David Grossman Wins a Man Booker

  • By Rafael Alvarez
  • June 21, 2017

The Israeli author snags the coveted international prize


A Horse Walks into a Bar — a comic grotesque by the Israeli novelist David Grossman — has won the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. The $63,300 prize is awarded for a work of fiction that has been translated into English from any country on the globe.

The widely lauded Grossman, 63, shared the honor with his translator, Jessica Cohen, who donated half of her winnings to B’Tselem, an Israeli human-rights group working in the occupied West Bank.

The Jerusalem-born Grossman “has attempted an ambitious high-wire act of a novel, and he’s pulled it off spectacularly,” said Nick Barley, chair of the judges. “A Horse Walks into a Bar shines a spotlight on the effects of grief, without any hint of sentimentality.”

Quite simply, said Barley, the judges “were bowled over by Grossman’s willingness to take emotional as well as stylistic risks.”

In an interview with Tablet magazine, 2010 Booker laureate Howard Jacobson of London observed: “Not all writers evoke their work in their person, but Grossman has a melancholy nobility of demeanor that reminds you at once of his writing.”

Grossman’s fellow Israeli Amos Oz — one of his few Holy Land peers in letters — was shortlisted for the award for his novel Judas, released in the United States by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

In Ulysses, James Joyce told the story of Leopold and Molly Bloom over the course of a single day, 732 pages in the spinning. Opined Molly in her fabled soliloquy: “They dying and why why because they’re afraid of hell on account of their bad conscience…”

Grossman wedges the history of modern Israel — one pivoting on the very reason B’Tselem exists — into two hours of punchlines and digressions from a wise-guy schmuck named Dov Greenstein as he performs in a dingy nightclub.

If Greenstein has a bad conscience, he never lets it get in the way of a sordid chapter from his own life. As I waded deeper into the book, I was sure that at any moment the narrative would veer from the nightclub and Greenstein, take a circuitous route resembling plot, and return to the spotlight where the comic sweats, cries, and bleeds in front of an audience that slowly realizes it’s been taken hostage by a clown.

It never happened.

“What is so clever about this book is the way Grossman gives himself this incredibly constrained structure — the stand-up comedy routine — and somehow tells an entire life story within those walls,” said Nancy Pick, an author and translator based in Sunderland, Massachusetts. “By the end of the book, I was not only moved but astonished.”

Slowly but surely, Pick discovered — as have the many thousands of readers of A Horse Walks into a Bar — that she was the goof sweating for the world’s amusement.

“We’re all up there on that stage, trying desperately to be amusing and ultimately cruelly exposed and humiliated by life,” said Pick. “If we step back and try to see ourselves from the audience, we end up as broken, compromised, and exhausted as Dov Greenstein.”

[Editor’s note: Click here to read the Independent’s review of A Horse Walks into a Bar.]

Rafael Alvarez will release a new collection of short stories, Basilio Boullosa Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown, in October. He can be reached via orlo.leini@gmail.com.

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