‘conversation’s greatest hits’ and other tips.

March 6, 2008 by

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Writing Workshop with Amy Bloom 

Sunday 2nd March

English people are terrible at sitting in a semi-circle and sharing.  This, I think, is what Amy Bloom will have taken away from her session on Sunday.  When she arrived, in jeans, immediately likeable and slightly late, she found her audience as tense as she was relaxed, as earnest as she was breezy.  I’m talking crossed legs.  Crossed arms. Handbags on laps.   Her face said “this is going to be a long session”.  I wanted to reply “it’s nothing personal – we like you, we’ll warm up”.
 
Except we didn’t warm up.  Why?  Because it was 11am on a Sunday morning.  And frankly, it’s a big ask to get 40 Jews in a room at that hour – sans bagels and coffee – and expect them to be in the mood to talk.  Happily, Amy Bloom is every bit as eloquent, funny and gigantically intelligent as her fiction would lead you to hope.  So we didn’t have to talk – we just listened as she discussed characterisation, plot, beginnings and why dialogue “is not conversation, it’s conversation’s greatest hits”.
 
Most people in the room had read Bloom’s latest novel
Away and when we finally progressed beyond “I can’t see the board” and “can you speak up”, most questions related in some way to how that masterpiece was realised. For me, Bloom’s early work – two collections of short stories and her first novel Love Invents Us – is what had got me up that early on a Sunday morning. Come to Me – her first book of short stories – occupies a special shelf in my psyche dedicated to the handful of works that made me want to become a writer.  So, being in the esteemed presence of the author, did I allow my 18 year old self to leap out of her seat and make such a declaration? Of course not.  Instead, I took notes.  Quietly.  And raised my hand right at the end, when there was no more time for questions.  Without making eye-contact.  A magnificent display of the national character in action there.
 
It was a weird day. We were weird.  And yet – Amy took it all in her stride and was rather dazzling.  Even at 11am. Even without coffee.  And you know what?  I actually think she liked us.

Nicole Taylor writes drama for television

Murder They Write

March 5, 2008 by

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Jonathan Freedland (Sam Bourne) and Matt ReesWednesday February 27th

When two journalists as established as Jonathan Freedland and Matt Rees – who wrote about the Middle East in Time magazine for a decade – turn to writing thrillers and mystery novels, one wonders what lures them aside from such successful careers. They both felt that a different genre enabled them to do important things that the journalistic treadmill doesn’t: to explore the day-to-day texture of individual lives, the subtexts lurking behind politicians’ official statements and the moral complexities of a world inevitably painted in shades of grey. Freedland, who has written two thrillers under the name Sam Bourne, says he deliberately ended them in a way that, he hopes, leaves readers reflecting that perhaps the villain had a point . . . Even the subtlest opinion piece needs to be a good deal more direct and unambiguous.  Freedland has decided to continue working as a journalist, partly because he loves it and partly because his “day job” keeps giving him stimulus and great material for into his fiction. Politicians who are keen to meet up with him as the Guardian’s lead columnist would be far less interested in someone researching his next bestseller. Rees, by contrast, writes standing up in his room in Jerusalem facing out towards Bethlehem and the Mount of Olives. Already surrounded by drama, he has no need to keep churning out articles to provide him with stories. Though he visited Gaza a good deal to write The Saladin Murders, he no longer wants or needs to go there – the balance of risks just isn’t worth it now it’s no longer essential for his research. Although he describes it as deliberately apolitical, his decision to try and portray ordinary life in Gaza and Bethlehem, a world where the Israelis impinge but are never really visible, could also be seen as highly political – a deliberate attempt to get people to look beyond sloganeering and simplistic headlines.  Writers successful in more “serious” often get a hard time when they try to write for the mass market. Freedland, in particular, has attracted some ferocious reviews, no doubt inspired by jealousy, but he seemed pretty cool about it – for this kind of book the only real question is whether readers beyond the chattering classes go out and buy it, and find it a page-turner.  Rees, on the other hand, got reviews back in the Middle East which reflect the political realities out there. One Arab newspaper, responding to an English edition (there are no Arabic translations as yet), had to devote most of the space coverage to explaining the strange, almost subversive notion of the political mystery novel. Since it is a genre where somebody, usually a private individual, goes around trying to uncover political secrets, it may well be an intrinsically democratic form, something the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world and elsewhere would never want to encourage.  The Israeli reaction was even more to the point. Rees is British, therefore antisemitic, and therefore had written a bad book.  

Mathew Reisz writes for the Times Higher Education Supplement and is the former editor of the Jewish Quarterly.

A Passion For Sheer Quirk?

March 5, 2008 by

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 Shlomo Avineri and Alan Ryan on Isiah Berlin 

This was an odd event, in several ways. The speakers declined to be introduced, leaving that tedious bit of background-giving until afterwards. It was also, emphatically, a conversation rather than a formal lecture or dialogue, yet the speakers’ styles were strikingly different and the act of talking in front of a large, silent audience always becomes something of a performance. So there was artifice but also passion and erudite improvisation. The images of a sparkling, desirable kaleidoscope of peoples and types versus a bland, homogeneous soup of mankind, that Alan Ryan invoked near the beginning, worked for me throughout: philosopher-historian Isaiah Berlin could only be viewed as through a kaleidoscope, showing many facets at once but never a simple, integrated person. Ryan spoke like a slightly comedic, avuncular professor (which he is), circling around his subject, inserting digressions and exclamations at leisure. Avineri was more direct but no less humorous. Both had a tough task winkling out what in Isaiah Berlin’s personality and views could be defined as his Jewishness. They touched on his suggestive interest in other great “borderline” Jews, including Marx and Disraeli, inferring that Berlin understood these men in a way few others could, both like him standing somewhat apart from the class they were born into. They touched on Berlin’s famous quip that “the Jews are like everybody else, only more so”, which Avineri inverted to apply to Berlin himself. For Avineri, Berlin was a “true enlightenment person”, which licensed his apparently complete indifference to spiritual questions. He was very interested in nationalism in general, as an advocate of auto-emancipation, but Zionism for him was fraught territory, and his negotiation of it was hard to follow – as both speakers confessed!Both men were more comfortable on the influence of Berlin’s two countries, the Russia of his early years and his adopted Britain. They saw Berlin admiring certain aspects of each – Russian fire and activism, and British ingrained liberal habits – that together might have embodied his dream of a liberal nation. Both also made much of Berlin’s tutorial style at Oxford, and thus his overall style as a philosopher. Ryan reminisced about being introduced to Machiavelli as if he were sitting in the room with him, and being obliged to engage him in argument. For him, the ‘Isaiah mode’ brought philosophy to life and into his life, though it risked allowing all other philosophers to merge with Berlin’s own philosophy. The exhilaration of having the great man concede affably “You’re probably right, I’m wrong” still moves the distinguished warden of New College, Oxford.

The hour’s conclusion was a hybrid of Desert Island Discs and an Oxford tutorial: each speaker nominated his favourite Berlin work to be saved from the waves (Berlin on Disraeli and Marx for Avineri; his essay on Herzen in A Marvellous Decade for Ryan); then Ryan made a steeple of his fingers and pronounced “good”, as if we had at any rate listened well, if not written a decent essay.

 Sophie Lewis is the first UK director of American publishing house Dalkey Archive Press, seeking out great literature to publish from all over the world. She also translates French literary fiction and prose into English.

God Wrestling

March 5, 2008 by

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God Wrestling; Shalom Auslander and A.L. Kennedy“There but for the grace of god go I,”is a common reaction from a Shalom Auslander audience as he tends to attract those whose psyches, like his, were shaped at an early age by fundamentalist religion.  Not that Shalom Auslander’s God reveals much in the way of grace.  It is wise to avoid attributing a gender to God but the deity dominating Foreskin’s Lament is inexorably male – male and in the image of Auslander’s abusive alcoholic father.    Car crashes, miscarriages, gruesome murders, congenital deformity – four topics hardly likely to elicit laughter from an audience yet Shalom Auslander’s reading, with imagined punishments meted out by the aforementioned vengeful God, achieved exactly that.  AL Kennedy, Calvinist, session-chair and two-times mail-order minister, engaged with Auslander in a bout of one-upmanship to establish whose childhood was more scarred as a result of their respective religious upbringings.  They say in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king. If you’d asked before Thursday who’s the king between Shalom Auslander and A.L.Kennedy we’d have been hard-pressed to choose, being privileged to have heard each of them speak on multiple occasions in no-holds-barred displays of f**ked-upness.  Although A.L. Kennedy made reference to the psychiatric competition in her opening remarks she came across as sound of mind throughout the session possibly because she strategically left most of the talking to Shalom Auslander. “I was told that I’d be boiled for an eternity in the semen that I had wasted during my teenage years,” read Auslander; Kennedy countered with equivalent tales of torment to be meted out to lapsed Catholics.  The audience added their own riffs – one former orthodox Rabbi only recently expurgating the idea that his soul would be catapulted from one end of the firmament to the other on account of his homosexual peccadilloes.  In fact those in attendance mostly sympathised with Auslander’s predicament, unlike many possibly unhinged readers who have communicated their rage stirred by his view of God and religion on blogs and online book reviews. Auslander is a formerly ultra-orthodox Jew who just can’t seem to shake the last vestiges of belief. He’s tried everything – from psychotherapy to a diet of Dawkins, Hitchens and marijuana, yet a part of him can’t help feeling that a nasty end awaits all those with whom he comes into contact on account of his tendency to transgress.  

A.L.Kennedy and Shalom Auslander have given us prize-winning novels and non-fiction along with the priceless ability to feel relatively sane by comparison.

 

Rivka Isaacson is a biophysicist at Imperial College London and poet laureate for www.lablit.com

Danny Pine is a doctor who now works for Medical Futures – a company dedicated to helping other doctors develop their new medical technologies

spinoza and secular jewish culture

February 28, 2008 by

 Spinoza and Secular Jewish CultureI can’t resist the pleasure of finding myself a student again, particularly one attending the superior kind of undergrad lecture. This feeling kicked in as soon as Yirmiyaho Yovel stood up. I think everyone was soothed by his poise and gentle approach, but his erudition and deep sympathy with his subject quickly became clear too.

It’s hard to imagine Spinoza today, to reconcile the hardline philosopher who willingly accepted his expulsion from the Amsterdam Jewish community with the everyday Jew, the lens-grinder who spent his life interrogating God and deism, history and salvation, to settle ultimately on his own ‘rational’ religiousness. In a very short hour, Yovel sketched the trajectory of an uncompromising yet profoundly humane life, giving key moments but not too many dates, more often emphasising salient points of thought than historical events.

An exception to this was the French revolution. Yovel returned several times to this critical period, calling it the catalyst for the beginning of Jewish modernity. I was surprised, but should not have been. For Yovel, had Spinoza lived after this crisis, there would have been no need to expel or demonise him.

I wish we had had more time to hear about the changes wrought by the Revolution. As it was, 17th-century Christians reserved for Spinoza the most damning epithets they had at hand, dismissing him, paradoxically, as both “Jew and atheist”. Despite today’s admiration for his philosophical positions, the Jews of the 17th century hardly thought any better of him. He went further than Descartes, ousting God from his position controlling history and morality – of course this was hard to accept. But we listening students were happy to think back through the centuries, to times of ignorance and extremity, and to rest easy thinking of ourselves as far more liberal and enlightened.

Then Yovel surprised even his contemporary audience with the vehemence of his existential, voluntary position as a Jew explicitly following Spinoza’s lead. Asked: if we reject all the customs, rituals and beliefs of traditional Judaism, what remains that will unite us as Jews? – the answer came back ‘nothing’! It was a brave statement, a brave moment, and one that caused a genteel stir. Yovel’s insistence that all who call themselves Jews are Jews, regardless of their way of life and beliefs, regardless of their acceptance by other Jews, retains a fair degree of the radical impact of Spinoza’s ideas, first set out four centuries ago.

Sophie Lewis is the first UK director of American publishing house Dalkey Archive Press, seeking out great literature to publish from all over the world. She also translates French literary fiction and prose into English.

turning your family into a book…

February 28, 2008 by

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The first full day of Jewish Book Week ended with a fascinating and moving debate about Israel at 60 and what the future holds. But it started with writers who have put families at the centre of their work (the first time ever the event has expanded across the road into the Institute of Education).
At first the line-up seemed surprising. Blake Morrison’s memoirs take us back to the quiet, inhibited, respectable England of the 1950s, where his Irish-Catholic mother was forced to deny most of her past in order to fit in, and a mysterious “aunt” was an unexplained part of the family scene. Charlotte Mendelson, by contrast, was talking about her novel When We Were Bad, where the noisy, vibrant and high-achieving clan of Rabbi Claudia Rubin goes into meltdown at the wedding of her son. And Israeli graphic novelist Rutu Modan has constructed a haunting tale of confusion and grief in which a young taxidriver sets out on a search for his father, dead or perhaps just disappeared after a suicide bombing.
Yet common themes soon emerged. Whether falling apart or sticking grimly together, repressed or exuberant families can be equally dysfunctional, and the closest ones may need to have the most secrets and no-go areas. All authors dealing with families faced charges of exploitation, that their fictional creations were really their own families – admit it, the Rubins were just a version of “the amazing dancing Mendelsons” – while all three panellists reflected on the ways that we become children again in the presence of our parents. Should we still talk about our parents’ house as our “home”? Modan is clearly concerned with how the political situation in Israel plays itself out in domestic situations, but she also described an experience which could happen anywhere – her deep upset when, after her mother’s death, her father turned the place where she had grown up into a bachelor apartment and said his daughters were told they could visit by appointment only . . .

It is not often one hears the writer of a book about the Holocaust admitting that he’s a sentimentalist, that his favourite film is ‘Love, Actually’. But Daniel Mendelsohn’s probing conversation with psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips – which he described as “more like a session with a shrink” – was full of surprises. It was also a masterclass in the complex intellectual challenges, and emotional tangles, which confront anyone trying to unravel family history during the Nazi era.
Why, asked Phillips, would anyone want to search out the most painful, even agonizing details of what had happened to their ancestors? Mendelsohn explained how he had always been fascinated by his grandfather’s mesmerizing tales of “the old country”, so much more exciting than life in a dull New York suburb. He had become the family historian by the age of 7, compiling facts on index cards and poring over photos of dead relatives. When he set out to research the book which became The Lost: A Search for Six out of Six Million, he determined to avoid library work and to cross the world, if necessary, to get people to tell their equally mesmerising but terrifying stories.
When Phillips asked about the aggressiveness of his curiosity, he agreed he almost had to bully frail old people into revealing more about the traumatic events they had gone through. And what was the point? He soon came to realize that he couldn’t take the word even of eyewitnesses at face value. He would show pictures of his great-uncle with four children to people who had known him and be told categorically that he had only had two. If they couldn’t get things like that right, why should he believe what they said about the fate of his family during the Holocaust? All stories are “leaky buckets” spilling errors, so his book was inevitably built on a tragic form of Chinese whispers.
Mendelsohn was equally interesting about stereotyping. One of the refrains of his childhood was that “Germans are bad, Poles are worse and Ukrainians are worst.” But although he was frightened to visit the Ukraine, he was greeted with milk, cookies, great kindness and hospitality. When he told this to elderly relatives, they were often irritated to have their monolithic images shattered. But what could he do? “They did give me milk and cookies, should I have said they attacked me with an axe?”
Any readable book about the Holocaust has to be an interpretation, a narrative which reflects the needs and values of the teller. But although he wanted to convey the excitement of his research, Mendelsohn was worried that this would make the book too readable and detract attention away from the harrowing things his relatives had suffered. One of his way round this dilemma was to break up the text with biblical commentary, to slow readers down and make them reflect on gnawing moral issues.
And there could be no redemptive ending. Perhaps the only real lesson Mendelsohn learned from researching the Holocaust, he said, was to be more sceptical, that all “facts” were at best guesses or approximations. Once you write them down, “It’s all going to be wrong and the bits which aren’t are lost. It’s problems or nothing. Is that Jewish or what?”

Matthew Reisz writes for the Times Higher Education Supplement and is the former editor of the Jewish Quarterly 

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February 22, 2008 by

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