Reading, writhing, arguing...

By Tracy-Ann Oberman, January 23, 2014

I’m one of the guests on A Good Read this week. It’s one of BBC Radio 4’s longest-running programmes. Two guests join the presenter to discuss their favourite book. It’s a great show as the reviews are conflictingly honest and it usually ends with a bit of argy-bargy when one participant forcefully justifies their choice of book to the others.

I was a guest a few years ago. The lovely Sue Macgregor and I almost came to blows over her dearly-loved choice of Madame Bovary. I loathed it. Emma Bovary got on my nerves — the selfish, deluded ninny.

The other book on the table that day was about Jabez Spencer Balfour, the “greatest scoundrel of the Victorian Age” (yawn). I picked Brave New World because of the prescience of Aldous Huxley’s 1931 view of a looks-obsessed, consumer-driven, thought-conditioned world whose motto, “Ending Is Better Than Mending”, sums up our our current Primark generation. If said store ever need an advertising slogan they should approach the Huxley estate.

This time I’ve fared better. Comedian Richard Herring and presenter Harriet Gilbert’s chosen books were on my “To Read” list anyway.

But I fear it will be me having to justify my choice of book this time. It’s another dystopian vision, a diary of a 12-year-old Jewish New Yorker who documents the world around her as it collapses into meltdown. Radio 4 asked me to make notes on the books I like to read and I laughed out loud to discover that nearly everything I have enjoyed has been dystopian fiction: Zamyatin, Wells, Huxley, Gibson, Asimov, Womack, Atwood, Orwell, these are my Kindle “faves”. I like a good peek into a horrifying future that cleverly holds up the mirror to the present and past.

There is something inherently Jewish about a dystopian novel. An intelligent appraisal, a vein of black humour, acknowledgement that the worst is possible and a deep neurosis that captures a Jewish sensibility. We Jews have seen the horror and the worst of humanity over the centuries. Perhaps we need to keep analysing it in order to understand it.

The persecution of Jews features in my favourite novels. Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale sees Jews forced to convert or be “sent to Israel”, i.e. killed. Robert Harris’s Fatherland is an alternate universe where the Nazis won WW2 and carried out the Final Solution to the point where Jews are legendary creatures. Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s totalitarian world, is where all religion is banned, and the enemy of Big Brother is the Jewish-sounding Emanuel Goldstein.

The industrialised genocide of the Holocaust could have been some futurist’s nightmare turned reality. Most of these books have a truth at their core. My husband tells me it’s time to move genres. He’s just given me Alex Ferguson’s autobiography, although, by all accounts, Man U is heading toward a dystopian nightmare of its own.

Last updated: 1:57pm, January 23 2014