London - British author Julian Barnes on Tuesday won the Man Booker Prize, one of the highest-profile awards in English-language literature, at the fourth attempt for his novel The Sense of an Ending.
Barnes picked up the £50 000 award, which recognises the best work of fiction by an author from the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland, at a ceremony in London.
He told the audience assembled at the Guildhall he was "as much relieved as I am delighted" after losing out in 1984, 1998 and 2005.
Barnes also referred to the build-up to this year's prize, which was overshadowed by the launch of a rival award in protest at the apparent populist nature of the six-book shortlist.
He said: "I'd like to thank the judges, who I won't hear a word against, for their wisdom and the sponsors for their cheque."
The Leicester-born author joked that in moments of paranoia he suspected a "small cottage industry" was working to prevent him from winning the award after being passed over for his works Flaubert's Parrot, England, England and Arthur and George.
Barnes, 65, was the bookmaker's favourite ahead of Carol Birch, with Jamrach's Menagerie, and AD Miller's thriller Snowdrops.
The Sense of an Ending is the story of a seemingly ordinary man who revisits his past in later life and discovers that his memories are flawed.
The panel was chaired by the former head of Britain's domestic intelligence agency MI5, Stella Rimington, who before presenting the award said she made no apologies for including "readable" novels in this year's shortlist.
Rimington accused her critics within the publishing world of resembling the "KGB at its height" for their use of "black propaganda, de-stabilisation operations, plots and double agents".
Revealing the winner, Rimington said the slim book stood up to re-reading several times and praised Barnes's style.
"We thought it was a beautifully written book, we thought it was a book that spoke to humankind in the 21st century," she told the audience.
Jon Howells from Waterstone's, one of Britain's biggest booksellers, said Barnes, who once branded the award "posh bingo", was a deserving victor.
"Julian Barnes is a worthy winner - this is not, right writer, wrong book syndrome, The Sense of an Ending is a brilliant novel, one that turns in the reader's head long after finishing," he said.
The other books on the shortlist were The Sisters Brothers by Canadian writer Patrick deWitt, Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, also from Canada, and Pigeon English by British author Stephen Kelman.
A group calling itself "The Advisory Board of the Literature Prize" last week vowed to knock the Booker off its perch as the benchmark of literary taste after taking exception to Rimington's promotion of "readability" within the shortlist.
The newly created "Literature Prize" will also include novels by American writers in the hunt for the "best novel written in the English language and published in the UK in a given year".
Rimington defended accusations of "dumbing down" during her presentation speech.
"If our shortlist starts a new debate about the nature of the novel we'd be delighted," she said.
"Much better that than merely patronising the judges, insulting the shortlist authors or writing lists that you would have chosen if you had been the sole judge. All that to me is dumbing down," added the former intelligence chief.
Last year's prize was won by Howard Jacobson for The Finkler Question.
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