Wingate Prize: Excerpts & Interviews

Ahead of April 20th’s Prize Event at JW3, London, judges of this year’s JQ-Wingate Literary Prize select a favourite passage and reflect on their task.

Diary of the Fall by Michael Laub, selected by Eva Hoffman

Laub_200pxI often dreamed about the moment of the fall, a silence that lasted a second, possibly two, a room full of sixty people and no one making a sound, as if everyone were waiting for my classmate to cry out, or even just grunt, but he lay on the ground with his eyes closed until someone told everyone else to move away because he might be injured, a scene that stayed with me until he came back to school and crept along the corridors, wearing his orthopaedic corset underneath his uniform in the cold, the heat, the sun and the rain.

If, at the time, someone had asked me what affected me most deeply, seeing what happened to my classmate or the fact that my grandfather had been imprisoned in Auschwitz, and by ‘affect’ I mean to experience something intensely as palpable and ever present, a memory that doesn’t even need to be evoked to appear, I would have had no hesitation in giving my answer.

Q&A with Eva Hoffman

1. History and memoir are two strong genres this year. Do you have any thoughts on why that might be so?
In one sense, the strength of history and memoir among the Wingate submissions is not very surprising – given that, in the last few years, these have been dominant genres in the wider publishing world as well. At the same time, perhaps one can speculate that in Jewish historiography, after a period of necessary preoccupation with the Holocaust, there has been a turn to thinking about the vast history of Jewish life before that – as illustrated in two impressive works of panoramic history on this year’s longlist:  The Story of the Jews, by Simon Schama; and Jews in Poland and Russia by Antony Polonsky.   As for memoir, it is a great genre for exploring idiosyncratic experiences and non-mainstream identities.  One needn’t say more than that!

2. Which of the submissions surprised you?
Nearly all of them…   To open a new book is almost always to enter an unexpected imaginative world. Perhaps, though, I can single out “Hanns and Rudolf” by Thomas Harding, as a book which remained surprising throughout — both for its form, which compellingly interweaves biographies of two protagonists located on starkly opposing sides of history; and for its insights into the mind of a Nazi perpetrator which, in their very fascination, were among the most disturbing I’ve come across in the literature of the Holocaust.

3. How would you describe the role of the JQ Wingate prize?
Clearly, on one level, the role of the Wingate Prize is communal — to focus on worthwhile books which foreground questions of  “Jewishness,” and may be of particular interest to Jewish readers (“Imagined communities,” as well as real ones, are partly created by their literature). But given that Jewish writing is by its nature widely international; given that the prize includes books on Jewish themes, but not necessarily by Jewish authors; and given that such themes are often of urgent concern to non-Jewish readers as well, the Wingate surely has a broader brief and reach.  More simply – but just as centrally — the role of this literary prize is to bring attention to some very good books, which might otherwise not get the exposure – or the readers – they deserve.   Given the difficulties that serious literature of any kind is having these days, this can only be a good thing.

4. Is it possible to judge a poetry collection against work in translation and original work?
Of course, in an ideal world, there would be separate prizes for fiction, non-fiction and poetry.  At the same time, I don’t think that in the judging process, one needs to juxtapose fictional apples against non-fictional oranges.  Each book can be evaluated on its intrinsic excellence (or lack thereof) – even if the criteria of judgment may differ from genre to genre.

Bernard Berenson – A Life in the Picture Trade by Rachel Cohen, selected by Devorah Baum

Cohen_200pxWhile they were in hiding, one of the subjects Berenson took up in his daily writing was the Jewish Question. He attempted to define his position by writing most of an essay, never published, called “Epistle to the Americanized Hebrews.” In it, he began, in a very angry and clear- sighted way, by outlining the origins and progress of anti- Semitism in Europe. He saw Jews as a convenient scapegoat for capitalism:

It is notorious that whenever comfortable society in the remoter past, and capitalism in recent days, wanted to draw attention away from its own privileges, and its own exploitation of the working classes, (whether agricultural, handicraft or manufacturing), they tried to make out it was the doing of the Jews, gave them up to massacre as so lately in Rumania, Holy Russia & now in all Hitler- savaged lands; or to contumely and contempt in less barbarous countries.

Perhaps Berenson here alluded to the share of “contumely and contempt” that had been part of his own experience. Late in the essay, he simply stated that anti- Semitism would not end “within our historical horizon.” His strongest hope was a meager one: “I can promise the Jew pleasant intervals between massacres and, further, that these intervals may be extended.” He saw no hope in resistance and instead conceived of two starkly opposed alternatives, which he repeated in various places and with which he concluded the draft of his essay, “The alternative remains: complete isolation or assimilation.”

Isolation, of course, was terrible to him, and assimilation had been the choice of his whole life. In his essay, he lectured his readers on aspects of assimilation they ought not to neglect: “Will you listen to my advice, Jews of America?” His recommendations were an odd combination, some of them things he had done and some he decidedly hadn’t: do not be ostentatious, do not excite envy, try to buy land and live close to it, “take to sports,” do not make a lot of money, “intermarry to the utmost feasible extent,” and above all remember not to be arrogant. The lament of exile merges into the plea for assimilation: “You whom Hitler for years to come has reduced to being a thing apart, a stranger in your land, cannot be too modest, too unassuming, too discreet.” Remember, read his final injunction, “what Heine more than a hundred years ago said to his fellow- scapegoats: ‘In order to be taken for silver you must be of gold.’”

Berenson apparently gave this manuscript to his cousin Lawrence Berenson to read and edit; Lawrence Berenson, despite his great admiration for B.B., struck through this passage of advice. After the war, Berenson did mitigate some aspects of his stance. He came, for example, to feel that establishing the state of Israel was necessary. Still, his basic sense was that the situation of a Jewish person was a tragic one: the Jew was either to be cut off from other people or from himself. The way he admonished the Jews of America had a close parallel in his self-criticism. Sometimes he preferred to feel that the sources of his failures were not in the world but within himself; this was better than to think that he had been outfoxed from the very beginning.

Q&A with Devorah Baum

1. History and memoir are two strong genres this year. Do you have any thoughts on why that might be so?
‘The Selfie is in’, someone said to me recently, and that does seem to have something to do with contemporary lives lived increasingly online in perpetual acts of self-curation, not to mention the colonisation of other media, and TV especially, by the ‘reality’ industry.  Finding the real outside of mediated ‘reality’ and finding the self outside of the Selfie has perhaps become such a major preoccupation at a time when we seem to be more than ever at risk of losing both, and the huge international success of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s multi-volumed memoir minutely describing his own life in all of its banality seems a testament to this.  Jewish life-writing is a very well established genre and a genre that strikes me as particularly well suited to the inherently dramatic aspects of the kind of diasporic lives that more and more of the world’s population are now facing.  Various parts of the world and various chapters of history are illuminated in the fantastic memoirs and biographies on this year’s long list which show just how wide-ranging and illuminating the Jewish experience continues to be.  The histories on the long list are likewise vivid, alive, unstuffy, and unafraid to court controversy.  These histories take Jewish history and show how creative its telling can be, which is partly the point that Simon Schama is making when he intentionally calls the compelling first volume of his masterly turn to Jewish history The Story of the Jews.  It’s an old story, certainly, but told by this great modern storyteller as you’ve never heard it told before.

2. Which of the submissions surprised you?
I was surprised at how many surprised me.  There was some wonderfully inventive writing by young writers in fiction and poetry.  I was struck for instance by the most brilliant novel, Diary of the Fall, by a young Brazilian writer I had never previously heard of, Michel Laub (it’s his first work to be translated into English but I expect there will be more), while the witty but serious Israeli writer Dror Burstein, author of Netanya, has taken the Israeli novel in surprising new directions, making what we think of as a significant departure for Israeli literature, and I was thrilled by the freshness and daring of an astonishingly gifted young American poet, Eryn Green, whose poetry collection Eruv won me over completely.  Other submissions that surprised me were books that I could not imagine I would have much of an interest in beforehand, such as Rachel Cohen’s beautifully written biography of the art dealer Bernard Berenson – the elegance of her prose and the insight she has into her subject made that a remarkably fascinating and eye-opening read for me.  Then there is the wonderfully immersive experience of Josh Cohen’s psychoanalytically informed The Private Life, a book which revealed to me a great many things, including, from the perspective of this prize, the private (as opposed to communal) dimensions of Jewishness.  And I guess the surprise of Gary Shteyngart’s memoir, Little Failure, was that it didn’t fail at all – Little Failure is a big success and hilarious from beginning to end.

3. How would you describe the role of the JQ Wingate prize?
As I understand it, the role of the prize is to bring Jewishness, whatever that may be (and part of the fun of judging the prize lies precisely in debating that endlessly controversial question), to the general reader.  It is also a literary prize, which doesn’t mean it is a prize intended for literary fiction, but it does make the quality of writing something to bear in mind even when looking at nonfiction.  I was perhaps even more moved, for instance, by the quality of Ari Shalev’s writing in his much discussed history of Israel, My Promised Land, than by all the extraordinary things that book has to share with its readers – and I could say the same of Nick Barlay’s beautifully complex family memoir Shattered Ghosts. My sense of our long list is that all the books on it are by authors who have been inspired in some way by the idea of Jewishness, whether that pertains to the style of their writing or the content of the work or both.  Part of the brilliance of the prize is that it refuses to settle on any one definition of Jewishness and the books each year are in themselves capable of expanding what this unfailingly diffuse term can come to include and mean.  The role of the prize is also to bring attention to excellent works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry that readers might otherwise have overlooked – naturally, it is to be hoped too that this will help to boost the sales and profile of the authors.

4. Is it possible to judge a poetry collection against work in translation and original work?
It isn’t easy, and perhaps ultimately it isn’t really possible, only we are of course led by the terms of the prize to judge which of the works brings originality and flair in the translation of the idea of Jewishness today over to a general readership.  Then again, judging any prize is hardly an exact science, and even in reaching a long list we judges had to argue over pretty much every title (many excellent works were sadly not able to make it even this far, often because we deemed them slightly less applicable within the terms of the Wingate Prize than certain others).  What I would say is that all the works on the long list seem somehow to me to be able to take their place alongside each other without being overshadowed on account of the genres in which they are written.  There are some excellent works in translation which  have managed to keep alive a sense of unique authorial voice and tonality, especially the, to my mind, magnificent and superbly translated Polish bestseller Chasing the King of Hearts by Hannah Krall, while Zeruya Shalev’s highly allusive and subtle prose has been remarkably preserved in her powerful and affecting Israeli novel The Remains of Love.

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart, selected by Gabriel Josipovici

Shteyngart_200px“Among the many striking passages in the books we had to read, Gary Shteyngart’s marvellously perceptive – and funny – description of prejudice stands out” – Gabriel Josipovici

‘There are decent public schools in Queens, but we are scared of blacks. If you put together two Soviet immigrants in Queens or Brooklyn circa 1979, the subject of shvartzes or “the Spanish with their transistor radios” would come up by the third sentence, after the topic of asthma inhalers for little Igor or Misha is exhausted. But listen carefully to those conversations. There’s hatred and fear, sure, but just a little down the line, laughter and relief. The happy recognition that, as unemployed and clueless as we are, there is a reservoir of disgust in our new homeland for someone other than ourselves. We are refugees and even Jews, which in the Soviet Union never won you any favors, but we are also something that we never really had the chance to appreciate back home. We are white.

Over in the leafier parts of Kew Gardens and Forest Hills, the tribal hatred of blacks and Hispanics stands out partly because there aren’t really any blacks or Hispanics. My mother’s one encounter with “criminality” on Union Turnpike: A big white cracker in a convertible pulls up to her, takes out his penis, and shouts, “Hey, baby, I have a big one!”

Still, everyone knows what to do when you encounter a dark-skinned person: You run.

Because they want to rape us so very badly, us in our jackets made of real Polish leather. And “the Spanish with their transistor radios,” you know what else they have, other than the transistor radios? Switchblades. So if they see a seven-year-old Russian boy walking down the street with his asthma inhaler, they’ll come over and cut him to death. Prosto tak. Just like that.’

Q&A with Gabriel Josipovici

1. History and memoir are two strong genres this year. Do you have any thoughts on why that might be so?
No idea.

2. Which of the submissions surprised you?
Dror Burstein’s NATANYA – A surprise and a joy to find an Israeli novel which is light, airy, eccentric and serious at the same time, and which does not take itself too seriously.

3. How would you describe the role of the JQ Wingate prize ?
Everyone has their own view of what the Prize should be, but I am sure all would agree that it seeks to bring to the notice of the public the best writing, in whatever field, either by Jewish writers or that in some way illuminates Jewish experience, past and present.

4. Is it possible to judge a poetry collection against work in translation and original work ?
Everything is possible, but having to choose one winner in a field that includes  history, memoir, critical studies, fiction and poetry is obviously difficult. One hopes of course that one work will impress all the judges as the only possible winner. That, however,  is unlikely.

“Every Blessed Thing Is Elusive” from Eruv, selected by George Szirtes

ERUVAs much as you wish
we could be
a seat from which
with all the bravery
of Ely or Levi, or any
other angels of this
clear lilynight sky
we can be—I know
how much Hanna and the sea
changed me. The truth is green
things never really die—I calm down
at the sight—I don’t
understand protest songs
in the street but know sky blue wool
with my grandmother is beautiful
in Israel—and I let go, open up to
tantivy on rooftops, awake
as my name might mean, bent
down branch under tender
everything, so relax—
We go over the cliffs at last

Q&A with George Szirtes

1. History and memoir are two strong genres this year. Do you have any thoughts on why that might be so?
I don’t really since I imagine they’d have strong claims every year. The past is forever disappearing and we are constantly having to reinterpret and reinvent it. The great memory event – the Holocaust – is at the stage when its documentary claims are mostly established  and its direct witnesses dead, but its hold on fiction is still uncertain and occasionally questionable. The struggle is between memory and form. History is different – a personal distance is assumed so it is always up for grabs, always liable to correction.

2. Which of the submissions surprised you?
Netanya by Dror Burstein delighted me in many respects. Its apparent ambling and its cosmic obsessions kept opening doors and perspectives.

3. How would you describe the role of the JQ Wingate prize ?
I am still learning it. My personal assumption is that the books entered have some bearing on specifically Jewish life. Half the problem is working out how far that life extends.

4. Is it possible to judge a poetry collection against work in translation and original work ?
It is very difficult but sometimes necessary. As in this case where there are no prizes for particular categories. Being a poet and reader of poetry I am glad to argue for it.

5. As a translator yourself, what effect do you think translation has of the efficacy of expressing Jewishness? (see Red Love, Chasing the King of Hearts, Diary of the Fall etc)
Should I put my translator’s hat on I am likely say that translation’s task is to express whatever the original text is looking to express but in terms of the receiving language. I don’t think Jewishness is a specific category in that enterprise

6. As a writer of poetry, what does it mean to you to have a poetry collection in the long list?
Deeply delighted. There were three poetry books available, all very different, all of a very high quality.  The deciding factor for choosing Eruv by Eryn Green was that it bears more directly on specifically Jewish life and consciousness.

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