For more than five years I managed to avoid judging the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Prize. There was always some pressing reason, professional or personal, not to, and then the thought of that stack of reproachful books demanding to be read in every corner of what laughably passes for leisure time… This year I succumbed, and how pleased I am that I did. Being a judge made me read a lot of books that I’d wanted but hadn’t got round to, but it also introduced me to some that I’d never heard of, including our eventual winner. It wasn’t only pleasure, of course. Reading the books submitted confirmed something I’d always thought: that ‘of Jewish interest’ doesn’t, of itself, make a book interesting. There were books here that would never have got commissioned in today’s more austere publishing market, books that were clearly ‘cut and paste’ affairs, books that were simply extended articles. We soon realised too that the preoccupation with both the Holocaust and the Middle East hadn’t abated. Of course these subjects loom large in Jewish life, but where are the original fresh voices looking at other aspects of Jewish history or contemporary diaspora Jewish life?
My fellow judges – Robert Cassen, Joseph Findlay and Naomi Gryn – and I had no difficulty arriving at a long list; it was when we came to draw up the short list that things got interesting. Julia Franck’s The Blind Side of the Heart (Harvill Secker), translated from the German by Anthea Bell, has one of the most compelling openings of any novel I’ve read, but then turns into such a bizarre, baroque portrayal of an almost psychotic mother – someone you wouldn’t want to spend time with, even fictionally – that I abandoned it. Robert’s enthusiasm made me pick it up again, and I’m glad that I did. This is the shocking story of a life bookended by two world wars, of how an individual can survive (in a fashion) despite the attenuation of hope. A bleak, uncompromising novel with a kind of austere beauty, it has already won the prestigious Deutsche Buchpreis.
Adina Hoffman’s My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness (Yale University Press) is, remarkably, the first ever biography of a Palestinian writer in any language. Through the life of the Palestinian poet Taha Mohammed Ali, Hoffman – an American Jew living in Jerusalem – evokes with extraordinary vividness Palestinian life in the 20th century. In places it reads almost like a detective story as Hoffman doggedly, and painfully, excavates the truth about how Taha’s village, Saffuriya, was ruthlessly effaced and replaced by an Israeli village Tzippori. This is a portrait of lived resistance, and how we remember only what we can bear to.
Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room (Little, Brown) brilliantly tells the story of the 20th century through the fate of a 1930s Czech house, designed as part of the modernist project to bring rationality and light to bear on human relations. Instead the dark arrives, but Mawer manages to depict it freshly through the gripping story of the building and the fate of its inhabitants, balancing the terrible pain of loss with the possibility of reparation. Not one of the Wingate judges finished this Booker short-listed novel dry-eyed.
And then there was Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso), translated from the Hebrew by Yael Lotan. Sand applies ideas about nationalist mythologies developed by Benedict Anderson and Ernest Gellner to Israel, and argues that these should be critically scrutinised in the same way as, say, the founding myths of Britain or France. He gets us to revisit historical orthodoxies about forced exile and mass conversion, to produce an unsettling but highly challenging account of Jewish history. Sand’s book is the most controversial on our list, and one judge – Naomi Gryn – was deeply unhappy about its inclusion. She argued that sections, such as that on the Khazars, promote ideas that have already been widely discredited. Joseph and I felt strongly that the book deserved a place on the shortlist not only because of its importance but also because it absolutely met the criteria of the Wingate prize: to stimulate interest in and awareness of themes of Jewish concern among the general public. Robert, though he thought it flawed, also argued in favour of its being shortlisted. Of course we were only doing what book prize juries famously do: argue and disagree. Factor in that we were a bunch of Jews (and what do Jews famously do? Argue and disagree), and if we couldn’t have come up with the odd broiges we would surely have failed in our moral duty. Joseph devised a solution: to be shortlisted a book didn’t need unanimous approval (that way a bland shortlist lay), only the passionate support of at least two judges. Sand had this so on it went, with the proviso that Naomi’s profound reservations would be made clear. Personally I was disappointed, if not surprised, by some of the outrage excited by the inclusion of Sand on the shortlist. Of course I understand that the Middle East is a sensitive subject that provokes strong feelings. But is Anglo-Jewry, or some sections of it, now so fragile that it can’t tolerate honest dissent, can’t brook vigorous yet respectful debate? Instead, in some quarters bad faith was imputed to the author himself (as well as, by implication, to the judges), his integrity was impugned, and the insults got pretty ad hominem. What was particularly dispiriting was the assumption that our shortlist was somehow ideological, rather than – as was the case – arrived at on literary grounds. (Had we spent some of our precious discussion time comparing ideologies – we did not – I think we would have found ourselves a seriously divergent lot.)
When it came to the winner, there was no disagreement. We had all fallen in love with Adina Hoffman’s book, its eloquence and profound humanity. It’s a book that leaves you seeing the situation in Middle East through different eyes, a book as interested in the anthropology of making coffee as the poetry of landscape, which beautifully traces the connection between literature and life. I’m so pleased to have read it and played a part in introducing it to others.
Anne Karpf is a British writer, journalist, and sociologist. Born in London to Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivors, she studied at Oxford, and then worked in BBC Television. She has been a contributing editor to Cosmopolitan, a book reviewer for The Times, and for seven years was radio critic of the Guardian. After gaining a postgraduate degree in the Sociology of Health and Illness, she taught medical students at London University. She broadcasts regularly on BBC radio and television, and writes for many national newspapers on women, health, social, political, and Jewish issues. She is also a regular columnist in the Guardian. Anne Karpf lives in London and has two daughters.
The War After: Living With The Holocaust (1996)