Lonely Lives

Day Two. Attending a morning session yesterday between American writer Anita Diamant and Sharona Gury, the woman who has translated her three novels into Hebrew (Diamant has also published eight non-fiction works), I was a little surprised to see that the audience - aside from two photographers and myself - was all female. Diamant, a comfortable and likable woman who seems to be used to the cult-like following "The Red Tent" has inspired around the world, took the demographics of the turnout in stride, though she said she didn't write it as a feminist tract, and never intended for it to be read only by women.

She does try in her writing, though, "to celebrate stories of people who were left out of history." In her most popular book, it was Dina, daughter of Jacob and Leah, whose voice is never heard in the Bible, but who actually serves as narrator of Diamant's book. In her more recent novel, "The Last Days of Dogtown" (2005), about life in a dismal Massachusetts village in the early 19th century, it is the town's marginal residents she focuses on - the prostitutes, blacks, witches and the like. Referring to comments made on Monday by both Nadine Gordimer and Amos Oz, to the effect that the serious writer of fiction must keep his or her political and literary work separate from one another (Oz said he literally uses different-colored pens - yes, he writes in longhand - for the two genres), Diamant insisted that she doesn't write with a political agenda. Maybe it's not politics; maybe it's just affirmative action.

Oz, who is turning into the Grand Old Man of Hebrew literature, showed up again yesterday in the big tent to play host to Nicole Krauss, celebrated author of "The History of Love." Krauss, who is all of 34, is still innocent - or savvy - enough to sound fresh, and for her humility to come off as genuine. When Oz asked her how "a young, attractive, New York female author" was able to pull off writing in the first person about Leo Gursky, a character who is male, elderly, Eastern European and a Holocaust survivor, she responded that she felt more comfortable writing in Leo's voice than in that of 14-year-old Alma, because writing about Alma felt more like memoir, and that made her feel "dead in the water."

To write fiction, she explained, requires "a perfect marriage of imagination and authenticity," and by inventing Leo, "I could pour my personal feelings into him - about being lonely, about being misunderstood."

Krauss was convincing in her description of the writer's work as "not just lonely, it's almost insufferable." She asked the avuncular Oz if it gets any easier after you have a few books under your belt, and he answered that "as long as you are trying not to write the same book, it won't get any easier."

Oz, who will be 70 next year, has a wonderful facility for coming up with an apt metaphor or simile to explain most any situation. In this case, he suggested that writing is like driving with "one foot on the brake pad, and the other on the accelerator." Over the years, he explained, "the foot on the brake becomes heavier, and the foot on the accelerator becomes more hesitant."

For Krauss, though, it is life, not writing, where her inhibitions are in control. The only time she feels truly free is when she is writing. She thanked David Grossman's "See: Under Love" for having "changed my life as a writer." Reading the Israeli writer's novel of growing up, she realized "there weren't any rules, that I could do it any way I wanted. It taught me that I shouldn't hold anything back for my next book, but should write as if this was my last book."

Oz, asked by Krauss who his major literary influences were, named, in addition to Agnon, Berdyczewski and Brenner, the author Sherwood Anderson, whose "Winesburg, Ohio" he returns to periodically, and which he credits with showing to him that, for a writer, "wherever you are is the center of the universe."

This week, however, Jerusalem feels like the center of the universe. Starting today, President Bush is in town (along with numerous other dignitaries, for Shimon Peres' important person fest), and will be camping just a few hundred meters down the road, at the King David Hotel. Already yesterday, the increased presence of security forces in the area was palpable, and at one point during the Oz-Krauss meet, a low-flying helicopter in the sky above the tent made conversation impossible. Oz remarked that this was George Bush's own contribution to the writers festival, to which Krauss responded that it was "as close as he'll ever get" to one.

Then, like a seasoned comic, she added, with mock remorse, "It's easy to laugh at the expense of a stupid person." The crowd ate it up.