Shalom Auslander wins 2013 Wingate Prize

"God-wise, I'm kinda fucked".

Last night Shalom Auslander was awarded the 2013 Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize for his novel Hope: A Tragedy. The £4000 prize, for "Jewish and non-Jewish writers that explore themes of Jewish concern", was awarded to Auslander as part of Jewish Book Week, which will run at King's Place until the end of the week.

During Auslander's skyped acceptance speech he expressing shock that the prize didn't go to Juno Diaz or Hilary Mantel, "since she seems to win everything". He also witheld thanks from God, his editor, the academy and anyone else involved.

Hope: A Tragedy centres on Solomon Kugel, a down-at-heel office jobber and pschotheraphy patient, attempting to protect his family from the horrors of the world, urban and historical. Kugel has bought a house in the country, as did Auslander, while preparing to write the book. "I’ve moved to the country but there’s nowhere to walk after dinner," he told the New Statesman's culture editor Jonathan Derbyshire last year. "Your idea of nature is postcards, nice trees, but it’s fucking violent. I’m on a cliff and the winds from November to March just blast at the house relentlessly. Animals, bears, even the deer, are like fucking gang members where I live. You think, 'Oh, it’s deer,' and then they look at you and you think, 'This thing is going to kill me if I go near the faun.'"

To add to his woes, Kugel finds that a portion of the house is already occupied. Typing and feasting on matzos in the attic is a beleagured and catatonic Anne Frank, tirelessly struggling with the follow-up to her first and only hit: the diary. Auslander recalls visiting his agent shortly after finishing the manuscript. She asked him:

“So is this a comment on Roth?” And I just said, “What are you talking about?” She was like, “You know, in his book where Anne Frank is alive.” My response was: “You have to be fucking kidding me.” When my memoir Foreskin’s Lament came out, it was the same: “Oh, so you’re intentionally doing Portnoy’s Complaint?” And in my head I was like, “If anything, it was Angela’s Ashes."

Hope: A Tragedy makes a plaything of the darkest moments of the 20th century. Kugel and the house's former owner, a man of German descent, wrestle the politics of evicting the century's best-loved innocent victim. "Six million he kills," Kugel thinks, unthinkably, "and this one gets away."

Click here to read the interview in full.

Shalom Auslander.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Why do we talk to ourselves? A new book investigates the voices in our heads

The Voices Within by Charles Fernyhough is an ear-opening book – and an important corrective to myths about schizophrenia, the brain and even our self of sense.

You’re going to be late for that meeting; you haven’t even left the house. But where’s your wallet? It’s not in your pocket, it’s not in your bag – come on, come on, you’ve got to find it. Where on Earth could it be? If you’re like me, that “come on, come on” will be sounding vividly in your head as you stomp from room to room. You’re issuing a silent instruction to yourself. But how does this inner voice really work? What purpose does it serve? Does everyone hear something similar? These are some of the questions that Charles Fernyhough sets out to investigate in The Voices Within.

Fernyhough is an interesting fellow. A professor at Durham University, he began his career in developmental psychology, with a focus on social, emotional and cognitive development. But in recent years he has shifted his attention to the study of psychosis – particularly the phenomenon of voice-hearing, in which the inner voice is not the speaker’s own, helpfully assisting in the search for a lost wallet, but seemingly external, often frightening, dismissive or commanding.

People who experience this are often simply labelled “schizophrenic” – a “highly misunderstood term”, Fernyhough writes. The word, coined in 1908 by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, invokes alarm: “The sound of its sibilant label triggers fear and prejudice.” One of the aims of this book is to question that prejudice and to consider other ways of thinking about these “external” voices, setting them on a continuum with the dialogue we all conduct with ourselves.

But it is more than merely science that informs the author’s attention to how the sound of a word can influence its effect on its hearers. Fernyhough is also a novelist and not a little of this book is concerned
with another expression of the inner voice – the creation and consumption of fiction. When Fernyhough asked 1,500 people whether they heard the voices of fictional characters in their heads, 80 per cent said that they did; one in seven “said that those voices were as vivid as hearing an actual person speaking”. Many novelists report the experience of building their characters as being observational as much as it is creative. Fernyhough quotes David Mitchell describing his occupation as a kind of “controlled personality disorder . . . To make it work, you have to concentrate on the voices and get them talking to each other.” Fernyhough’s fine description of how it feels to read fiction is an expert blend of the scientific and artistic:

The voices we encounter in a novel can express our desires, threaten our safety, challenge our morals and speak of what cannot be said. They take us into a place of expanded possibilities where we can try on other identities. Through their expert control of these fictional voices, novelists lead us into a controlled dissolution of the self, and then bring us back safely to who we are.

What happens when that dissolution of the self is not controlled? Fernyhough introduces us to Jay, who hears the voices in his head as having different accents, pitches and tones. There is Adam, who lives with a voice he knows as the Captain; the Captain is a hard taskmaster, ordering Adam around, berating him, letting him know who’s boss. And yet, while Adam struggles with the Captain, he doesn’t long for his disappearance. “It feels like you’ve got a mate looking out for you as well,” Adam says.

The Dutch psychiatrist Marius Romme is a pioneer of the Hearing Voices Movement, which aims to remove the stigma often attached to the phenomenon of voice-hearing and instead pays attention to the information (about childhood trauma, for example) that those voices bring to the surface. Fernyhough discusses this approach with sensitivity and warmth.

The trouble is, as the author demonstrates, that discovering what is going on in the individual’s brain isn’t simple. Although voices, as he writes, can give us clues to “the fragmentary constitution of an ordinary human self”, the nature of that self – how my self makes itself distinct from your self, whether the voices in my head “sound” different to the ones in yours – is one of the central problems of both philosophy and science. Fernyhough doesn’t skimp on the science when demonstrating the difficulties that arise from “self-reporting”: inner voices must, by necessity, always be described by the person experiencing them.

The book traces in detail (the footnotes are just as interesting as the text) the various attempts to pin down inner voices, whether those involve MRI scans or something called “Descriptive Experience Sampling” (DES), by which volunteers describe exactly what they are thinking when a beeper goes off in their ears. Yet there is still a fascinating gap between science and experience: it remains impossible to express what those voices really sound like to each person who hears them.

The voices within have always been with us and this is a book of history as well as one concerned with science and art. In centuries past, our ancestors seemed rather more certain of the source of the voices that rang inside them. Fernyhough doesn’t neglect those who knew that what they heard was the voice of God – or the gods.

His discussion of Margery Kempe, the 14th-century English mystic whose recounting of her spiritual life lays claim to being the first autobiography written in the language, is particularly sensitive. And he is careful of the retrospective “reductionist dishing-out of diagnoses” when it comes to figures such as Kempe, or Julian of Norwich, or Joan of Arc. His role as a scientist does not prevent him from recognising Kempe’s experience as what it must have been for her – “an inner conversation with a very special substance: the relationship between a woman and her God”. The brain’s conversation was once perceived as mystic. Even if that is no longer wholly the case, much mystery remains.

The Voices Within: the History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves by Charles Fernyhough is published by Profile Books/Wellcome Collection (319pp, £16.99)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad