LONDON (Reuters) - British author Howard Jacobson was the surprise winner of the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday for "The Finkler Question," the first comic novel to scoop one of the English-speaking world's most coveted literary awards.
The 68-year-old writer and critic, who specialises 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 favorite.
Jacobson, whose first novel appeared 27 years ago, said he had begun to wonder whether he would ever win the prize, now in its 42nd year.
"I was truly flabbergasted," he told reporters after receiving the award in the medieval splendor of London's Guildhall. "I'm so sick of being described as the 'underrated Howard Jacobson'.
"They (Man Booker judges) took me in their arms a little bit in the longlist, the shortlist felt like an embrace. I never thought the affair was going to be consummated."
Poet Andrew Motion, chair of the judges, said it would be a mistake to describe Jacobson's work as pure comedy: "It is comic, it is laughter, but it's laughter in the dark."
The Finkler Question follows 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 of a prize honouring English-language works by authors from the Commonwealth and Ireland.
"At my age it's less about how much comes into your bank account as wanting readers. It's very, very hard to get readers," Jacobson said.
"You lock yourself away for a couple of years, you don't know what it is that you've done, you send it out into the world and sometimes it's silent," he added. "I've been around for nearly 30 years writing novels and people are discovering me."
Motion said the five-member panel met for about an hour on Tuesday to choose one of six shortlisted authors.
The choice was narrowed to two books, and the vote went 3-2 in favor 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."
Among the other nominees, Australian-born Peter Carey lost the chance to become the first author to win three Bookers. 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."
The final three shortlisted works were "Room" by Emma Donoghue, "In a Strange Room" by Damon Galgut and "The Long Song" by Andrea Levy.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White; editing by Noah Barkin