include:

  • Centre for Literacy in Primary Education a charity that emphasises the importance of books and literature in enabling children to become confident, happy and enthusiastic readers and writers.
  • Student Hubs, which, through its Schools Plus programme, trains university students as tutors and mentors for school pupils struggling to meet their attainment grades.
  • National Literacy Trust, which works to improve the reading, writing, speaking and listening skills of the UK’s most disadvantaged communities, where up to 40% of people have literacy problems.
  • Beanstalk, which recruits, vets, trains and supports volunteers to work in primary schools with children aged 6-11 who have fallen behind with their reading.

Before Flaubert published Madame Bovary in 1857, he wrote four terrible novels. Memoires d’un fou and Reve d’Enfer are so terrible Wikipedia in English has decided to erase them from our collective memory. It is the same Flaubert who travelled to the Orient with Maxime du Camp and, upon his return, started working on Madame Bovary. “Judge the goodness of a book by the energy of the punches it has given you. I believe the greatest characteristic of genius, is, above all, force.”

Let’s remember that everyone who submitted a book this year poured their life and soul into creating fiction out of nothing. Let’s raise a glass to all of these writers tonight and let me say that we, at Man Group, are proud to support the novel in all its various, dazzling forms.

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