Last week was great. I went to three events which really made me think, something I really like.
Tuesday night was organised by Leo Baeck Institute but taking place at the German Historical Institute, a gorgeous building just off Bloomsbury Square where I had never been before. I wonder how many more institutes there are in London which I don’t know… Leo Baeck has a great programme of talks and films and I feel guilty I can’t go more often. And no, I didn’t go because there were canapes afterwards. The speaker was Sander L. Gilman, professor of Psychiatry at Emory University and author of more than 80 books including Jewish Self-Hatred and Seeing the Insane. The title of his talk was “Why the Jews are the smartest people in the universe and why this is a bad thing.” He is a great speaker, entertaining and witty. He talked about the insidious philosemitism behind the claim of Jewish superiority. He certainly doesn’t believe in the idea that the Jews are actually smarter than anyone else or in a Jewish gene. It’s the conditions Jews have lived in that forced them to use their wits and develop their intelligence more than anyone else. He should still be visiting professor at Birkbeck next year so do look out for him in the JBW 2012 programme hopefully.
The next day I was invited for the relaunch of Hitler’s Savage Canary by David Lampe at the Danish Embassy. Again a gorgeous building on Sloane St but this time an example of modern architecture designed by Arne Jacobsen at the end of the 70s. The wonderful Sandi Toksvig was chairing. She made the point that not all Danish books have Hitler’s Canary in the title (she wrote an eponymous children’s book she presented at JBW a few years ago). I must apologise for not remembering the name of the Danish speakers: one a military man who was there to talk about bravery and a historian who probably surprised most of the audience, starting with the Ambassador, by saying one could see how dated this book was. Indeed it showed a romanticised view of the resistance which one would not find today. He debunked the myth of the King wearing the yellow star sadly. I had never realised that writing the history of the war had evolved so much. A member of the audience timidly asked if the ferrying of the Jews to Sweden was still true or whether that was also a myth. Fortunately it’s still true! Bob Moore, who came to JBW 2011 to talk about Survivors, was much more nuanced and said that it’s often terribly difficult to understand the motivation of those people who saved others. I had thought of doing an event on writing the Holocaust and the way it has changed over time but am now thinking we might want to also look at the way writing the war has changed as well.
Then Thursday night was the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize at Riba. I love to go not just because it’s sponsored by Taittinger but because as a former translator myself and someone who in my previous job promoted French books to UK publishers, this is still were a large chunk of my heart is. I was really hoping Jenny Erpenbeck, shortlisted for Visitation which she discussed at JBW 2011, would win. She had come for the occasion but sadly the prize went to Santiago Roncagliolo for his novel Red April. He gave such a lovely speech that I cannot but forgive him for winning. My other reason for loving this prize is that it was brought back to life by Boyd Tonkin, the literary editor of the Independent and definitely JBW’s biggest supporter in the literary world.
Otherwise work on the list of best Jewish books of the last 60 years continue. At the moment the list must have about 200 titles on it and I’m consulting all the brains at the Jewish Book Council. One of them sent me back a list of almost 60 more titles I had omitted! So we are not ready to cut it down to 60 before revealing it to the world. But I love the discussion. Some problems are fairly easy to resolve as what publication date do we choose for foreign books (the one in the original language or the one in English: not inconsequential when looking at Primo Levi for instance). But what about books by Jewish authors who have no Jewish content in appearance? As someone pointed out, there are examples of authors who were drawn to a particular topic or field of research by their individual experience during the war for instance and their treatment as a Jew. Eventually we want these 60 books to be brought down to 6 by you, our readers and JBW audience. Should we do like the Whitbread and have 6 categories, mirroring the ones on the website. Should we simply decide we want half fiction, half non fiction? What of poetry and drama? More questions than answers at the moment. Apparently in a similar exercise 15 years ago I think, the favourites ended up being Anne Frank’s Diary, Leon Uris’ Exodus and Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food… How different will it be in 2012?