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Notes from Mishkenot Sha’ananim: Aharon Appelfeld and Nicole Krauss

Friday, May 07, 2010 | Permalink

Bob Goldfarb has been blogging all week at the Writers’ Festival at Mishkenot Sha’ananim

More than a generation separates novelist Nicole Krauss, 36, from Aharon Appelfeld, who was born in 1932. The author of The History of Love was born in the comfort and security of America, while the Israeli man of letters spent his childhood hiding from the Nazis among criminals. Yet they feel a deep admiration for each other, and not just for their writing, as their public conversation on the last night of the Writers’ Festival made clear.

“We are used to American writers writing only about America,” remarked the Israeli. Krauss’s The History Love unfolds in Eastern Europe and Chile as well as Brooklyn. “So you can see Nicole is a very Jewish writer. Why are you a Jewish writer?” he asked her.

Krauss explained, “When I was young it didn’t interest me to be Jewish. The community wasn’t inspiring, it was not interested in the larger world. At Oxford, where I was a graduate student, I felt out of my depth, but I felt an affinity with other Jews, whether I liked them or not. There was a shared understanding.

“When I started the process of writing novels, I started to find out who I was,” she continued. “I hit this rock of being Jewish. It’s so profoundly rich, with endless questions. It’s something that could last for a lifetime to understand.”

“I come from a very assimilated Jewish family,” commented Appelfeld. “So assimilation is part of me. My parents didn’t want to hear about Jewishness – it was an anachronism in our home. My grandparents in the Carpathians were still believers. We used to come to them in vacations—farmers, working in the fields, coming home, sitting silently, praying silently.”

Krauss declared, “As a writer sometimes I feel I’m free, I don’t have to be responsible to anything. Now I’ll hear your voice echoing if I write something not Jewish.” The older author replied, “You speak of freedom. Yes, every writer is a free man, but he has a family, and a tribe, and he is not so free. And grandparents and uncles, and they are part of his memory. I’ve lost my parents, grandparents. But they are still with you.”

“I have another question,” said Krauss. “I once heard one of my favorite directors, Krzysztof Kieslowski, speaking after fall of Communism. He didn’t want to make films any more, he wanted to quit. Under Communism he had a direct communication with the audience, they understood the symbols, every gesture. In Israel you have an audience that understands your subtext, the secrets within the language. I wonder what it’s like to write for an audience like that?”

“When I came to Israel,” Appelfeld recalled, “I didn’t speak Hebrew. I began at the kibbutz, working in the field, learning Hebrew. I wanted to create a home, a space for me, so I began to write. When I was 26 I came to a publisher with a collection of short stories about my coming to Israel, being alien in this hot country, about not understanding what it is, about the longing to go back to the forests, even to the ghetto. A publisher looked at me – you want to publish these decadent stories? What kind of fantasies are these? You should write about real life—kibbutz, army, not about people who have lost their homes.”

“In the 1950s socialist realism was very strong. It was a very ideological country. You served the country, so you should write socialist realism, not about your experience. Individuality was not a value. But literature is individuality.” Earlier in the conversation Nicole Krauss had referred to her forthcoming novel, Great House, and to the kinds of Jewish questions that most interest her: “What holds us together? Who we are? With a tremendous sense of loss, how does one seize life, decide to go on living? To begin again, to create where there is nothing?”

Aharon Appelfeld, for his part, looked back to his early years and the impressions he retains of that world. “I absorbed them in the deepest way when I was a child. I think the eye of a child is the real eye of the writer. When I think I still have something of a childish eye I am happy.”

Bob Goldfarb is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Jerusalem and Los Angeles. He also blogs for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.

Notes from Mishkenot Sha’ananim: JSF and Amir Gutfreund

Friday, May 07, 2010 | Permalink

Bob Goldfarb has been blogging about the Writers’ Festival at Mishkenot Sha’ananim all week. Stay tuned for his final post later today.

Jonathan Safran Foer (photo by David Shankbone)

The best-selling author Jonathan Safran Foer was one of the most popular speakers at the first International Writers’ Festival at Mishkenot Sha’ananim two years ago. Returning this year, he spoke to an overflow audience in conversation with an Israeli novelist who, like him, has written about the Holocaust. But Amir Gutfreund’s playful first questions weren’t about their common subject. He was more interested in the consequences of fame.

“Don’t you feel you’re not the same person as before you published your books?” asked Gutfreund (a 2007 Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award winner). Foer responded, “Nobody is the person he was. And I don’t have an alternate life to compare my life to, had the book not been published.” Recounting how his book found a publisher only after a series of events beyond his control, he added, “I learned an important lesson at the beginning. Some people are lucky, some people are unlucky.”

Amir Gutfreund

Foer pointed out, “My environment isn’t literary festivals or an advance for a book.” Describing his daily life in Brooklyn with his wife, his children, and his dog, he observed, “Many things are grounding and humbling: having a children, having a family, living in a community. I feel extremely grateful for any success.”

Reflecting on the relationship between writer and reader, Foer reflected, “You hope someone reads the book as you wrote it, as a novel. A book is not an argument. You write the thing that seems to you authentic and you see what happens.” And sometimes it’s unpredictable. Foer recalled a radio call-in program where he was interviewed about Everything is Illuminated. A listener who had read the Holocaust-themed book phoned in to say, “You told my family story. I recognized myself, my family, the secrets we kept, the silences at dinner.” The caller turned out to be a 60-year-old black man in Trenton.

Gutfreund wondered how his colleague decided what to write about. “Loss, silence, difficulties in expressing oneself are real subjects,” noted Foer. And he agreed that “one of the hardest things is to choose a topic. Many people can write at the technical level of a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the choices you make rather than how you execute your choices.” Foer summed it up: “It’s hard to care about something over three or four years, wrestling with something, being invested in it. I write about the things that are home for me.”

One of Foer’s great influences, he revealed, is Bruno Schulz: “There’s no writer I like more than him, who is more inspiring.” Schulz, author of just two books, was shot by a Nazi officer in the streets of Drohobycz in 1942. Foer wrote the preface to a recent collection of Schulz’s fiction. “Bruno Schulz keeps me honest as a writer,” he attested. “You only have to look at a page of his to know what is possible.”

Bob Goldfarb is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Jerusalem and Los Angeles. He also blogs for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.

Notes from Mishkenot Sha’ananim: Paul Auster and David Grossman

Thursday, May 06, 2010 | Permalink

In his previous posts on the Writers’ Festival at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Bob Goldfarb wrote about the panel “Ashes and Ink: Contemporary Holocaust Writing,” about Amos Oz and Simon Sebag Montefiore in conversation, and Zeruya Shalev and Siri Hustvedt.

Paul Auster, the prolific American novelist and screenwriter, and David Grossman, one of Israel’s premiere writers, have been close friends for more than a dozen years. Auster told an overflowing crowd at Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim, however, that their friendship isn’t based on their shared profession. “We don’t talk about writing when we’re together,” he said.

David Grossman (photo from Flickr (Whistling in the Dark))

Moderator Kobi Meidan gave them an opportunity to do just that. When he asked what it’s like to finish a book, Auster reflected, “You’ve been living with the characters, as real and as vital as flesh-and-blood human beings. So there’s a great sadness because you have to say good-bye to them. They’re leaving your life and it takes some time to recover.” Grossman echoed the sentiment. “If a character was a significant, meaningful part of my life for a few years,” he affirmed, “of course I will be with it, and I hope it will be with me for the rest of my life.”

Grossman spoke specifically about the protagonist of his novel Isha Borahat Mibesora, known awkwardly in English as To the End of the Land, more literally translated as “A Woman Fleeing a Message.” (It will be published in America in September.) Ora’s son, a soldier, has been assigned to a dangerous military operation. She leaves her home and walks across the land with a friend, talking about her son as her way of somehow keeping him alive. In writing the character, said Grossman, “You have to surrender to her completely. While writing Ora I lived her, being her.”

He continued, “Being a writer allows you to melt and diffuse into other options of personality. I don’t think it’s so different from the experience of writing about any other Other. It’s just allowing yourself to go there. When I write I want to be invaded by the people I write about. I want to explore this magic of what it means to be another human being. I can reach it only by writing.”

Auster remarked that he had written from the points of view of people of different races and religions, destitute people, rich people, fat people, a boy who can levitate, and a dog. “They’re all part of me or I wouldn’t be able to think of them. But I also feel they’ve found me, or I’ve found them.” And he sees a similarity with what actors do: “embody another human being, become somebody else. If you can do it successfully,” he believes, “there’s a conviction the reader will automatically feel.”

Paul Auster (photo by David Shankbone)

David Grossman is more publicly engaged with politics than Paul Auster, but they voiced similar concerns. Auster senses that “people seem tired, worn out by conflict” in Israel. “I can understand why people would become apathetic. It’s almost too much to live this way all the time. But something’s got to give.”

Grossman picked up that line of thought. “I live here, I experience it. I look at Israel – it’s my place, it’s the most significant place for a Jew to live. There are still so many things in Israel that are miraculous to me. But the place we are heading will make life unbearable for us and our neighbors, and I see our self-destruction, our self-paralysis.”

Kobi Meidan wondered if these writers saw themselves as resembling nineteenth-century novelists who wanted their work to transform society. “I don’t know,” mused Auster. “I used to think that when I was young. I thought poetry could change the world. And maybe poetry can change the way somebody thinks about something, sometimes. But what’s beautiful about art is its utter uselessness. It doesn’t serve any purpose. It’s not a political agenda.”

Although he didn’t quite agree that literature is useless, Grossman acknowledged “I think every moment of the character, not the future of Israel.” At the same time, “if you give yourself away to your characters you inevitably write a political document, a social document. We are products of our era.”

Bob Goldfarb is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Jerusalem and Los Angeles. He also blogs for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.

Notes from Mishkenot Sha’ananim: Holocaust Writing

Tuesday, May 04, 2010 | Permalink

This week Bob Goldfarb, a regular reviewer for Jewish Book World, is blogging about the International Writers’ Festival at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem May 2-6.

Sarah Blau, moderating a panel called “Ashes and Ink: Contemporary Holocaust Writing,” called attention to an apparent paradox: the farther removed we are from the historical Holocaust, the more writing there seems to be. What’s more, alongside the steady flow of scholarly studies and memoirs, there continue to be literary works that have new things to say.

Some of them use fiction as a means of uncovering truths through invention. The Spanish novelist Adolfo Garcia Ortega, one of the panelists, cited War and Peace as an example of how novelists have poetic license to invent historical events for noble reasons. Garcia Ortega, who had never written a Holocaust-themed work before, felt he had to take up the subject after reading Primo Levi. Levi’s recollection of Auschwitz If This is a Man mentions a three-year-old boy who died, and may have been born, in the camp. That boy’s unknown story became the impetus for Garcia Ortega to grapple with the imagined particulars of such a life.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s medium, as a critic and scholar, is non-fiction. His book The Lost recounts his personal investigation into the deaths of six members of his own family in the Shoah. He makes an impassioned case for specificity and against generalization: as he said, “everything happens at a certain moment in time. All these generalities happened to specific people; everyone has a specific death in a specific moment in a specific way.” As for Auschwitz, Mendelsohn pointed out that it became the symbol of the Holocaust because it’s where the Jews from Western Europe were sent, and some lived to tell about it; Belzec is not that symbol because practically no one survived.

Israeli writer Nir Baram, meanwhile, intentionally avoided Auschwitz altogether in his novel Good People. His story looks at everyday life in Nazi Europe through two characters, one of whom is an ambitious Albert Speer-like intellectual for whom the removal of populations is an abstraction until he begins to glimpse what it actually looks like. He is a bureaucrat who believes in what he does because it serves his personal cause of becoming a great man. The story ends in 1941, before most of the murders of the Final Solution have taken place.

Should a writer try to describe the unimaginable? Garcia Ortega, referring in particular to Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, defended the role of fiction, saying there is a place for “interpreting the facts in a more metaphorical way. Those stories will be more remembered than books that saturate the reader with facts.” Mendelsohn, by contrast, said “All the descriptions in my book are quotations from witness statements. I don’t want to describe something I have no intimate knowledge of. I felt that I couldn’t imagine/invent/recreate this kind of atrocity. Witness statements are more eloquent than anything I could imagine.”

Bob Goldfarb is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Jerusalem and Los Angeles. He also blogs for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.