“Blogs are vile. Blogs are terrible. Blogs will be the death of us all.”
Howard Jacobson at ‘The Last Word’, Jewish Book Week, Sunday March 6th 2011.
Sunday night marked the end of Jewish Book Week, and having a Jewish Booker Prize winner is a coup best saved for the finale. ‘The Last Word’ differed from the Nicole Krauss evening on Tuesday: the latter was strictly book centred. The author talked about her inspiration, her writing processes, the characters and why they had to be as they were, her aims, the changes in her life over the course of writing the book and the reason for the title. Great House requires both the characters and the readers to close off the outside world and dive into the confessions of the soul and that, too, was the essence of the talk. In the darkness of the auditorium, the audience closed off the outside world and delved into the book’s soul, and the author’s soul. One audience member dared to ask what it was like living with another successful author (Jonathan Safran Foer) but Krauss is famously guarded about discussing her husband. She and Naomi Alderman veered the conversation politely but firmly back to the novel, as though real life constituted a sordid digression from the fundamentals of fiction.
On Sunday night, the fictional mechanics of ‘The Finkler Question’ were not under scrutiny. There is community-wide pride and delight that a Jewish author won the highest prize for a novel that his mother told him wouldn’t win because it was ‘too Jewish’. But the novel casts a spotlight on the politics, effects and experiences of Anglo Jewry and the anti-Semitism that Jacobson says Jews themselves are best at, so it made sense that the essence of last night’s talk wasn’t a closing off but an opening out.
Questions naturally arose from the themes of book: are modern British Jews still outsiders? How do we react to this week’s Amalekian comments from Galliano and Assange? Or to the Iranians seeing Zion in the Olympic logo; Carol Churchill’s plays or programmes like The Promise? How do we stand up to unacceptable things?
Jonathan Freedland is exceptionally qualified to host a talk like this: he’s informed, articulate and level headed. I was living in Jerusalem, working for a news agency and writing a blog for The Independent when the Gaza war broke out and I have every respect for Freedland because it’s not easy being a journalist when you can neither champion nor condemn what ‘your lot’ are doing but feel acutely pressured from both sides to do so.
The regrettable aftertaste in my mouth as the event and the week drew to a close was that there are Jews who, according to a lady in the audience, are ‘ashamed of being Jews’. I wanted to stand up and say, ‘Lady, you have no idea what you have in your hands.’ But I didn’t. Because I don’t know what context she meant it in, and because war and politics have a way of making beautiful legacies ugly and dignified people feel uncomfortable. She has every right to feel what she feels, but it was still a sour tang I drove home with after such a sweet Booker-flavoured achievement.
The best thing to do in hostile circumstances, I’ve always maintained, is to shut the rest of the world off and dive somewhere nicer, and this would be a flawless solution but for the niggling fact that once we close the book we have to face life. We live here; our children go to schools, take buses home and study in universities rife with hostility.
To oversimplify it, Krauss-like seclusion lies on one side; Freedland-like world management on the other, and both need to be addressed. ‘Phillip Roth is comfortable in his culture,’ Howard Jacobson said on Sunday,’ but we have a slightly different relationship to British culture.’ He added, ‘I’m a defender of the English language! I go out like Don Quixote!’, and I think therein lies the answer. Sword aloft, we have to defend our right to exist, our right to be treated with respect and our right to feel how we feel. And when politics and people get ugly, we have to defend our right to shut the world out when a good book is calling from the coffee table.
You can find Emma Shevah’s blog here: