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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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Last month, readers at London’s celebrated annual Jewish Book Week were introduced to a strikingly polished Holocaust memoir titled Motherland, written by Rita Goldberg, a professor of comparative literature at Harvard. Goldberg reconstructs the complex trajectory her family followed from Germany and through Amsterdam, Belgian war resistance cells, DP camps, independence-war-era Israel and then America. The book focuses on Goldberg’s mother as she begins to lose her memory to Alzheimer’s in the late 1980s, yet as with any Dutch Holocaust memoir, the book is by necessity inextricably shadowed by and linked to the story of Anne Frank. Unlike most Dutch Holocaust memoirs, the connection in this case is a deeply abiding one: Hilde Jacobsthal was a childhood friend of Anne Frank’s; her father and Otto Frank cofounded a liberal synagogue together in Amsterdam after immigrating from Germany; and Otto Frank was the godfather of the book’s author.

Because Goldberg’s book recounts a far longer swath of history than the average Holocaust memoir, it charts the generational rather than merely singular effects of the tragedy of European Jewry on individual psychology. It is 100 pages into the narrative before Jacobsthal takes refuge in Belgium, where she spends a year and a half hiding out in the castles of anti-Semitic minor nobility. (She looked after their children and did their laundry, rebuffed their son’s advances by day while working as a courier for the resistance by night.) Jacobsthal’s childhood playmates Anne Frank and (her sister) Margot died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen in April of 1945, a few months before she arrived there to work as nurse and interpreter.

One of the surprising things about Motherland is that it was an unsurprising choice for its publisher, Halban, the bantam-sized English press that recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, whose own story is inseparably intertwined with the personal stories and illustrious European Jewish parentage of its founders. Peter and Martine Halban belong to the family of the great British-Russian philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin, whose distinct liberalism hovers over the slim, battlement-topped white tower at 22 Golden Square in London, where England’s most cosmopolitan and finely curated Jewish and Middle Eastern-themed literary press makes its home.

The Halbans still drink moderately at lunch (the prohibition against this timeless tradition in the rest of the Anglo-American publishing world being a mark of the creepy corporatization that is ruining everything), though Martine gently tamps down my raging Anglophilia and my usage of the word gentlemanly by explaining that “the idea of the gentleman is dying here, and England is becoming like everywhere else.” As it happened, the week I picked to visit coincided with a massive London transit strike as well as the fiercest storm to batter the English coast in more than 240 years. As we waited for the results of the negotiations between London’s flamboyant mayor and the equally obnoxious head of the railway unions, we had plenty of time to drink tea and talk.

***

That the Halbans are exceedingly courteous, curious, generous, and pleasant is not surprising, and that they are earnest and warm is the first clue that neither was actually born in England. Peter is affable and gregarious but tempers a natural tendency toward ebullience with a polite insistence on precision. He also has a tendency to pepper his speech with Hebrew words and phrases. His mother is French-born Russian aristocrat Aline de Gunzbourg. The patriarch of the colossally wealthy merchant dynasty was the Baron Horace de Gunzburg, who represented the interests of the house of Hesse in St. Petersburg and is now remembered chiefly for his role in founding the world-spanning network of ORT vocational schools. The de Gunzburgs were ennobled by Louis II, Grand Duke of Hesse, and the title was further fortified by being made hereditary by the Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1874. This in itself is quite remarkable: The family was one of only a handful of Jewish families to be ennobled.

Peter Halban
Peter Halban.

Peter Halban’s father was the French nuclear physicist Hans von Halban, who was born in Leipzig and educated in physics at Frankfurt before writing his doctorate at the University of Zurich. After completing a post-doctoral fellowship in Copenhagen under Niels Bohr, Halban was offered a position in France by Bohr’s colleague Frederic Joliot-Curie at the College de France. In the summer of 1940 Halban was sent by Joliot-Curie to the Massif Central and then to Bordeaux along with a few colleagues and their families. In their luggage the scientists spirited out what would turn out to be a critical supply of radium and nearly the entire stock of heavy water then held in Allied hands. The British extracted the refugees to England by ship, and Halban joined the British scientific effort. After a short stint working in Cambridge he was sent to Montreal in 1942 to head up the research team there. He worked there for the duration of the war as well as in the United States as part of the Manhattan Project. Aline de Gunzbourg met Halban in New York after her own madcap escape from Vichy France ended with the successful procurement of a visa from the American consul in Nice. Peter was born to the young couple in New York a year after the war’s conclusion. When Peter was 3 months old, he moved with his parents to Oxford.

Aline de Gunzbourg divorced Halban and remarried the great philosopher Isaiah Berlin in 1956. (The story of the courtship is recounted in Michael Ignatieff’s semi-official biography of Berlin.) Peter’s biological father then returned to France in 1954 when he was summoned by French Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France to supervise the building of the nuclear reactor at Saclay. Peter would be brought up in Oxford but did not attend the university, on his stepfather’s advice: Sensing that his stepson might be happier away from the rarified atmosphere of Oxford as well as the family, Berlin advised him to abandon England and matriculate at an American University. Peter Halban followed his advice and enrolled in Princeton to study history.

Martine Halban (née Mizrahi) has, if it’s possible, an even more exotic pedigree. She was born in Alexandria during its fabled final days of decay from imperial splendor. (The hermetic and voluptuous life led by the Alexandrian Jewish upper class will be familiar to readers of André Aciman’s 1995 memoir Out of Egypt.) The family had lived in Egypt for two generations, part of an influx of Jews arriving (and later leaving) because of events surrounding the building of the Suez Canal. One grandfather was a descendant of the Douek rabbinical family, coming from Aleppo in the beginning of the 20th century. Another grandfather came from Izmir. Her father was a lawyer, and both grandfathers were prominent businessmen in the cotton trade, retail, and real estate.

Martine’s mother was educated in French schools and an English girls college, and her father was sent abroad to a boarding school in Paris. While her family on her mother’s side were British nationals, her father was technically Egyptian, though his mother was French: Egypt’s Jews all had different passports—which would prove to be a liability when Nasser’s government exiled the ancient Jewish community and the British in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis. Martine’s mother was expelled in 1956 for holding a British passport when the British became persona non grata though they “hung on” (her father held an Egyptian passport) for two years. They wandered around Europe, staying with family in Italy, Switzerland, and France until finally deciding to settle in England—“a bad idea for them as they spoke French in drab provincial ’50s England,” Martine noted.

Both Martine and Peter began their careers in publishing: Peter as an assistant editor at Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Martine as publishing assistant at Calder and Boyars (“they published fantastic authors, like Samuel Beckett,” she told me). Martine followed this with a three-year stint in the rights department of Oxford University Press, which in the ’70s was still holding out as a last bastion of the prestige of British imperial institutions: Branch managers in white suits would fly in from Pakistan and three-hour alcoholic lunches were not rare. One year at the Frankfurt Book Fair in the late ’70s, the imperious and famed Polish translator Celina Wieniewska informed both that “I simply must introduce you to someone.” Martine was intrigued by a man who was educated in the United States and who lived in Israel. They kept in touch for three or four years, spending time together on his visits to England before getting married and moving to Jerusalem.

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.

***

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.”

***

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.

What followed was an improbable case involving Princess Diana’s former lawyer and a prominent ultra-Orthodox West Bank Rabbi, which led to a year and a half of wracked nerves and mounting lawyers’ fees. The case was eventually settled before coming to trial. Though reluctant to retell the tale and quite understandably cautious, as any new information released here might reignite the case, Martine informed me that “the lesson we learned was not to defend ourselves in the least but to come to some sort of agreement and settlement. Which is not a good lesson to have to learn, not an intellectually satisfying lesson at all.” Despite having an ardent interest in it, the press was similarly unable to bring out a British version of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism: As Beinart uses real-life examples (and names names) to back up the book’s discourse, it was declared dynamite by a libel lawyer. British Jews were thus excluded from taking part in the conversations roiling the English-speaking Jewish world over the past two years.

This would not be the only instance of the widening gap between British and American publishers. The press used to have “many more relations with American publishers, especially having a great sympathy with east coast publishers,” Peter told me. Their books were often sold to Grove and George Braziller, and in the other direction they bought volumes from the lists of FSG and Basic Books. Yet the Halbans could not find an American publisher for the scabrous, funny A Visit From Voltaire by (the ironically) American Dinah Lee Kung: The tale of an American woman ensconced in a cottage outside of Switzerland being visited by Voltaire was deemed too odd by American publishers.

When I asked whether there is a future for Jewish publishing, the response was, “There is one, if a limited one.” Intriguingly enough, Europe’s biggest market for literary translation is in Germany. Yet to speak of one singular future for European Jewish publishing for all of its 28 nations is exceedingly difficult. With the recent explosion in popularity of Scandinavian genre fiction, the press has followed the wider English publishing trend of turning to literary thrillers. The thriller Duet in Beirut, by ex-Mossad agent Mishka Ben-David has garnered a great deal of attention as has the British publications of Jonathan Rabb’s thrillers.

Amid gloomy prognostications of the impending collapse of publishing, e-books might well be the saving grace at the end of the tunnel. “That is one of the reasons we would not call ourselves gentlemanly,” Martine told me with a smile. ‘‘Gentlemen publishers would never have gone into e-books. We love e-books!” Surging e-book sales have a way of balancing out the decline of revenue streams precipitated by the shuttering of brick-and-mortar bookshops, the consolidation of chain bookstores, and the rise of decentralized online distribution. E-books do not require much capital investment and thus have greater margins. Also, unlike the mysterious peregrinations of the ephemeral bound object, one knows precisely where every e-book is being sold and read. There is also something indisputably charming in knowing the exact number of English translations of A.B. Yehoshua circulating around Japan.

“I wonder if my kids will read books,” I confessed to Martine on my last visit to the Halbans’ offices. “If you have them in the house, they will read them,” she reassured me. “If you use e-books, they will use those.”

It was raining for the fourth day in a row. Martine poured me another cup of tea. We talked about our families, our shared experiences of being refugees in childhood, being Jews from Muslim countries. I asked her, too, what her vision of the future was. “Well,” she paused resolutely before answering stoically, “we shall carry on.” Then she caught and corrected herself mid-sentence with characteristic thoughtfulness: “No, wait. Maybe I should say something more buoyant for the Americans?”

***

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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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