Judg­ing a book prize

Play­wright Amy Rosen­thal agreed to judge the JQ Win­gate Prize. That meant read­ing 70 Jewish books

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

LAST YEAR, I wrote a play, Fear Of Cherry Blos­som, about in­her­ited fear and the rise of an­tisemitism (it was more fun than it sounds.) In one scene, the pro­tag­o­nist re­calls her trau­ma­tised mother’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with Jewish lit­er­a­ture; her ob­ses­sive com­mit­ment to read­ing, to the ex­clu­sion of every­thing and every­one around her. A few weeks af­ter the pro­duc­tion, I was in­vited to be a judge for the Jewish Quar­terly Win­gate Prize… and I be­came the very woman I’d cre­ated.

The brief for my fel­low-judges and my­self was to read roughly 70 books (fic­tion and non-fic­tion) be­tween Au­gust and Oc­to­ber, hon­ing our pref­er­ences down to a long-list in Novem­ber and a short-list in Jan­uary. It felt a for­mi­da­ble task, but my friend Sa­man­tha El­lis was a judge last year and still found time to fin­ish a play and write Take Courage, her su­perb new book on Anne Bronte. So, with trep­i­da­tion, I said yes. I wanted to learn; to be in­spired; to be made to read.

I was a child who swal­lowed books whole. The­atre was my world and char­ac­ters in books like Noel Streat­feild’s Bal­let Shoes and Mered­ith Dane­man’s Fran­cie and the Boys were my fel­low trav­ellers. My all-time hero­ine was the short-story writer Katherine Mans­field, whose cin­e­mato­graphic eye made me want to write. In my teens I loved D H Lawrence, Rosa­mond Lehmann and, later, the dy­na­mite prose of Car­rie Fisher. But, since start­ing out as a play­wright in 1998, I’ve read more scripts than books and grown ac­cus­tomed to the brevity of di­a­logue.

For six months, my flat has looked like a small in­de­pen­dent book­shop. Fat tomes squat be­tween sofa cush­ions, col­umns of hard­backs serve as cof­fee ta­bles. I’ve strug­gled to fit the read­ing around my own work and at times it’s felt im­pos­si­ble to give each book the fo­cus it de­served. It has also been en­light­en­ing. I’ve read as­ton­ish­ing works that I might never have picked up. It’s been a de­light to de­bate with my fel­low judges, Pro­fes­sor of Mod­ern Lit­er­a­ture Bryan Cheyette, trans­la­tor and ed­i­tor Natasha Lehrer, and nov­el­ist and travel writer Joanna Kavenna.

And it was in­trigu­ing to join this panel from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. All my ex­pe­ri­ence has been in the­atre and I’m a stranger to the lit­er­ary and pub­lish­ing worlds. As a reader, I now re­alise I’m drawn to nar­ra­tives driven by strong cen­tral pro­tag­o­nists, as plays tend to be, and chal­lenged by the nonfiction books with no lead char­ac­ter, or a cast of thou­sands. We all fought for our favourites and lis­tened hard to each other, and we’ve found our­selves mostly in ac­cord.

The more se­ri­ous chal­lenge has been to read some of th­ese books now; in the con­text of the po­lit­i­cal meta­mor­phoses oc­cur­ring around us. The Holo­caust re­mains a mon­u­men­tal sub­ject in both fic­tion and non-fic­tion. An­tisemitism, Fas­cism, and the plight of the refugee are themes to which to­day’s writ­ers are re­turn­ing. In the seedy light of a “post-truth” world in which Holo­caust de­nial is be­ing grotesquely nor­malised, it is vi­tal to keep writ­ing, pub­lish­ing and read­ing th­ese books. But it’s fright­en­ing to read them, es­pe­cially the mighty works of his­tor­i­cal nonfiction, when they re­flect so much of what’s hap­pen­ing to­day.

Jews tra­di­tion­ally tread a fine line be­tween op­ti­mism and pes­simism. The weary shrug and grumpy kvetch are trade­marks of our com­edy; we’re braced for the worst from the womb. On the other hand… there’s al­ways an­other hand! As the chirpy in­tel­lec­tual Ja­cobowsky sings in Jerry Her­man’s mu­si­cal The Grand Tour:

“I’ll be here to­mor­row, alive and well and thriv­ing/ I’ll here to­mor­row, my tal­ent is — sur­viv­ing!”. My dad was a sort of melan­choly op­ti­mist and I’ve trained my­self to hear his voice in my head say­ing, “It’ll be OK.” But it hasn’t been easy, read­ing th­ese books along­side the tweets of the US Pres­i­dent, to be­lieve it will.

Af­ter the Brexit vote and sub­se­quent ex­plo­sion of racism and xeno­pho­bia, it was heart­break­ing to pick up Will Stone’s fine trans­la­tion of Ste­fan Zweig’s Mes­sages From A Lost World, clos­ing as it does with a blaz­ing hope for a united post-War Europe. Wak­ing up to Trump’s ac­ces­sion, it was chill­ing to read Ni­cholas Star­gardt’s The Ger­man War: A Nation Un­der Arms, in which he elu­ci­dates how Hitler used in­tol­er­ance and hate to get elected. Now, when I talk to friends who take a neu­tral stance on pol­i­tics, I think of Ma­man, What Are We Called Now?

by Jac­que­line Mes­nilA­mar, who kept a diary of her ev­ery­day life in Oc­cu­pied Paris, not­ing how peo­ple sim­ply slid their eyes away from the rise of Fas­cism.

At the same time, the act of read­ing is an act of faith. In bleak times, books are a tes­ta­ment of en­durance. I found my­self up­lifted by the can­did brilliance of Jenny Diski’s last book In Grat­i­tude even as it ex­plored her ill­ness and im­pend­ing death; I was cap­ti­vated by Jeremy Gavron’s sparkling por­trait of the mother he lost to sui­cide in A Woman On The Edge Of Time. And I rel­ished the ten­der­ness of Rose Tre­main’s The Gus­tave Sonata, find­ing hope where I ex­pected a dy­ing fall.

Th­ese books weren’t short­listed but I’d rec­om­mend them all. The five books we’ve cho­sen are out­stand­ing; the fi­nal de­ci­sion will be painful. I’ve learned a lot and I’m glad I took the chal­lenge, al­though I’d hes­i­tate to do any­thing sim­i­lar un­less I had more time. And I’m re­minded that be­ing a writer can in­stil a cu­ri­ous pre­science — you write some­thing that you didn’t know you knew. One day I’d like to re­turn to Fear Of Cherry Blos

som and re­write it, bet­ter in­formed by be­com­ing, for a while, the woman who couldn’t stop read­ing.

The 2017 Jewish Quar­terly/Win­gate prize win­ner will be an­nounced on Fe­bru­ary 23 at JW3 dur­ing an event, in as­so­ci­a­tion with Jewish Book Week, to mark 40 years of the prize. Past judges and win­ners will be join­ing the jour­nal­ist and Win­gate trustee Emily Kas­riel and 2017 chair of judges Bryan Cheyette to dis­cuss “What Makes a Book Jewish?”

I wanted to learn; to be in­spired; to be made to read

Amy Rosen­thal and the JQ Win­gate Prize short­list

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