In only its second year, the revamped Man Booker International Prize for Fiction has further consolidated its relevance with a dramatic choice; the award has been won by a major literary figure, Israel's David Grossman, with A Horse Walks into a Bar.
Nick Barley, chair of the 2017 judging panel, described it “an ambitious high-wire act of a novel”, which Grossman “pulled off spectacularly”.
The diverse and impressive shortlist of six novels comprised four men and two women, representing five countries and five languages. There were two Israelis: Grossman and Amos Oz; three Europeans: Mathias Énard of France, Norwegian Roy Jacobsen and Danish writer Dorthe Nors, and one South American: Argentine Samanta Schweblin, who filled the role of an exciting dark horse to an outcome which many observers saw as being decided between the Israelis.
A Horse walks into a Bar, which was among the most widely praised books published last year, will not only be a popular winner but will delight Grossman’s international readership which was established as long ago as the publication of his second novel, See Under: Love.
Ironically, the winning novel featuring a despairing, often strident, at times coarse, stand-up comedian regaling his life’s story to a bewildered nightclub audience looking for entertainment, not a confession, has been written by the most unassuming of men.
Many things make A Horse Walks into A Bar intriguing, not least the fact that Grossman chose to adopt such a stark, raw and uncharacteristically brash tone. His central character, a stand-up comic in meltdown, has reached a point of no return. Few of Grossman’s readers would have expected Dovaleh G to make quite as raucous an entrance, never mind to fire off some preliminary sexist comments at an audience member. This is a novel which demands – and rewards – patience.
Grossman, a teller of truths, of gentle of voice, firm in resolve, and Oz have both often been cited as likely contenders for the Nobel Prize literature laureate.
Criticism at home
Now 63, Grossman has been criticised in his homeland for being too reasonable. As an Israeli, he has committed the unpardonable offence of questioning his country’s occupation of Palestinian territories. He has always been brave and outspoken, yet capable of writing literary fiction, which has been recognised as exactly that and not merely as polemic.
In person he is a slight, intense, articulate man with an obvious, if somehow modest belief in his own work. He has a mission and has never forgotten that even at the time he was being applauded internationally for See Under: Love, his second novel, he was being described as the journalist whose volume of reportage, The Yellow Wind, had presented so objective an examination of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that the only country to be angered by it was Israel.
His fearless stance, based on nine weeks’ living in the occupied territories, speaking with and listening to, both sides, cost him his job. Grossman never returned on his former occupation; he still thinks like a journalist and is proud to have been one.
Regardless of the personalised political criticism of him, See Under: Love enjoyed almost instant success, selling more than 75,000 copies on publication in Israel in 1985. He was feted but did not become complacent – he never has, it is not in his nature.
When I first met him in 1990 he looked like a younger, less dishevelled Woody Allen, intense if without the angst, very friendly except not so quick with the one-liners.
For a kindly, down-to-earth, sad-eyed individual who is very much clued into the politics of the day, Grossman then and now tends to express himself with the deliberation of an artist; his use of language in conversation shares the measured eloquence of his fiction. For him Hebrew is “a playful, flexible, juicy” medium for a writer.
While his early work was translated by Betsy Rosenberg, in Jessica Cohen whose collaboration with him quickly culminated with a magnificent version of To the End of the World (2010) – Grossman’s most masterful achievement to date – he has found a sympathetic and astute interpreter of his work. Fittingly they will share this year’s £50,000 (€57,000) prize as the Man Booker International contentiously places the translator on an equal footing to the writer.
David Grossman was born in Jerusalem in 1954. His father was the son of a bus driver who had left Poland as an eight year old with his widowed mother in 1935. His mother is Israeli-born, also of Polish parents.
Aware that he is not a concentration camp survivor and that the most frequent criticism his early fiction received was directed at his not being descended from camp survivors, Grossman tends to make sure that interviewers are clearly informed that his family did not experience the Holocaust.
Considering that so many Western novelists have based novels in the camps, it is interesting that Grossman has been reprimanded for doing so. He recalls facing accusations along the lines of daring to write about something which did not affect him. Such thinking would appear to place many novels under scrutiny.
Marked by war
Poverty not war drove Grossman’s family from Europe. Yet war has always been a part of his life; he grew up in a military-dominated society. In 2006, his son Uri was killed some two weeks before his 21st birthday, just as he neared the end of his national service.
Images of Grossman, not as a famous writer but as an abruptly aged, bereaved father, went around the world. The dry earth shifted in the breeze while he delivered a tender eulogy at his son’s graveside and also recited the Jewish prayer of mourning.
In a gesture not only to his beloved son but also as a protest against the human cost of war Grossman wrote To the End of the Land in which Ora, a middle-aged Israeli mother is eager to celebrate her son’s completion of his military service, only for him to decide to volunteer for further action. Her response is to set out on a hike. Her belief is simple and profound; as long as she walks, he will remain safe.
In 1991, when I was about to interview Grossman at the time of the British publication of his first novel, The Smile of the Lamb, Uri, had only been five years old, one of two small sons, the other called Yonatan. A daughter, Ruti, was born later.
The Smile of the Lamb, the first novel in Hebrew to explore the occupation, had been published in 1983 in Israel. Its English-language publication had come about because of the international success of See Under: Love in which Grossman had taken the real-life experience of Bruno Schultz, a Polish Jewish writer born in 1892, and placed them in a fantastical recreation of war-time Danzig and appeared to be acknowledging a stylistic debt to Gunter Grass. Various stories are interwoven in the closing section, most of which are an analogy for Jewish history shaped by suffering.
Grossman had intended to return to London for a round of interviews, pleased The Smile of the Lamb, a more conventional novel than See Under: Love, had been received as a literary work not a polemic.
It was January 1991; by mid-month the Gulf War had broken out and Grossman cancelled his author tour to Britain. His home number in Jerusalem was sent to me and suddenly there he was on the phone, as clear as if in the next room, albeit with my own voice echoing back. He thought the interview by phone was a wonderful solution only to apologise and ask me to call back as the air raid siren had sounded and he needed to hurry to the shelter.
When we resumed our conversation he described the ordeal of wearing a gas mask, “they stink of rubber and make your face sweat” .
It also reminded him of being in a similar situation when his father went off to war in Sinai in 1956, and again more vividly in 1967, when he was 13, and his father had put tape on the windows.
There were many interruptions as Grossman hurried back and forth between the phone and the shelter. He thanked me for my patience; it was as if I was “watching” a movie, except there was no acting only real-life terror complete with the thud of distant shelling.
All his life Grossman has been a witness and a participant. He once told me that he wrote in order to understand but realised it didn’t work that way. He may be wrong though; David Grossman has opened many doors for readers.
The Best of David Grossman
To The End of the Land: A mother's vigil for a beloved son takes the form of an odyssey. Immense personal suffering shapes this heartfelt novel. Translated by Jessica Cohen.
See Under: Love: Early Grossman; a Holocaust narrative inspired by Bruno Schultz and stylistically shaped by Grass. Translated by Betsy Rosenberg.
The Book of Intimate Grammar: One of Grossman's great themes is childhood. In this novel Aron retreats from leadership of the local boy's gang into fantasy as his friends abandon imagination and look to adult reality. Translated by Betsy Rosenberg.
The Book of Intimate Grammar: One of Grossman's great themes is childhood. In this novel Aron reverts from leadership of the local boy's gang into fantasy as his friends abandon imagination and look to adult reality. translated by Rosenberg
The Zig Zag Kid: Another boyhood story, more playful perhaps. It is funny and filled with colourful asides. Grossman allows his imagination free rein – a very good place to start if you have yet to read his work. Translated by Betsy Rosenberg.
Lovers and Strangers: Two novellas with all the pain and urgency of contemporary life everywhere as Grossman dissects the vulnerability and power shifts of relationships. Translated by Jessica Cohen
Man Booker International shortlist in detail
- Compass by Mathias Énard (France), translated by Charlotte Mandell, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions
- The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (Norway), translated by Don Bartlett, Don Shaw, published by Maclehose
- A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman (Israel), translated by Jessica Cohen, published by Jonathan Cape
- Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), translated by Megan McDowell, published by Oneworld
- Judas by Amos Oz (Israel), translated by Nicholas de Lange, published by Chatto & Windus
- Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (Denmark), translated by Misha Hoekstra, published by Pushkin Press