Beyond Bagels and Nazis

Judging the Jewish Quartely-Wingate Prize 2013

The brief for the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize is wonderfully — and, you could say, appropriately — open to interpretation. What does it mean to explore “themes of Jewish concern in any of its myriad possible forms either explicitly or implicitly” — and who is the “general reader” for whom that exploration is intended to be enlightening? That is the starting point and, to mix a metaphor, the touchstone for the judging process of the award, on the judging panel of which this year I had the honour to serve as the token goy (occasioning multi-recipient emails that might end: “Shabbat shalom and g’mar v’hatima tova and, Sam — Hi!”)

That openness to interpretation was part of what made the process as rich and thought-provoking as it was. Also, as fun. As judges we found ourselves asking things like: “Is a biography of a Nazi ipso facto a book that explores themes of Jewish concern?” Or: “Is this a distinctively Jewish story, or just a story with a lot of Jews in it?” Or: “This is a cookbook. Yes. But does containing bagels make the difference?” These inquiries can become — I was going to say “Jesuitical”, but perhaps “Talmudic” would be the word.

Yet you can make decisions about these things. It’s not meaningless to talk about topics of Jewish interest. If we sometimes differed in emphasis — hard to call, for instance, were a pair of books about the contributions of Jewish scientists to particular areas of physics; can science be Jewish? — we were more or less always able to reach agreement in substance. Our deliberations have been, you’ll be disappointed to learn, amicable. No tantrums, no resignations, no cries of “Clive Lawton! May his name be blotted out!” This shortlist is one that we’re all proud to own.

As the aforementioned token goy, my role, in part, was to represent that “general reader”. In our deliberations we came across some books, for instance, that seemed more hermetic than others: Jew speaking, as it were, unto Jew. While none of us ruled out esoterica — contributions to complex internal debates within Judaism or Jewish identity theory — these contributions needed to provide the outsider with a way in.

Just as my fellow judges, in theory, may have been less equipped to sense when something wasn’t speaking to the outside world, there were other qualities to which I will have been tone-deaf. Clive and Hephzibah, for example, were able to testify — as I could never do with authority — to the social accuracy of one of the books that came very close to being shortlisted, Francesca Segal’s fine first novel The Innocents. This, said Clive, uniquely among the submissions, nailed the North London Jewish world: “I know these people,” he said. I could admire Segal’s coolly well-constructed sentences, but I couldn’t know these people in the way my fellow judges did.

I was looking, finally, for books that would tell me something I didn’t know — which is not just a matter of providing facts or ideas I hadn’t come across, but of giving an entry-point to a Jewish perspective . I was grateful to be introduced, for instance, to some chewy discussions of the political theory of Zionism. I encountered a fresh line on Adorno’s famous (and, to my mind, regrettably silly) remark about poetry being impossible after Auschwitz; my objection was and remains Adorno’s implied ideas about poetry, but seeing it worked through from the Auschwitz end of things was enlarging. I learned  from brisk books about prewar antifascism in London and the banjaxed history of Palestinian solidarity movements among Israelis.

On the face of it, it’s a very diverse shortlist indeed — both in subject matter, historical reach, style of approach and genre. We have men and women, Americans and Israelis and Brits, enormous publishers and tiny ones, fat books and thin ones, funny ones and serious ones, novels and short stories and narrative histories. We’re pleased with that diversity, though we didn’t aim for it.

We didn’t arrive at formal criteria of what it meant to be “of Jewish interest”. I think that was right. As one of the books on our shortlist, Bernard Wasserstein’s On The Eve, shows: defining or ringfencing Jewishness, particularly in opposition to particular ideas of non-Jewishness, is something with not only intellectual but moral hazards. It’s a non-neutral move — a decisive contribution to the long, long conversation about wagon-circling versus assimilation.
Instead we took the view that — as per Jonathan Miller’s gag about being “Jew-ish”— “of Jewish interest” was something we couldn’t and shouldn’t define, but we knew it when we saw it. And, more importantly, once you were, as it were, in the corral you competed on literary quality rather than Jewishness. A book could be called Mazel Tov! and tell the story of 400 Hasidic Jews emigrating from Temple Fortune to Jerusalem while reflecting on the Torah and eating gefiltefish, but if it was badly written, it could lose out to a well-written book about koi carp by a guy called Cohen.

The Jewishness, in other words, could enter sideways. Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies, for instance — a tragicomic variation on Henry James’s The Ambassadors — is set between Manhattan and postwar Paris. There the war, and what it meant, no more than lends a sinister perfume to the atmosphere of this very funny, very composed, mercilessly observed cakewalk over the edge of a cliff. One of our nonfiction titles, Stanley and Munro Price’s spry and elegant The Road To Apocalypse, is actually about an evangelical Christian: yet the beguiling story of the early 19th-century Christian Zionist enthusiast Lewis Way is, as it turns out, illuminating about the modern alliance between the US Christian Right and militant Israeli nationalists.

It was interesting, though, looking back from our shortlist to see what came in by way of submission: a piecemeal portrait, if you like, not necessarily precisely of Jewish writing or writing about Jewry and Judaism, but (self-selectingly) of what publishers think the Jewish-Quarterly Wingate Prize might think that category means. Naturally, some things came not single spies: anything to do with Israel being one well-represented category; and anything — even peripherally — to do with the Holocaust being the other. The Holocaust, even a lifetime on, is still the big presence in Jewish letters — under pressure, it seems to me, from impulses that pull in different directions: to memorialise it; to resist being defined by it.

We had a handful of what I have come to think of, slightly sourly, as “cache-in-the-attic” books. That is, memoirs or family histories which proceed from a dusty bundle of letters or photographs, discovered mouldering in the loft and giving rise to the author’s investigation of a grandparent’s time in the camps. I talk about these as if they are a distinct genre, and I think there’s a case that they are.

We’ve had the survivor-memoirs; now the second generation interrogates the silences of those who did or did not survive. For this generation, the Holocaust is a historical idea rather than a series of events through which people you know have lived.

The relation of genre to the Holocaust is a particularly difficult one, though. People who talk about “the Holocaust industry” are generally using the phrase sneeringly. But there is, undoubtedly, a vast and still-growing body of literature about the Holocaust; and like other bodies of literature it will tend to segment into genre. The further we come from the raw first-person testimony of the survivor, I’d suggest, the more entrenched those genres will become and the more literary their treatments.

That, I’d suggest, is a problem. Truth-to-fact (and especially the fact of particularity, the singularity of experience) and truth-to-genre do not pull the same way. Cliche — even second-order cliché — deadens and falsifies. This is a practical, a literary, problem in memoir and realist fiction. It’s a bigger problem — a more than literary problem—when it comes to the Holocaust: where “bearing witness” is enjoined; where the historical particularity (indeed, the historical uniqueness) of the Shoah is central article of the way it’s understood in the community.
An approach to this problem — or, in at least one case, a frontal attack on it — is to be found in more than one of the books we shortlisted, as well as in some we didn’t. Both Laurent Binet’s HHhH and Fabrice Humbert’s The Origin of Violence, in different ways, fretted about the way that literary expectations can determine, and in some cases derail, the way we approach the historical record.

The frontal approach was taken by Shalom Auslander in Hope: A Tragedy, about a neurotic Jewish guy in upstate New York who, investigating a noise in his attic, discovers an old, smelly, foul-mouthed and foul-tempered Anne Frank living up there. This is a killingly funny book, and sometimes in gasp-makingly poor taste; but it’s both funny and tasteless to a purpose. The stifling guilt and solemnity, the unimpeachable and overpowering moral mass that the Holocaust (or, rather, the idea of it) represents to writers of Auslander’s generation is summoned and exorcised with the freeing spell of the blown raspberry.

Deborah Levy’s spare and elliptical Swimming Home took a lateral approach. In this constantly wrongfooting novel what looks like realist social comedy gives way to passages of dream or hallucination; from broad comedy to fairytale to Pinteresque sexual menace. Rather in the way that astronomers can deduce the presence of black holes by the way in which they bend light from distant stars, you apprehend the ancient European wrongs at the heart of this novel by the gravitational pull they exert.

But the Holocaust was not the only presence that shaded the fiction we chose. The existential question of Judaism, or Jewry — as incarnated in Israeli statehood — underpinned Amos Oz’s quietly masterful collection of linked short stories Scenes From Village Life. Oz’s village is subject to irruptions of the irrational, to disappearances, unexpected violence, sudden fear. Tel Ilan is a “pioneer village, already a century old” — but one of uncertain foundations; where existential questions feel only provisionally settled; one that you feel could disappear.

It’s customary in these articles for prize judges to end by issuing some sort of bromide about “the rude health of British fiction”, or the “astonishing year for non-fiction” we’ve had, measured against no criterion in particular. I’ll spare you an announcement that it has been “an exceptional year for Jewishness”. We had lots of submissions, many good and a few lousy. These six books were, we think, the best — and we think they are very good indeed. I commend them to you. L’chaim!

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