A pretty much religious key to success

Both the two novels by Jewish authors on the Man Booker longlist announced last week depict the claustrophobic anxieties of a young heroine locked within a powerful family hinterland. In Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English, sparked by memories of her Hungarian grandparents, the family is, as she puts it, “the really embarrassing foreign kind”. In Eve Harris’s The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, “family” is a source of ingrained authority.

The award-winning Mendelson’s presence on the list is understandable. She has always had the ability to strike a chord with readers whose personal histories have virtually nothing in common with hers, at least on the surface. Where her characters are Jewish they tend to be gently, subtly so. They are not “in disguise” as gentiles — which is how Jews intent on reading between the lines view characters of unattributed ethnicity created by such leading Jewish writers as Anita Brookner, Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller.

By contrast, the inclusion of first-time novelist Harris on the longlist is a major surprise. The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is overtly and inescapably Jewish. Readers seeking genuine Jewish characters have no need to search for the latent beneath the manifest here.

But can such a novel, set squarely within the boundaries of Charedi Hendon, achieve anything like the kind of universal appeal that Mendelson can command? Indeed it can. It is a truism that authors write best about that of which they know. You start from the local and, if the writing is good enough, the universal can take care of itself.

Jacobson’s prize spoke for intelligent readers

But what if the local is itself localised, turned inward with scant consideration for the outside world? The answer is still a resounding yes. We have come a long way from the mid-20th century, when non-Jewish writers could employ casual bigotry and Jewish authors fought shy of Jewish themes — or of admitting their own Jewishness. For example, in the classic Hangover Square (1941), Patrick Hamilton shoehorns in a character called Montague, solely for him to be described as a “vast, burly, rich-voiced appalling Jew” — and then play no further part in the novel.

Roland Camberton won the 1951 Somerset Maugham award for his Bloomsbury novel, Scamp. His next, Rain on the Pavements, surprisingly set in Hackney, had a Jewish protagonist. It is not known whether he ever wrote again.
Neither was it known that Camberton’s real name was Henry Cohen. His successful contemporary, Alexander Baron, changed his name from Bernstein (at the behest of his publisher, Jonathan Cape). A far cry from 2010, when the unmistakably Jewish-named Howard Jacobson won the Man Booker Prize for the unmistakably Jewish The Finkler Question.

Yet many of little faith — including me, when reading The Finkler Question in advance of publication — doubted that anyone non-Jewish would be able to make head or tail of it. Some maven I am! When former poet laureate Andrew Motion, awarding Jacobson his £50,000 prize at the Guildhall, piled on the praise, he seemed to speak for intelligent readers everywhere.

Even so, similar doubts were expressed last year about Francesca Segal’s The Innocents, so firmly was it set in Jewish Hampstead Garden Suburb. And in 2006, Naomi Alderman also had Jews wondering how gentile readers could possibly be interested in her debut novel, Disobedience, set even more firmly in religious Hendon. But the general acclaim for Alderman was wide and loud. Both she and Segal have since collected literary prizes as if they were bottle-tops.

Now, Eve Harris’s still more frum Hendon novel — the first few pages of which alone include, untranslated, the terms shomer nageah, niddah, rogellach, ganif and others — has received the British literary establishment’s seal of approval. It deserves it and I hope it is on Man Booker’s shortlist in September.

When Jewish books are the real thing — well-written, unapologetic, unvarnished and undisguised — they will reach out beyond a Jewish readership. Here’s the non-Jewish Edward Docx reviewing The Finkler Question in the Observer: “Jacobson is only using Judaism as his ‘way in’… mining his immediate milieu as a way of directly unearthing the deeper questions of family, society, belief, culture, relationships — the underlying nature of humanity.”

Almost English, by Charlotte Mendelson (Mantle) and The Marrying of Chani Kaufman (Sandstone Press) will both be published later this month

Last updated: 2:26pm, August 7 2013