I was in Paris last week-end for the third edition of the Rencontres des Livres des Mondes Juifs, beautifully subtitled Diasporas en Dialogue. This is the brainchild of a friend of mine, inspired by our very own JBW and sharing our beautiful logo. It only lasts Saturday night and Sunday all day for the moment but is packed with people. Ironically, it takes place at the Hotel Lutetia which had famously been used by the Nazis during the war but became the place where people returning from the camps would be welcome and where those hoping for their returns would come for news. I like the fact that it is now the home of a vibrant festival of Jewish thought and meetings of minds with representatives of other diasporas.
One of their stars this year was the unique Amos Oz as the French are lucky to already have his new book, a collection of interrelated short stories for which Oz paid tribute to Carver and Tchekov, “the great writers of small things”. He talked brilliantly of literature and the lack of separation between fiction and non fiction, comedy and tragedy; of the difficulty of being an Israeli writer, always feeling guilty of doing the wrong thing, not writing his novel when attacking the government, not taking a political stand when writing his fiction, of generally feeling guilty, and worse of all, guilty of belonging to the very people who invented guilt; he was very brief on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so not black and white as outsiders keep seeing it; he also lamented the infantilisation of humanity and our constant pursuit of the next material thing to possess as if happiness depended on acquiring the latest novelty and discarding the past, thus forgetting that our greatest treasure is our memories.
Oz was echoed in this by the acclaimed economist Daniel Cohen who gave the most impressive analysis of the consequences of mondialisation. He presented a very powerful picture of the modern man as a dissatisfied walker, doomed to strive to reach an unreachable horizon. We always think that a little more money will bring happiness but when we get this increased wealth, we quickly get used to it and want more. We are only capable of solidarity when it’s not needed. I am sure his views will be echoed by Oliver James, the author of Affluenza, in the JBW discussion of what we have learnt from the economic crisis, if anything. I would love to have your views ahead of the panel.
There were many other talks on other topics such as Jews and Poles before History, Rome and Jerusalem, fiction and memory and the festival ended with Alain Finkielkraut who was supposed to talk about his new book about the great authors of fiction who shaped his life and thinking (Kundera, Camus, Roth, Conrad, Dostoievski, Henry James, Vassili Grossman, etc…). But put two strong minded French intellectuals together and you get a bit more sparks than would be comfortable with in the UK. Finkielkraut spoke beautifully of the novel as safeguard of human plurality, agreeing with the idea that ideology can easily lead to hatred whereas fiction fosters love and understanding. I don’t know if he would agree with the idea that writing can change the world, to be discussed at JBW by Michael Arditti, Amanda Craig and Moris Farhi, but it can certainly help us understand what it is to be human. In the run up to the session, we’d like to compile a list of books that changed the world and we’d love to have your suggestions.