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Something to Answer For By P.H. Newby: Confusing First Winner Of The Booker Prize

Front cover of Something To Answer For by P H Newby

By the time I’d struggled to the last page of Something to Answer For  by P H Newby, there was little I felt sure about any longer. 

All I could be certain of was that Newby’s novel is set in Port Said and concerns a character called Townrow. He arrives in the city, which is then in the throes of the Suez Crisis, to see the widow of a recently deceased friend. The widow thinks her husband was murdered and wants Townrow’s help to find the truth.

But his journey to Port Said is a convoluted one. He stops over in Rome where he gets into an argument about Hitler’s Final Solution, then lands in Cairo where he makes a stupid remark that sees him interrogated and held in a police cell. When he does finally make it to Port Said, he gets so drunk in a bar he passes out, is attacked and ends up with a head and eye injury.

Truth or Dreams?

But who exactly is Townrow? Somewhere in the narrative there is a clue that he has been embezzling from a fund he is meant to be managing. Is he Irish? Is he married? He recalls both “facts” at different points in the narrative. But he doesn’t seem absolutely sure if either is true or if he’s merely dreaming.

From the point at which he is hit on the head, nothing he says can be relied upon. He operates in a a dream-like state where he recalls events (like his friend’s funeral) that have yet to happen.   The borders between truth and reality become ever more distinct as the novel progresses.

This is a confusing narrative that borders on comedy yet also deals with issues of responsibility, national identity and the sunset of the British Empire. For the reader it’s a baffling experience.

Baffling, but not rewarding.

One critic who reviewed the book at the time of its publication, described it as beautifully written and a tour de force of comic writing. There were certainly some passages that gave me a glimmer of hope that the book would improve. But they were simply transitory experiences before I was propelled into yet another labyrinth. By the end I suspected P H Newby had experienced more fun writing his book than I did in reading it.

Something To Answer For by P H Newby: Endnotes

Portrait photograph of P H Newby, author of Something To Answer For

About the Book

Something to Answer For is a 1968 novel which would have entirely disappeared from our awareness if it hadn’t been the winner of the inaugural  Booker Prize in 1969. The book was reissued by Faber & Faber in 2008 in the “Faber Finds” line and again in 2018.

About The Author

Given his low profile, I was surprised to find that P H Newby had written 13 books by the time of his Booker Prize success. After service in World War 2 (in France and Egypt) he taught English Literature at Fouad 1st University, Cairo.

He returned to England and joined the BBC in 1949, beginning as a radio producer and going on to become Director of Programmes and finally Managing Director for BBC Radio. He was awarded  a CBE for his work in that capacity.

Despite what most people would have considered a demanding job, he was a prolific writer, at one time producing a new book every year. His rate of output apparently was one of the reasons why other writers dismissed him as a second rate artist. Literature was meant to be crafted slowly and painstakingly in the mode of Flaubert, not rattled out like a production factory, they sniffed. Little wonder that Graham Greene called Newby  A fine writer who has never had the full recognition he deserves. ” 

It was left to Newby’s friend, Anthony Thwaite to redress the balance.  In an obituary he called P H Newby “One of the best English novelists of the second half of the century.”

Why I Read This Book

I had never heard of P H Newby or Something To Answer For until I embarked on my Booker Prize Project and discovered this was the first winner of the prize. I’ve rated it as one of the least interesting winners in the history of the prize.

This review was posted originally in 2012. This is an updated version which incorporates biographical information about the author and an updated image of the book cover . Paragraphs of text have been shortened to improve readability.

The first #Bookerprize winner: P H Newby

Portrait photograph of P H Newby winner of the first Booker Prize
P.H.Newby

All I knew about PH Newby when I began reading Something to Answer For,  was that he was the first winner of the Booker Prize in 1969.

The short biography on the Booker site didn’t enlighten me much further since it contained just the bare facts: born 1918 in Crowborough, Sussex, Newby was a private in a Medical Corps Unit during World War 2 and served first in France and then in Egypt. 

After his release from active duty in December 1942, he taught English Literature at Fouad 1st University, Cairo. When his first novel, A Journey into the Interior(1946) was published, he returned to England.  He joined the BBC in 1949, beginning as a radio producer and going on to become successively Controller of the Third Programme and Radio Three, Director of Programmes (Radio), and finally Managing Director, BBC Radio before his retirement in 1978. He was awarded  a CBE for his work as Managing Director of BBC Radio.

Despite what most people would have considered a demanding job, he was a prolific writer, at one time producing a new book every year. His rate of output apparently was one of the reasons why other writers dismissed him as a second rate artist. Literature was meant to be crafted slowly and painstakingly in the mode of Flaubert, not rattled out like a production factory, they sniffed. Little wonder that Graham Greene called Newby  A fine writer who has never had the full recognition he deserves. ” 

It was left to Newby’s friend, Anthony Thwaite to delve beneath the surface and to disclose something of the man’s character.  In an insightful – and touching – obituary, Thwaite called Newby “One of the best English novelists of the second half of the century”

Thwaite recalled their early encounters which began in 1954,when Newby was already an established figure in the literary circles at the BBC and Thwaite was an Oxford undergraduate. Later the two became colleagues at the BBC.

” I was always aware of two things: his quiet, precise defence of high standards, and his equally quiet, precise caution,” said Thwaite. “Some of my colleagues put too much emphasis on the second of these in Newby, as if he were some sort of inhuman litmus placed between anything new and the noisy condemnatory world out there beyond the microphone. I never found this so. I found he was a man with whom one could equably discuss heterodox things; and he could give way.”

According to Thwaite, 1942 was a turning-point in Newby’s life. He was seconded by the Army to be a lecturer in English literature at Fuad 1st University, and remained there until 1946. He drew on that experience of Egypt  intermittently for the rest of his life. The extravagances of Arabic-English, in which volatile feelings and a relish for rhetoric combine, fascinated him. ‘Everything was extreme, and he quietly revelled in the extremities,’ commented Thwaite.

Egypt was the backdrop for many of his books even in his later years, against which he played out his characteristic theme of  the discovery of a man’s self through a journey or quest that he forces himself, or is forced, to take.

Footnotes – added February 2017

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