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 non-fiction 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 non-fiction, 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 Mesnil-Amar, 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 Blossom 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?”