Reasons to be cheerful, 2

dscf0176-2Suite for Barbara Loden won the 2016 Scott Moncrieff Translation Prize! I can’t help but be so proud of this lovely little book, so grateful to everyone who has championed it and so thrilled to have won this prize.

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Cécile Menon and I with Michèle Roberts, who judged the prize along with Ian Patterson, at last week’s prizegiving at the British Library.

Judging the JQ/Wingate Prize

I was very  fortunate indeed to have been invited to judge the 2017 Jewish Quarterly/Wingate Prize. It was a wholly enjoyable and incredibly stimulating experience. The marvelously wide rubric of the 40-year-old prize is “to recognize writing by Jewish and non-Jewish writers that explores themes of Jewish concern in any of its myriad possible forms either explicitly or implicitly.”

As I and my fellow judges – chair of the judges Bryan Cheyette, novelist Joanna Kavenna and playwright Amy Rosenthal – read the many submitted books dealing in an impressive variety of ways with the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s, the fate of refugees refused asylum and mass warfare and its aftermath, we reflected time and again on how history refuses to stay neatly in the past.

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With Philippe Sands – who shared the prize with Ayelet Gundar-Goshen – and Amy Rosenthal at the award evening.

This is a piece I wrote for Haaretz describing how we came to choose the very worthy winners of the prize.

Reasons to be cheerful

The brilliant Dorothy, a Publishing Project has published Suite for Barbara Loden in the US where it’s garnered some wonderful reviews, notably in Harper’s, where Christine Smallwood called it “a little gem”, and in the New Yorker, where Richard Brody describes it as “a remarkable new book that does everything—biography, criticism, film history, memoir, and even fiction, all at once, all out in front.” Nicole Rudick in the Paris Review  calls the long extract published in its Autumn issue one of her “favourite pieces”, and describes the book as “one of the most affecting stories I’ve read in a long time“. And for good measure Edan Lepucki wrote a lovely piece about it in the Millions, explaining why she chose it as one of her three books of 2016 and describing it as “delicious and mysterious”.

Empathy

I can still remember exactly where I was on September 11th 2001 – picking up some clothes from the dry cleaners on Chetwynd Road. The radio was on, a reporter was saying how people in the south tower had been told to stay put. It didn’t really make any sense so I asked the man behind the counter if he knew what was going on.

‘A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.’

It still didn’t make sense but his words were weird enough for me to tell him, ‘I will never forget you or this moment.’ Fifteen years later this is still true. I can remember everything about that moment, except what clothes I had gone in to pick up. The mirror on the wall, the man’s face, the sickly chemical smell, the words of the radio reporter. I went home and switched on the television just in time to see the first tower fall. I called my friend Erin who lived next door. ‘Switch on the television,’ was all I was able to say.

Exactly one week earlier we had been sitting on the steps of 1 World Trade Center. We’d been in New York for a party to celebrate the 50th anniversary of my husband’s family’s arrival in New York. This proximity was extraordinarily difficult to compute and came to seem highly significant, even though rationally I understood that it was insignificant compared to the experiences of people who lived there, who had seen the towers hit, watched them collapse, who had friends or acquaintances or loved ones who were killed. For weeks afterwards, as we sat stunned in front of the unending parade of horrific images on the television, my four year old son built towers  out of lego and then smashed them down with his toy planes. I was too distressed to think coherently about whether I should be hiding the images from him, though I am comforted now that fourteen years later he has no memory of that time at all.

On November 13th, as bullets and bombs ripped through bars and restaurants and the Bataclan and the Stade de France, I recognised that same strange urge for proximity, that same pressing need for connection. People I am no longer really in contact with were sending me messages on Twitter and Facebook from all over the world to check that I was ok. I was moved by their messages. Less so, in the days and weeks that followed, by articles by journalists who were nowhere near Paris that night, almost always affirming that the 10th and 11th arrondissements were where they had once lived, or at least knew someone who had once lived, or had perhaps been to a restaurant near there at some point in the previous couple of weeks or months or even years.

Invited to write by a couple of newspapers I succumbed to the same urge to place myself in proximity to the events. I had in fact been pretty close by that evening, in the 10th arrondissement, at what one of the other journalists who happened to be there described later as ‘that now well-documented dinner party… a circle of light in a very dark moment.’ Although I count myself exceptionally fortunate not to have known anyone caught up in the events, in the weeks since I have come to hear of many friends who lost friends that night.

I realise now that this need to be connected, to be personally affected in some way, to filter the shock through our own experiences and memories, is the most deeply human response to tragedy and horror. As the catastrophe of the refugee crisis continues to unfold, as war in Syria, terror attacks in Nigeria and Turkey and Beirut and Paris and elsewhere continue to destroy lives and devastate entire countries, we are at our most human when our shock turns to empathy. Empathy is what brings volunteers to Calais to work in the Jungle. Empathy is what convinces people to continue to fight injustice – especially now in France where a muscular debate is currently taking place over the government’s proposal to enshrine in the constitution a law to strip dual citizens suspected of involvement in terror of their French nationality. Empathy is what got people out onto the streets of Paris during the COP21 barely two weeks after the Bataclan attacks. Fear turns people inwards, empathy is what keeps people looking outwards.

France, film and fugitives: Translating Barbara Loden

“Earlier this year, with little fanfare, a mysterious new publishing collective of editors, translators and designers called Les Fugitives published an extraordinary novel.

Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger was released in its original French more than three years ago, winning the Prix du Livre Inter in 2012. Since its spring release, Les Fugitives’ masterful English translation by Cécile Menon and Natasha Lehrer has gained the kind of awed word-of-mouth recommendations that are gold dust to publishers large and small.”

Read the rest of Bidisha’s article for the BBC here.

Suite for Barbara Loden, by Nathalie Léger

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Translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon

Published by Les Fugitives.

‘A brilliant little book’ – Valeria Luiselli, winner of the 2015 LA Times Art Seidenbaum Award for her debut novel Faces in the Crowd.

‘An extraordinary book. It reads compulsively and is unlike anything else I have read.’ – Selma Dabbagh

‘Immensely readable, extremely thought-provoking and really quite haunting […] And best of all, it achieves that most elusive feat of never reading like a translation.’ – Lydia Syson

‘Beautifully translated’ – Times Literary Supplement

‘Magnetic’ – Amanda DeMarco, The Rumpus

More

A love affair gone sour

Comme un juif en France is an enthralling documentary from 2007 about the history of Jewish life in France since the end of the 19th century. The film is a nuanced exploration of the complex ebb and flow of the relationship between French Jews and the Republic. I wrote an essay on the film that you can read here.