Posted by: jbwuk | May 19, 2011

Meanwhile in London…

While Mekella is meeting festival organisers from round the world and having her thinking revolutionised in Singapore, I’ve been compiling a list of the best Jewish books of the last 60 years. This is one of the responses to our thrilling brainstorming meetings. We really feel that our move to Kings Place and 60th anniversary celebration call for new ideas . It’s always good to challenge oneself and reject any kind of routine. It’s all too easy to think we know what works and doesn’t work.

Our first meeting took place in the gorgeous Rotunda restaurant where the JBW team and first brainstorm victims were the guests of Kings Place. The brilliant minds (I’m not talking of the JBW team here) assembled came up with all sort of great suggestions. I guess the splendid 61 Chasse-Spleen served in a carafe (what I call real class as, if not for expert palates, this most generous gesture could have gone totally unnoticed) probably helped. 2012 will be our diamond jubilee (together with the Queen) so if anyone out there wants to donate a diamond for a prize draw or raffle, just let us know. There was also talk of inviting Prince Philip to open the festival and remember his mother’s role in saving Greek Jews. Other slightly wild ideas (at this and other meetings) involved convincing Royal Mail to issue a commemoration stamp, a conversation between Chomsky and the Chief Rabbi and broadcasting JBW live around the world.

One thing that has come up at almost every meeting was the idea of a list of the best Jewish books of the last 60 years. As usual it raises the question of what’s a Jewish book.  I don’t think a Jewish book must necessarily be written by a Jew and definitely believe that not all books written by Jews are Jewish. Limiting ourselves to fiction will probably help. If Philip Roth and Howard Jacobson produce undoubtedly Jewish books can we say the same of Paul Auster or Nadine Gordimer? Should the latter, great writers as they are,  be included in the list? Then what do we do with this list? How many books should we identify? One per year, or just the best 10 of the last 60 years? Should we have a reading: 60 times one minute was one suggestion, it could result in a rather fun collage, a bit of a cadavre exquis. Or maybe have a round table to choose the best 6 titles? Get our audience to vote in advance from the long list? Your suggestions will be welcome.

In the meanwhile I’m also visiting publishers and finding out about what will be published between now and next February, such as Jan Karski for the first time in the UK by Penguin. Two of their recent authors are also attracting a lot of attention: David Bezmozgis for his new novel The Free World and The Great Sea by David Abulafia, a massive history of the Mediterranean.  Atlantic is bringing out Claude Lanzmann‘s memoirs. Duckworth has a short futuristic book, The Morning Star,  by Andre Schwartz-Bart (the author of The Last of the Just) and I’m reading Ludmila Ulitskaya‘ s fascinating novel based on a real life Polish Jew turned Christian monk in Israel. Alma will have Aharon Apelfeld’s new novel, Blooms of Darkness. The Princeton catalogue was full of gems and a new publisher, Notting Hill Press, specialised in short essays, had at least 3 books I’d like to feature in the next festival. And I’m not done yet!

Naomi Chazan interviewed by Jonathan Freedland was a great inspiration and made me question our rule to only invite speakers who’ve written a book. Francis Fukuyama also gave us a lot of food for thought. I’m afraid in his case, I really can’t find an excuse to bring him to JBW but among the many things I retained from his talk was the idea that although information has never been as available to us as today, it’s also dangerously easy to only see, hear and read what you want and agree with and never be confronted to opinions you don’t agree with. A strong case I suppose for confrontational session at festivals, as long as speakers do listen to each other and exchange ideas rather than enter slanging matches.

On a different note, I went to see Terry Gilliam’s Faust at ENO and was considerably irritated with the facile transposition to Nazi Germany, making Marguerite a Jew. Equating the Devil and Nazis is notexactly the most original idea. And changing the context without adapting the text along the same lines resulted in a rather ridiculous and distracting gap between words and actions on stage. Very disappointing. In a totally different category, The Wall live at O2 was absolutely stunning, although not at all the kind of events I usually attend. The very last image of the show was, not surprisingly in the current mood, Banksy’s little girl flying free with her balloons over the ruins of the wall…

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