Acclaimed Israeli author David Grossman, who has won the Man Booker International prize for the year’s best fiction in translation for his latest novel, “A Horse Walked into a Bar,” said Thursday that he hoped that his works would help outsiders understand the “intensity of our country”
Speaking to The Times of Israel from London where he accepted the prize this week, Grossman said with a deprecating chuckle that even though has won many awards over the course of his writing career, this particular win “feels good.”
The book was described by Nick Barley, chair of the Man Booker International Prize panel of judges, as a work that “shines a spotlight on the effects of grief, without any hint of sentimentality… We were bowled over by Grossman’s willingness to take emotional as well as stylistic risks: every sentence counts, every word matters in this supreme example of the writer’s craft.”
Grossman’s novel tells the story of Dovale, a down-on-his-luck standup comic who gives a raw, confessional routine in a rundown Netanya nightclub.
“I know him very personally,” said Grossman of his complicated protagonist.
“Even if I didn’t know him before I started writing, he became me, I became him,” he said. “When you write a character, when I write a character, I start with a kind of blindness. It’s why I am doomed and I struggle with it and then gradually I feel that, yes, I should write this character because it tells me something about me that nobody else can tell me about me. It’s quite a pleasure to surrender to it.”
Like many of Grossman’s novels, “A Horse Walks Into A Bar” utilizes the protagonist’s personal history to describe his country, using Dovale’s tragic life as a way of showcasing Israeli life and society.
That’s completely intentional, said Grossman.
“Literature is a wonderful way to make people acquainted with certain realities,” he said. “Our reality is so complex and so multilayered that maybe prose is the best way to describe it with all its shades.”
He recalled a conversation with the late Israeli president Shimon Peres, known as a tremendous reader, where Peres told him that whenever he would visit a new foreign country he would ask to read three books of three major writers.
“Only then would he gain an understanding of the country,” said Grossman.
“I’m always writing about Israel and I know and understand some of the codes of this country,” said Grossman. “It makes me more passionate about it, and I think that with a book like that, people outside of Israel can get the intensity of our country. Everyone who comes [to Israel] is quite stunned by the emotionality of people and the straightforwardness. This is the message of this book.”
Grossman, who discussed the book and all his writing at a recent Times of Israel event in Jerusalem, is the first Israeli author to win the Man Booker.
He was shortlisted along with Amos Oz for Oz’s “Judas,” for this year’s prize, and remarked on the improbability of their being two Israeli candidates.
“It’s something quite amazing for such a small country,” said Grossman. “And with a language that has a long history but was dormant as a spoken language. Suddenly there is such literature written in it, and Hebrew literature with many other writers, that it has become more and more popular in the world.”
This is the second year that the Man Booker International Prize is being awarded for an individual work of an author, and not as a career honor, in order to increase the profile of international fiction in English-speaking countries.
Unusually for a literature award, the Man Booker Prize of 50,000 pounds ($64,000) is also split evenly between the writer and the translator.
Grossman’s translator for “A Horse Walked Into A Bar” is Jessica Cohen, who said she was feeling “very elated.”
“Translators tend to write in the shadows and to some extent, we’re comfortable that way, but widespread recognition is really a good thing, not just for me, but for translators,” said Cohen.
For Cohen, the challenges of translating Grossman’s protagonist Dovale were multiple, given the intensity of detail and descriptions that often referred to cultural references and places that even young Israeli readers wouldn’t necessarily know.
“But for most Israelis, those names and neighborhoods evoke a certain place and class, and to get that across in English without too much explication was very challenging,” she said.
Grossman said he hoped that winning the Man Booker International Prize, and its platform for international fiction, would “give an echo to the things I’ve been saying for 40 years.”
The novel is his eleventh work of fiction, part of the “ongoing conversation” he has, said Grossman.
“Every book that I wrote could not have been written without the book that came before it,” he said. “For me, they are all one long book that sometimes I have to cut arbitrarily.”