Powerful literary alchemy
An encounter with the 'Chinese David Grossman,' conversations between superstars and lesser-known figures from home and abroad, and discussions on subjects ranging from the Holocaust to contemporary femininity - all await at the second International Writers Festival next week.
Two years ago, Mishkenot Sha'ananim, the conference center and guesthouse in Jerusalem's historic Yemin Moshe neighborhood, produced an international writers festival for the first time, which brought together some 50 or so authors, half of them Israeli, half from abroad, for four days of conversations, readings, panel discussions and the like. The response was overwhelmingly positive. A majority of the events sold out, and the quality of the presentations - and level of audience enthusiasm - was unusually high.
Perhaps a sign of the success of the 2008 festival was the fact that its two organizers, Yael Nahari and Gilad Newman, soon left Mishkenot Sha'ananim to set up their own company to produce cultural events. Not about to give up a good thing, Mishkenot then turned to Tsila Hayun, whose own firm was responsible for the cultural content at the last two Jerusalem Book Fairs (also a biennial event, which takes place during odd-numbered years), to put together a second festival. It gets underway on Monday.
Key to the first event's success was the choice of invitees, a clever mix of heavy-hitting celebrity writers from abroad - Nadine Gordimer, Jonathan Safran Foer and his wife Nicole Krauss, and Nathan Englander, for example - and gifted but far less well-known artists who nonetheless were able to enthrall and inspire audiences. Tickets for events were inexpensive enough (this year, too, most tickets cost NIS 30-60) that one could take a chance and choose to attend a conversation featuring someone like Irish writer Niall Williams or Portuguese novelist Lidia Jorge simply on the basis of a few lines about them in the program.
Another successful element was the pairing of foreign writers with Israeli "hosts," who would engage the visitor in an hour-long conversation about his or her writing. Thus, Amos Oz interviewed Nadine Gordimer one afternoon and Nicole Krauss the following day, and Israelis Savyon Liebrecht and Amir Gutfreund, both of whom deal with the Holocaust in their very different styles of fiction, joined in a discussion with German writer Hans-Ulrich Treichel, whose family's expulsion from eastern Germany during the Russian advance in 1945 was only the start of their troubles, as he depicted in his autobiographical novel, "Lost."
This Tuesday, the author of a very different volume with a similar name will appear at the second International Writers Festival: Daniel Mendelsohn, whose 2006 nonfiction work, "The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million," is on many readers' lists of the best books of all time. Mendelsohn, a professor of classics at Bard College in New York, whose startling book chronicles his obsessive quest to learn how each of the members of the family of his one great-uncle who did not escape the Nazis met their respective ends during the war, will be hosted in conversation by A.B. Yehoshua. He is also slated to appear on Monday in a panel discussion with Israeli journalist and novelist Nir Baram, and editor and writer Adolfo Garcia Ortega, from Spain.
Though Baram and Ortega have both written novels on Holocaust-related themes (Baram wrote "Fine People," and Garcia Ortega, "The Birthday Buyer") - none of the three could reasonably be called a "Holocaust writer," but their conversation, to be moderated by Israeli novelist and journalist Sarah Blau, will focus on the impact of this overwhelming subject on contemporary literature.
Another superstar, much beloved in Israel, to be featured in the festival, is Paul Auster. During an earlier visit, in 1997, Auster, whose large oeuvre includes both highly intricate plots and challenging postmodern concepts - sometimes in the same work - visited the park outside Jerusalem's City Hall named for a distant relation, Daniel Auster, the first mayor of the city after statehood, in 1948.
As in that last visit, the writer will be accompanied by his wife, writer Siri Hustvedt, and will appear at a screening (this time under the stars) of the 1995 film "Smoke," which he wrote for director Wayne Wang.
Hustvedt is a well-regarded American novelist in her own right (most recently, of "The Sorrows of an American" from 2008), although her most recent work, "The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves," (2010) is a candid memoir about her own struggle with a mysterious neurological disorder. She will undoubtedly have the opportunity to hold forth on that, as well as the less weighty subject of what it's like to live in a two-writer household, when she joins Israeli journalist Eilat Negev in a discussion with novelist Zeruya Shalev - who is also married to a writer, novelist and poet Eyal Megged. (Shalev and Megged have other well-known writers in their extended families, but our space is limited.)
One extended family to which attention must be paid is that of English historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, a great-great-nephew of Moses Montefiore (and relation of Gwyneth Paltrow!), the 19th-century banker and patron of Jerusalem. Sebag Montefiore will in fact discuss his forthcoming book on the city with Amos Oz on Monday. Though the latter left the capital long ago, he gets credit for having written an important memoir on his childhood there, "A Tale of Love and Darkness." Still, if you'd prefer hearing Sebag Montefiore talk about the art of biography writing (he has produced two award-winning studies of Joseph Stalin), better to attend his Tuesday session with Prof. Anita Shapira, herself the author of biographies of Berl Katznelson and Yosef Haim Brenner.
Of special note
Three foreign writers, each working in languages other than English, seem deserving of special note, even if their names may have only a slightly familiar ring: Daniel Kehlmann, Sofi Oksanen and Yu Hua. The German Kehlmann, 35, studied philosophy and literature before writing the amazingly successful "Measuring the World" in 2006, in which he imagined a fictional meeting between the 19th-century explorer Alexander von Humboldt and mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. His writing is erudite and funny, gaining him much praise at home as a new kind of German writer - namely, one with a sense of humor.
He will appear twice - once in a conversation with Eyal Megged, and also in a panel discussion (led by Tzvia Greenfield, herself a formidable public figure - certainly the only ultra-Orthodox scholar to have represented the Meretz party in the Knesset), on Germany 20 years after the fall of Communism, with Megged, Oksanen and fellow German Judith Hermann.
Oksanen, 33, is Finnish, of Estonian heritage. In "Purge" (2008), her popular play-turned-into-novel, she portrayed the women in three generations of a family in Estonia during the tumultuous second half of the 20th century. Two sisters find themselves divided by love and by politics, and the consequences are fateful, having repercussions down to the present day. On the thematic level, the book deals both with trafficking in women and the effects of Stalin's exile of tens of thousands of Estonians to Siberia, in the late 1940s. "Purge," which won two of its country's top literary prizes, was published in Hebrew last year, and earlier this month in the United States, and Oksanen arrives in Israel straight from an American publication tour.
Oksanen, a former student of dramaturgy, has, from the many different photographs of her that appear on the Web, a theatrical sense about her, and another event she's scheduled to appear in promises some drama: an evening about "music, writing and contemporary feminity" at Jerusalem's Yellow Submarine club, together with American memoirist Kathryn Harrison (whose books and novels regularly return to the theme of incest) and Israel's sublime poet-musician Rona Kenan, hosted by the always dramatic media personality Merav Michaeli.
I have heard Yu Hua described as the "David Grossman of China." Yu certainly has been critically and commercially successful in his fictional portraits of Chinese society and its ills, but whereas Grossman is delicate and refined (and much loved at home), Yu specializes in the grotesque in his portrayals of both the abuses of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, on the one hand, and the excesses of the super-capitalistic People's Republic of the past two decades. And many Chinese have challenged his take on their country, even as they have made him a best-selling author and a wealthy man. Yu, author most recently of "Brothers," published earlier this year in the U.S., will be hosted on Tuesday by Israeli sinologist Ohad Nevo, and again on Thursday, after a screening of Zhang Yimou's 1994 film version of his novel "To Live," a critical look at China that was censored on the mainland, and earned its director a two-year ban from practicing his art there.
And then there is Paolo Giordano, whose first novel, "The Solitude of Prime Numbers," about the relationship of two traumatized and scarred young people, won Italy's most prestigious literary award, the Premio Strega, in 2008, and sold over a million copies. He's only 28, his professional training is in physics, and he looks like a movie star. What more did you want to know about him? Oh, yes: He will converse Monday evening with Israeli novelist Ron Leshem, who, at 33, is far more seasoned.
Leshem too had an unprecedented success with his first novel, "If There Is a Paradise" ("Beaufort" in its English translation, and in the film version directed by Joseph Cedar), about a company of Israel Defense Forces soldiers in southern Lebanon shortly before the army's pullout from that country in 2000.
This is only a fraction of the events that are planned for the International Writers Festival, and I have no doubt that those I haven't mentioned will be no less interesting than those noted here. There is something about the chemical reactions that ensue when writers are talking with writers, in front of audiences who care about writing, that yields golden results more akin to what you would expect from alchemy.
Unfortunately, the Web site of the festival (http://writersfestival.mouse.co.il/) and the official program do not appear online in English. However, all events will offer simultaneous translation into Hebrew or English, depending on which language the session is conducted in, and tickets can be ordered over the phone from Bimot (02-6237000).
During the four days of the festival, a special area adjacent to the Montefiore Windmill, will be set aside for children's programming, and parents will even be able to leave their offspring there while attending events in the festival tent or in the Mishkenot building. Also, as last time, Steimatzky will be operating a bookstore on the premises, and plans to stock a large portion of the titles that are in print by participating authors, in Hebrew, English and other languages, too.
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