Posted by: jbwuk | March 2, 2010

Elizabeth Baines on A Beginner’s Guide to Jews on the Edge

Billed as a discussion between novelists Will Self and Adam Thirwell about ‘the many possible manifestations of Judaism – half-Jews, non-Jews, self-hating Jews, anti-semitic Jews et al – and whether any of these semitic permutations actually matters’, this Sunday afternoon session could not have been more different in atmosphere from the Theresienstadt session I attended in the morning. Maybe it was the jokey billing, maybe it was the thought of Will Self’s rebellious intellect, but long before it began there was a thrill of anarchy and rebellion in the air.

The huge hall was filled up almost to capacity. Adam Thirwell kicked off by pointing out that he and Self hadn’t chosen the title of the event, and, needless to say (and gratifyingly for me) the thrust of their interest turned out to be literary rather than sociological. They had had the idea, Self said, while at a literary festival in Lyon, and as a result of a talk in praise of the novelist Celine, a passionate anti-semite. Turning to examine the concepts of Jewishness held by Jews and others, he said that when he tells Gentiles that he is half-Jewish, they often ask which of his parents is Jewish, and when he says his mother they say, ‘Oh, well, you’re Jewish then!’, and he found it interesting that Jews had managed to impose so successfully on Gentiles this matrilineal notion of Jewishness. For him, he said, such a notion simply doesn’t add up: his mother wasn’t observant, and he feels it ill behoves him to claim to be more than half Jewish.

Thirwell then said he was a matrilineal Jew (ie he wasn’t claiming the matrilineal notion, just saying his mother is Jewish), but ‘barely cultural’, and he feels embattled when he is forced to ‘be’ more Jewish than he feels because of this matrilineal notion. Why was it not possible to have a two-part identity? Self referred to a piece he had written for the Jewish Quarterly, ‘On Writing Half-Jewishly’, which he said he had thought a sweet little piece, but had been attacked for it by the author Cynthia Ozik, who said that he may be famous but if he claims placelessness he can only be a blur; that people are born whole not half. Untrue, said Self (rightly): people are born multifarious.

After more discussion, the floor was thrown open to questions. One of the most interesting was the first: a woman asked what they thought about Pinter who she felt lost by never declaring his Jewishness in his work. Self said that he liked her style! which caused laughter, but Thirwell defended Pinter by pointing out that Ashes to Ashes is a play about the Holocaust, and asked why anyone has to be Jewish in their writing. Self said, Yes, are we looking at him through identity politics he wouldn’t have agreed with, or is there really a lack in his work? But then do we think Beckett paid attention to his Irishness in his writing? Yes, of course he did! Thirwell said, But does this have anything to do with whether or not these two are good writers? Self said perhaps all the silences in Pinter are really him saying, ‘I’m Jewish! I’m Jewish’! which caused a good deal of laughter.

Elizabeth is a novelist, short-story writer and playwright. Her most recent books are the novel Too Many Magpies and the story collection Balancing on the Edge of the World, both published by Salt. You can read the whole of the review on her blog, FictionBitch.

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