British author Howard Jacobson was the surprise winner of the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday for The Finkler Question, the first comedy to scoop one of the English-speaking world's most coveted literary awards.
The 68-year-old novelist and critic, who specializes in writing about what it means to be Jewish in Britain today, was the rank outsider with bookmaker Ladbrokes ahead of the announcement, while Tom McCarthy's C was firm favourite.
Australian-born Peter Carey lost out on the chance to become the first author to win three Booker awards.
He won in 1988 for Oscar and Lucinda and in 2001 for True History of the Kelly Gang and was shortlisted this year for Parrot and Olivier in America.
Also losing out was Emma Donoghue, the Irish-born Canadian author who was nominated for her novel Room.
"It's about Jewishness, but so much more than that," said former poet laureate Andrew Motion, head of the judging panel, speaking to the press after naming the winner.
"It's brilliant about male friendship in particular, and it's very clever about how sometimes we don't like our friends," he added ahead of a glitzy awards dinner in the medieval splendour of London's Guildhall.
Motion said The Finkler Question, which is being released in Canada this week, was not pure comedy.
"The kind of comedy that it is is so nearly adjacent to sadness that it would be a mistake simply describing this as a comic novel," he said, drawing comparisons with Shakespeare. "It is comic, it is laughter, but it's laughter in the dark."
Ion Trewin, literary director of Man Booker Prizes, told Reuters he would call it the first comic novel to win the award, while adding that other winners contained strong comic elements and agreeing that Jacobson's novel was more than just comedy.
The Finkler Question follows three friends - Libor and Sam, both Jewish widowers, and Julian - as they contemplate the crises of identity and loss.
Edward Docx, writing in the Observer, praised Jacobson for using Judaism to tackle universal themes:
"As all serious artists do, he is mining his immediate milieu as a way of directly unearthing the deeper questions of family, society, belief, culture, relationships - the underlying nature of humanity."
As well as a cheque for £50,000 pounds ($80,000) and a long list of interview requests from the world's media, Jacobson can expect to see sales of his latest novel soar.
Last year's winner Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, sold half a million copies in Britain, underlining the importance to publishers and individuals of a prize honouring English-language works by authors from the Commonwelath and Ireland.
Motion said the five-member jury met for about an hour on Tuesday to choose which of six shortlisted authors had won.
The choice was narrowed to two books, and the panel voted 3-2 in favour of Jacobson. Motion declined to name the novel which came second.
"I don't want that person to go to bed tonight and eat their pillow, which they no doubt otherwise would."
Asked why he thought it had taken so long for a comedy to win the Man Booker, Motion replied: "The place of comedy in society has changed, so perhaps we are more accommodating of it than we've been in the past."
The other two shortlisted works were In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut and The Long Song by Andrea Levy.
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