Francoise Frenkel's real-life account of flight from Berlin on the 'night of broken glass'. Abridged by Katrin Williams. Read by Samantha Spiro.
Chair of judges Shoshana Boyd Gelfand said: “This year’s Wingate long list was so strong it was an almost impossible task to agree on just six titles for a short list.
“Throughout our process we agreed to consider each book on its own merit, based on our agreed criteria. The result is that five of our six chosen books are works of fiction – something we believe reflects the extraordinarily high quality of fiction submissions this year, which we found to be an exciting development for the field of Jewish writing. The judges felt that many of our chosen short list have used the power of fiction to address important historical, political and ethical themes in ways which are usually addressed by works of non-fiction.
“In addition, four of our six books are written by women, another positive development and one that we hope continues. When we started our judging process, we hoped to discover books that explored Jewish issues in novel and compelling ways. Without exception, these short list books fulfill those expectations. We hope all readers will feel similarly.”
A preface by Patrick Modiano, a Nobel prize-winning author, and a 30-page dossier add further context. However, Frenkel’s story can be read without these props. It stands as both an illuminating depiction of wartime France and a gripping and affecting personal account of endurance and defiance. Frenkel writes candidly throughout about her fears and ordeals (at one point even considering taking “the ultimate way out”), but she soldiers on, refusing to be beaten. Whether she is evacuee or refugee, fugitive or captive, the reader roots for her every step of the way.
No Place to Lay One’s Head is a stark and chilling account of what happens when a society turns rotten and the rot spreads. It is all the more shocking because the tone is so matter-of-fact. People spread hate as they eat their favourite snacks. Border guards announce that they “don’t care about the Jews”, but resent the extra work. “No offence, ladies,” they tell Frenkel and her fellow escapees as they hand them on to jail. “It’s got nothing to do with you.” It’s a strangely hypnotic demonstration of what the German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil”: a world where life and death are measured out in rubber stamps.
No Place to Lay One’s Head has an appealing style, captured in an assured translation by Stephanie Smee. There is a wild beauty to the prose, with ravishing descriptions of medieval towns, from Annecy to Avignon, held in check by a businesswoman’s instinct for facts — the wry noting that by 1942 France was being sustained by the black market, blamed by German propaganda on a Jewish population that by then had mostly disappeared into the camps.
...her own beautifully written account of her fear and resourcefulness in Vichy France is proof enough of the veracity of her book, her existence, her pain and the stomach-churning fear of betrayal.... It is no wonder that Frenkel's book is both passionate and bitter: it is also a literary account of human folly, written by a woman who loved French literature all her life. She studied at the Sorbonne, was an intern at a French bookshop and then decided to devote her years to reading and selling French books.