Posted by: jbwuk | May 6, 2010

Bagels and Books at the International Writer’s Festival, Jerusalem

It’s pretty great to be away at a literary festival with little else to distract you. This one I’m at –the International Writer’s festival in Jerusalem has a fantastic line up of writers and some fascinating pairings of Israeli writers and some of their International counterparts. I’ve also uncovered some little known gems.

The setting is more spectacular than JBW in London. We sit in open airy marquees facing a stage against the backdrop of Jerusalem city walls –and the less-talked about wall at the edge of the city.

The audience is similar to our own, if a little more direct. This is evident when, whilst listening to Amos Oz in Hebrew my neighbour peers at the notes I have made (in Hebrew) and begins to correct my spelling. I am well trained and so respond politely.

The first session I attend is Zeruya Shalev and Siri Hustvedt.  They speak of speechlessness and trauma in their own and each other’s writing, inspiration and creativity. They are clearly fans of each other’s writing and their interactions about each other’s work is insightful. Far more so than the interviewer who poses both writers a question on the theme of being one half of a literary couple. And then another.  And another.

Maybe Israel brings out everybody’s frankness as Hustvedt eventually responds that she finds these questions boring.

More than boring , this angle undermines the work of the novelist, foregrounding gossip over literary merit, and is most often reserved for the female half of a literary couple.

I ask Paul Auster (the other half of the literary couple), and he agrees. He also proposes the superiority of cigars to cigarettes and the strange symbiosis of Jewish and Icelandic cultures. Both, I am told have an emphasis on storytelling. The former because of a lack of trees on the Island, The latter, of course, because they have been routinely dispossessed.

The following session was a choice between Kathryn Harrison (who’s most prominent work is The Kiss, a memoir about the affair she had with her father at the age of 20) and Daniel Mendelson (authour of The Lost) in conversation with Spanish Adolfo Garcia Ortega and Israeli, Nir Baram. I had chosen the Holocaust over incest but confusion over rooms led me to Harrison’s session. I intended to leave but the event was utterly absorbing. Harrison is a fascinating writer and natural storyteller. She has the ability to relay shocking events with a calm wisdom and unflinching frankness. Clearly attracted to the dark aspects of human nature her latest book, While They Slept, examines the story of Billy, a troubled young man who murders his parents and youngest sister before trying to run away with his other younger sister. Later, that day Harrison was interviewed alongside Finnish writer Sofie Oksanen whose novel Purge features a horrific story of family betrayal and the trafficking of a young girl in communist and modern-day Estonia.

I considered the programming decision of two consecutive events featuring novels focused on emotionally charged and traumatic family events and it occurred to me that this is a reflection of what gets translated into Hebrew. Of course, Israel translates a far higher percentage of books than the UK, and so, a far greater range, but if this selection is anything to go by there is an unsurprising emphasis on trauma memoirs whether grounded in personal or national history (or encompassing both.)

And that’s just the first day…

Also -there’s a fantastic supplement in Ha’aretz all about the festival, most of which is online.


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