An Israeli Author Just Won France's Most Prestigious Literary Prize

Author Shmuel T. Meyer was informed that he won the Spring Goncourt Prize during a family visit to Israel. 'My culture is French, my heart is in Switzerland, but my soul is in Israel,' he tells Haaretz

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The Spring Goncourt Prize winner, author Shmuel Meyer.
The fresh Spring Goncourt Prize winner, author Shmuel T. Meyer. Tried to depict the dream of the kibbutz and its demise.Credit: Rami Shllush
Gaby Levin

“It’s tremendously exciting, a once-in-a-lifetime thrill,” says author Shmuel T. Meyer after being informed that he has been awarded the Spring Goncourt Prize for his book “Et la guerre est finie...” (“And the War is Over…”). “A few days after I came to Israel to visit family, after having been away for a long time because of COVID, I got a call from L’Académie Goncourt and was informed that I won the prize. The award ceremony will only take place in June because the restaurants are closed now. I’m certainly not going to forgo celebrating with a fine meal at the Drouant.”

Traditionally, the 10 members of L’Académie Goncourt gather each November at that historic Paris restaurant to fete the winning writer. Six years ago, it was decided to split the prize up, the most prestigious literary award in France, and since then a Spring Goncourt has been awarded each May to a debut novel, novella, biography and book of poetry. The main prize, for the year’s top novel, is awarded in November.

It is not a monetary award (although it comes with a token check for 10 euros). But typically the winning book becomes a best seller and brings in a lot of money for both publisher and author. The rules say an author may only be awarded the Prix Goncourt once, but Romain Gary manage to win it twice, the second time under the pseudonym Émile Ajar, for his novel “La vie devant soi” (“The Life Before Us”).

The Drouant restaurant in Paris, where the prize is awarded. 'I’m certainly not going to forgo celebrating with a fine meal at the Drouant.'Credit: Maison Weshoot

“My winning the prize was triumphantly reported in a Swiss newspaper under the headline ‘At last, a Swiss Author Wins the Goncourt,’ because the book was published by Metropolis, a Swiss publishing house,” says Meyer, who is 64, over the phone during his visit to Israel.

“In Israel, the reports said that an Israeli writer won the Goncourt for the first time. I can’t decide who I am. I was born in France in 1957 and my culture is French, my heart is in Switzerland where I grew up and I miss the landscape there, but my soul is in Israel – I arrived in 1980 and lived there until 2008. My soul is there. In Israel, I have three fantastic daughters and five amazing grandchildren,” he adds.

“And the War is Over…,” which won in the category of best novella, is a trilogy of stories. The common thread between them is the despair of three different people who carry with them the scars of war. The first story, “Les Grands Express Européens” (“The Great European Express”), is set in postwar France. It is 1954, the coldest winter on record – referred to in France as “the winter of Abbé Pierre,” after the priest who rallied people to come to the aid of homeless who were freezing to death on the streets, and founded an aid organization that is still in operation today.

The cover of the winning book, “Et la guerre est finie...” (“And the War is Over…”).Credit: EDITIONS METROPOLIS

In the story, a pregnant woman sits alone on a train station platform in a godforsaken location and watches a luxury train approaching on its way to Paris, where the passengers are headed to celebrate Christmas. Utterly despondent, she decides to commit suicide and leaps onto the track. The train comes to a stop and then we meet the passengers: a French film star, an Italian poetess, a Nazi hunter, a child from London living under the strain of postwar poverty. Then it is revealed that each of the passengers on the fancy train is hiding an emotionally charged story related to the recently concluded war.

The second story, “Kibbutz,” revisits the scars of Israel’s War of Independence and depicts daily life on a kibbutz, like eating cholent at night and organizing shared vehicles from the fleet for the kibbutzniks. Meyer says that in this story he tried to depict the dream of the kibbutz and its demise. He himself arrived on a kibbutz in 1980, when the children were no longer sleeping in communal quarters, and private homes were starting to be built.

The third story, “The Great American Disaster,” is set in New York between the Korean and Vietnam wars; the protagonist is a veteran of the former.

Shmuel T. Meyer. 'I write about the racism, violence and crime of New York, but also about the jazz music.'Credit: Rami Shllush

“I write about the racism, violence and crime of New York, but also about the jazz music,” Meyer explains. “Through the heroes’ stories, I wanted to present a mosaic of victims of war who carry inner wars within them that are hidden and more malignant. I called the book a trilogy because a ‘red thread’ runs through the three stories. Certain characters pass from one story to another; others vanish in the mist. Somehow it’s hard for me to part with protagonists who all share a common language, the language of wandering.”

You have had a nomadic life, too.

“Yes, I come from an old Jewish family from Alsace province but I have no religious background. My father was involved in the communist Resistance movement and was a friend of the socialist statesman Pierre Mendès France. I grew up in Lausanne, Switzerland. I loved the landscape of mountains and lakes, but I went to study at the Sorbonne in the 1970s right after the student revolution. I was a Trotskyite leftist. In France, I was considered a deserter because I didn’t enlist in the army and I also dropped out of school, because I wasn’t much of a student, and fled to Italy. I arrived there right during the hot era of the Red Brigades, not long after the assassination of Prime Minister Aldo Moro. After that, I went to Israel.”

You found refuge in Israel.

“You could say that,” he laughs. “But I fell in love with Israel and its people. I lived on Kibbutz Regavim. I met new, interesting people, I found a new and exciting world. I also got married, and my daughters were born. I felt a sense of belonging, I felt Israeli and Zionist, and I am still a Zionist today.”

Why did you leave?

“I went through a crisis after the Rabin assassination [in 1995]; I felt tremendous anger. I couldn’t believe that something like that could happen there, but I didn’t leave Israel until 2008. My books were being published by Gallimard, so I chose to live in France. When Gallimard stopped publishing my books that weren’t about Israel, I started to publish with the Swiss publishing house Metropolis [to date, none of his books have been translated into Hebrew]. In France, there is a great passion for Israeli literature and film, and despite what people in Israel about the French, Israeli culture is popular.

“I’m also nomadic in my writing: I write about different places, different periods. I’m currently working on a book that is set in Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, about a man who follows in Trotsky’s footsteps. I’m a man of cities, I love big cities, I love the bustling atmosphere, and I wrote a book about that called ‘Cities Have No Roof.’ I especially love New York and jazz, which is why I set the third story of the trilogy in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the New York jazz scene was flourishing. That’s the music I listen to all day. Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Miles Davis – they’re always by my side.” 

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