When novelist Nicole Krauss came here in 2008 to participate in the first International Writers' Festival in Jerusalem at Mishkenot Sha'ananim, she wasn’t planning on making a habit out of it.
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But the acclaimed American-Jewish writer found herself so drawn to Jerusalem that she has happily been invited back to each meeting of the biennial gathering of writers from around the world. And ahead of the May 2014 festival, Krauss has now agreed to be its artistic co-director, writing personal letters of invitation to other world- renowned writers that in themselves can stir the spirit and make a literary connoisseur salivate.
Krauss, in town for a short visit, was put on the spot while on stage at Mishkenot Thursday night and asked by her interlocutor, Israeli writer and TV personality Gil Hovav, to read one such letter aloud to the audience.
“Of the cities of my life, none demands so much of me as Jerusalem,” Krauss began. “None is as beautiful, complex, heartbreaking, contradictory, eternal, or profound.
“I’ve been visiting the city to visit my grandparents since I was a child, but in 2008 I returned not as an American granddaughter but, for the first time, as an American writer, invited to participate in the first International Writers' Festival of Jerusalem.
“Given everything I knew about the city, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by what an extraordinary experience it was. And yet, I was: surprised by the disarming warmth of the Israeli writers who welcomed us; surprised by the spine-tingling view from my guestroom of the Old City, different in every light; surprised by the fact that Israelis don’t believe in forming lines, and like to envelop their writers in a kind of group body hug when trying to get their books signed. And most surprised of all to find myself sharing a stage with Amos Oz while, behind our backs, the sun slowly went down on 3,000 years of history.”
It’s hard to place a finger on why when officials in this city boast of the same 3,000 years of history, I feel my eyes rolling almost involuntarily at the clichés, crusty from overuse. But when Krauss, who sometimes but not always comes with her equally famous husband, the writer Jonathan Safran Foer, speaks of the beauty and complexity of the city that I now call home, it has another quality to it entirely. It’s as if she somehow sees Jerusalem for what it is – but let’s not “ruin the evening getting into politics, she added at one point – and finds some inspiration here, some inexplicable quality, that can’t be found in Brooklyn.
Krauss spoke with Hovav at the kick-off event Thursday night as part of a six-session literary series leading up to the May festival. The evening, whose focus was “American Literature – Between ‘The Great Gatsby’ to ‘The History of Love’” started with a panel examining why it is that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel was such a seminal work which continues to inspire reprints and film remakes. It’s important enough in the Israelis’ view of American life for it to have been translated into Hebrew more than once, explained Lior Sternberg, who did the most recent translation, and in 15 or 20 years, he predicted, it may require yet another.
Moderator Evan Fallenberg, a celebrated novelist and a translator who has become one of the most important bridges between the American and Israeli literary scenes, seamlessly kept the half English, half Hebrew conversation flowing. Hana Wirth-Nesher, a professor of English and American Studies at Tel Aviv University, reminded us why the novel’s story of class warfare still resonates, and could easily be attractive reading material for the recent social protest movement. “In ‘Gatsby,’ working class people who are going to try to make it to the upper class will pay with their lives,” she explained.
How any life is lived is something that intrigues Krauss. In her books, her characters take on a life of their own, she explained. While she’s aware that she’s created them, she doesn’t usually sit down with a road map for where they’ll go. And unlike in real life, if you’re not happy with the way things turn out, you can always go back to the start.
“That’s the wonderful thing about writing,” she says. “You don’t have a chance to relive your life again. But in your work, you have the chance to rewrite it endlessly.” She added later, “To me writing is the only way you can claim your freedom. It’s not enough to be given just one life. You want more than that. With writing, you live in other places, you go into other worlds.”
As the crux evening was to find some American theme to link Krauss’ writing to Fitzgerald’s, Hovav attempted to make his own connection, saying that her characters all seemed optimistic. It was a funny choice of word – one that the rest of the world loves to pin on Americans, Krauss indicated. In my opinion, neither of the two headlined books leave a careful reader feeling Pollyannaish.
“I don’t think I can write something hopeless,” Krauss responded. “That’s not who I am. Not because I’m American; I think it’s human. When I’m working, it’s always that if I could put things in the right place, press something into being, there would be some redemption,” Krauss said. Perhaps, she acknowledged, a Jewish sense of “tikkun olam” – fixing the world – has worked its way into her thinking.
As a young writer, however, she hadn’t planned for Israel to be play prominently in her life. The Judaism she saw growing up on materialistic Long Island made her want to run in the other direction. Somehow, her relationship with Israel has evolved, and she feels an almost inexplicable instinct to come back for another visit, and another.
“Israel is one of the constants, and I guess that’s why I keep coming back here, like being a homing pigeon or a salmon going up river. I can’t help it, I can’t resist it,” she says. “But being a writer has made me a restless person. I find it hard to understand people who live all their lives in one place.”