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The Best Little Jewish Publishing House in London

Peter and Martine Halban run England’s most cosmopolitan and finely curated Jewish and Middle Eastern-themed literary press

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Martine Halban, at the Halban office. (All photos courtesy of Halban Publishers)
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In Jerusalem, Martine freelance edited while Peter ran a small publishing house called Domino, which published what he refers to as a then “unknown book known as Schindler’s List (published as Schindler’s Ark in America).” Before that Halban ran the celebrated Mishkenot Sha’ananim guesthouse outside the walls of the Old City, where his job was to squire around the literary and cultural personages who stayed there: Saul Bellow’s stay produced his travelogue “To Jerusalem and Back,” in which Halban plays a cameo role. Once, when playwright Harold Pinter was visiting he had a vertigo attack while walking up the steps of Masada, so Halban had him slide down the steps one by one on his backside with his eyes closed. Years later Pinter would astonish Peter by walking up to him during the intermission at the National Theatre house and greeting him loudly as the “man who saved my life!”

After a few years in Israel the couple returned to London with the blessing of their friend, the impossibly grand publisher and man of letters George Weidenfeld, who encouraged them to start up a small press that he would bring into his distribution network. The first book the Halbans published was Dan Vittorio Segre’s Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew, a gorgeously lyrical and beautiful memoir of a wealthy Italian Jewish youth’s immigration to mandate Palestine after a stint in the Fascist cadets, and a winner of the prestigious Wingate Jewish prize. “Well, this is easy,” Martine recalled herself thinking. The Halbans next launched what was the first general-interest “Jewish Thinkers Series,” under the loose editorial stewardship of the great rabbi, essayist, and enlightenment scholar Arthur Hertzberg, author of the fantastic memoir A Jew in America.

The sensibility of the press’s backlist is one of crystalline coherence and curatorial good taste. It publishes quite a few books written by immigrants and refugees, including novels by an eccentric Anglo-Pakistani and myriad intrepid Iranians. Many books that they publish are Middle Eastern variations on the Jewish refugee thematic that shaped both of their family histories, such as Mona Yahia’s When the Grey Beetles Took Over Baghdad. “Most of our books deal with a clash of cultures. That may have been a subconscious guiding principle by which we selected our books. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but we do have a very unified list,” Martine confirmed after I pointed this out.

Peter’s mother’s roots are the source of the press’s Russophilia: Halban is the publisher of Remembering Anna Akhmatova, by Anatoly Nayman, the poet’s longtime assistant (which nicely supplements the legacy of Berlin’s famous nightlong meeting with Akhmatova). At one point during my visit Peter had me translate the frontispiece and title page of a Russian Jewish encyclopedia that his great-grandfather had been involved with publishing in pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg. Despite this, the only book by or about his stepfather that Peter Halban ever put out was the Iranian-Canadian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo’s Conversations With Isaiah Berlin, which is perhaps the easiest possible entry point into Berlin’s thought. “Most authors are friends [or became friends], and family vacations to Israel double as work trips,” Peter explained.

Peter Halban also published his half-brother Michel Strauss’ delectably chatty memoir Pictures, Passions and Eye, about his life as the powerful longtime chief of the Impressionist department at Sotheby’s. Strauss invented the practice of bidding at auctions over the phone and was instrumental in making the once-underappreciated Impressionists into one of the priciest movements to collect. The Halbans stepped in to publish the book after a last-minute cancellation by another publisher. “It is a very old fashioned sentiment not to want to publish one’s relatives so as to avoid the appearance of nepotism,” Peter told me almost apologetically. I reassured him that the sentiment is redeemed by the memoir’s qualities and importance in the art world.

The Halbans’ firmly liberal Zionism feels charmingly antiquarian—a throwback to a time when dashing kibbutzniks were all secular socialists with British accents and a copy of Dostoevsky under an armpit. Their broadminded and ecumenical approach to Middle Eastern politics also accounts for the relatively large number of Israeli-Palestinian conflict-related books on the backlist. There is a gorgeous photography book by Judah Passow of stones being thrown by unknown assailants. The Lebanese-born Palestinian English immigrant Samir el Youssef’s The Illusion of Return is a grimly mournful novella that probes Palestinian complicity and meditates on the brute fact that return to Palestine is most likely not in the cards for the refugees or their Lebanese-born descendants: The book’s suggestion that a morbid obsession with the past does more to hinder than help the Palestinian cause probably earned the author few friends in his community. The Halbans also published their philosopher friend Sari Nusseibeh’s memoir Once Upon a Country, which is now considered a modern classic.

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view from Halban office window

Halban press faces the usual problems that confront small and independent publishers. If one does not have a full-time publicist on staff one will be forced to do the tedious organizational work of setting up publicity tours oneself (as well as driving authors to talks that might be attended by a dozen people in a tiny town). One gets offered sub-par first novels that one is then forced to reject. After that rejection you might not be offered the second novel as “people resent being rejected by a small press” and thus you will never hear from writers when they pen the accomplished third novel. All this is compounded by the difficulties of attracting established authors. On the other hand, one has to work exceedingly hard to launch a new author, and if they do too well they might leave you for a bigger press and a larger advance. A.B. Yehoshua, whose collected short stories the press was the first to publish in England, and who has retained Halban as his primary British publisher, has been loyal to the press; the Halbans are much too well-mannered to tell me about the writers who lacked this allegiance.

The house also faces problems specific to the British Jewish literary scene. Though the Halbans were warned by their friends about the perils of niche publishing, “people were happy to see a Jewish-themed press that filled certain gaps in the publishing landscape succeed.” Amoz Oz was the first of the Israeli-born generation of writers to be well known in England, but the press introduced other noteworthy modern Israeli literature to Great Britain. (“To be fair to non-Jewish British publishing houses they did publish Oz and David Grossman,” Peter allowed.) The Jewish Book Week is an extremely useful institution without a direct American equivalent. Yet England lacks the equivalent American networking structures such as the Jewish Book Network, which has no parallel in England, which makes organizing author tours difficult. The Halbans inform me that the current state of British Jewish writing is vigorous, but the size of the readership is probably inadequate to support it.

After years of complaining bitterly about never being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the British Jewish writer Howard Jacobson won it in 2010 for his novel The Finkler Question. His winning it is in fact a good argument that English Jewish writing has moved squarely into the mainstream of literary life and the canon. This does not mean that its realm is huge however. “Considering that they are the people of the book, it is a tiny market, the Jewish market,” Martine explained. “In fact, if our books were only being bought by British Jews, we would be in big trouble.”

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The publishing house had its darkest moment in the mid-1990s after publishing a collection of biographical essays on Yitzhak Rabin in the wake of his assassination. The book was assembled quickly and ably by a team of journalists from the Jerusalem Report and released several months after the prime minister’s death. Parts of the book were based on previously published articles in the Jerusalem Report but that, according to England’s impossibly regressive libel law, were deemed worthy of a libel case.

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The Best Little Jewish Publishing House in London

Peter and Martine Halban run England’s most cosmopolitan and finely curated Jewish and Middle Eastern-themed literary press