Lived resistance

Adina Hoffman wins 2010 JQ-Wingate Prize.

American-Jewish author Adina Hoffman was last night named the winner of the 2010 JQ-Wingate Literary Prize. The prize, whose former winners include Amos Oz, Zadie Smith and WG Sebald, celebrates books by both Jewish and non-Jewish authors that stimulate interest in Jewish culture.

On what Jewish Quarterley's Rachel Lasserson called a "historic day for Jewish-Palestinian relations", Hoffman's biography of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness, was proclaimed winner from a shortlist that also included works by Shlomo Sand and Julia Franck.

"All four judges fell in love with this year's winning book," explained Anne Karpf, chair of the judging panel, describing it as, "combining meticulous research with literary sensitivity and a deep humanity: a beautifully written portrait of lived resistance."

The first published biography of a Palestinian writer in any language, Hoffman's book exposes readers to the hitherto largely unknown world of contemporary Palestinian intellectuals in Israel. As Hoffman herself explains:

Most Westerners see Palestinians through the lens of the newspaper and television set - where they're almost always depicted as either terrorists or faceless victims. The idea of writing about a whole range of very varied and specific individuals almost never enters into the conversation.

Described by Eric Ormsby in the TLS as "not only the biography of a remarkable man, but an act of reclamation against the erosion of memory", Hoffman's book draws attention to the specifically literary implications of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Palestinians, she writes,

were not just unlucky to be the victims in this grand historical drama; they were also cursed to have found themselves, a basically oral people, wrestling rhetorically with perhaps the most print-obsessed people on the planet.

In her introduction to the book, Hoffman expresses the reservations that she, as a Jewish author, felt about tackling such a subject, expecting suspicion from both Arab and Israeli communities. Whether last night's prize will go some way towards proving Hoffman's fears wrong remains to be seen.

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BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.