The Words Going Forth From Jerusalem

The Jerusalem International Book Fair turns 50 this year, and adjusts to life without its longtime leader Zev Birger. Fair number 25 offers the book-loving public numerous opportunities to be exposed to writers who are very far from being the usual suspects.

Two thousand and thirteen marks both a landmark and a watershed moment for the Jerusalem International Book Fair. A landmark, because the biennial fair, which opens on Sunday night and runs through Friday morning (February 10-15) at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, is celebrating 50 years since its establishment; and a watershed, because this will be the first fair since the death of Zev Birger, who had directed it since 1981, and played a key role in turning it into a major international publishing event.

Of course, the fair also comes at a time when publishing and bookselling are undergoing a transformation, both in terms of business models, but also in terms of the very content they offer consumers. There’s no doubt this is true, but it’s also true that “the sky has been falling” in the industry for the past few decades, and yet books continue to be written, published and marketed, with no sign that this is about to end. Moreover, a look at the program of this year’s fair suggests that publishing people have started to take digitalization in their stride, and are less likely to shrei gevalt over an imminent apocalypse. Evidence of this are three panel discussions taking place during the fair, one about “Selling Books during the Digital Age” and another two featuring people who write about books and literature, in one case in traditional venues and in the other case online. (More about all three events below.) These seem to me more like practical responses to the challenges and opportunities of the digital era than a collective wake for a dead or dying enterprise.

Unlike the London or Frankfurt book fairs, both annual events that have always served as major places for agents, editors and writers from around the world to convene and to do business, the Jerusalem fair has always put the emphasis on cultural programming for the book-loving public. Of course, publication rights get bought and sold during the five days of the fair, and its editorial fellows program is a closed event that has played an important role in introducing editors from around the world to Israel and to one another, since its establishment in 1985. But as digital communications make it increasingly easy for business to be transacted without anyone needing to leave the office (which is now often a home office), book fairs have started to rebrand themselves as public cultural events in which the Jerusalem International Book Fair has always excelled.

So, what does the fair have to offer you this year?

First and foremost, there are the exhibitors stands from more than 30 different countries, and representing some 600 publishers, offering books for browsing purposes and for sale. It’s easy to wander around the vast maze that has been constructed at Binyanei Hauma, as the convention center is still commonly called, examining books for several hours before you even realize that you are lost. Admission to the fair and to all of its events is free, and because this article can only highlight a fraction of them (many of the national stands will be offering author events of their own), it is worthwhile to check the online program, at www.jerusalembookfair.com, to see what’s on. The most successful innovation of the Jerusalem fair has been the Literary Cafe series, which began several fairs ago, and which this year will offer 30 separate opportunities for the public to encounter the visiting writers, in many cases in conversation with an Israeli peer another writer, or a journalist or scholar.

‘Who are these people?’

An initial look at the list of visiting writers, most of whose visits are being sponsored by the local embassies of their respective countries, often because they have a new book out in Hebrew translation, will probably elicit a response similar to mine: I’ve never heard of any of these people. Whereas the fair in 2011 hosted a number of writers whose work is widely known to Anglo readers in Israel Jerusalem Prize recipient Ian McEwan, American cookbook author Joan Nathan, Italian superstar Umberto Eco, but also Israelis Meir Shalev, Sayed Kashua and A.B. Yehoshua, among others this year, you may draw a blank when you look at the program. I suggest treating this as an opportunity to be exposed to a world of talents and subjects that the mainstream international English-language press doesn’t cover, mainly because U.S. publishers don’t bring their books out in translation because, as everyone knows, Americans don’t like to read books by foreigners. (Fortunately, British readers are a bit more open-minded in their reading choices.)

Let’s start with the winner of this year’s Jerusalem Prize, the honor that has been bestowed at every fair since the first, in 1963, and whose previous recipients have included Jorge Luis Borges, Graham Greene, V.S. Naipaul and Haruki Murakami. Spanish novelist Antonio Munoz Molina is the 2013 recipient, and he will appear in conversation, in English, with Israeli poet and translator Tal Nitzan, at the Literary Cafe on Monday evening at 8. Molina’s novels have often dealt with the Spanish Civil War and the period of dictator Francisco Franco that followed, but he is probably best known for the 2001 work “Sepharad” (which is available in English), an unconventional narrative that combines fact and fiction to look at the diaspora life and persecution of the Jews during the 20th century, while drawing a parallel to the longing for pre-Inquisition Spain.

As always, the French Embassy is bringing a fine grouping of writers to this year’s fair. They include Philippe Labro (at the LC, Monday at 6 P.M., in French and Hebrew) the 76-year-old journalist, filmmaker and novelist who as a young man received a scholarship to attend college at Washington & Lee University in Virginia, and has conducted a rare Frenchman’s love affair with the United States ever since. Two of his novels, “The Foreign Student” and “Le Petit Garcon,” both available in English translation, deal with that period of his life. In the latter, he also writes about his parents, Jean-Francois and Henriette Labro, who provided refuge to a number of Jews during World War II, and who were recognized by Yad Vashem in 2000 as Righteous Among the Nations.

At the LC on Monday at 8 P.M. (French and Hebrew), Emanuel Halperin will interview the Belgian-born Amelie Nothomb, one of the most popular writers in France today. Nothomb, 46, publishes an average of one novel a year, many of them available in English. She is known for her sense of humor (and the huge, Mad Hatter-like floppy hats that she wears everywhere), but also for her eclectic range. Perhaps her most well-known autobiographical novel, “Fear and Trembling,” described her return to Japan, where she spent part of her childhood, at age 19, to work at a corporation there, where her colleagues conspired to humiliate her, and she was incrementally demoted until she finally had the assignment of cleaning toilets. That’s a comic novel, by the way.

Also recommended are an LC session with Emmanuel Carrere (Wednesday, 4 P.M.) and a meeting at the French national stand with ethnopsychiatrist Tobie Nathan (Wednesday, 7:30 P.M.). Carrere has written the true-life crime story of a man who murdered his entire family; a novel based on his own Russian heritage; and most recently, a biography of the Russian writer, politician and dissident-provocateur Eduard Limonov. The Egyptian-born Nathan, who served as cultural attache at the French Embassy for several years, is a pioneer of the application of anthropological studies to psychiatric treatment, and is author, most recently, of a novel about the murder of Labor Zionist activist Haim Arlosoroff, in 1933. (Hint: Nathan’s novel speculates that Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels was involved, because of an affair that Arlosoroff had two decades earlier with the woman who later became Goebbels’ wife.)

The Italian Institute of Culture, in Tel Aviv, is bringing in journalist Marco Ansaldo for a Literary Cafe session with Israeli Boaz Bismuth (Tuesday, 3 P.M.). Ansaldo, who has reported for La Repubblica from Turkey and many other countries, is author most recently of the book “Schindler’s Italian Counterfeiter” (in Italian), which is based on his research on Italians and the Holocaust in the archives of the International Tracing Service at Bad Arolsen, Germany.

The Goethe Institute in Tel Aviv is sponsoring an LC session, “Berlin Roundabout” (Wednesday, 5 P.M.), in which artist Emmanuel Witzthum will talk with three women representing three generations of German novelists in Berlin: Ursula Krechel, Kathrin Gerlof and Olga Grjasnowa. Krechel, 65, won the German Book Prize last year for “Landesgricht” (“State Justice”), about a Jewish lawyer who spent the war years in exile in Cuba, and returns to Germany after the Holocaust in an attempt to resume his life and career in a land that isn’t quite ready to welcome him home. Gerlof, 50, is the author of “Alle Zeit” (“The Whole of Time”), which, says Witzthum, is a “beautiful, tender love story about five generations of women [in a Berlin family] from before the war until today.” And Grjasnowa, 29, Azerbaijani by birth, is the author of “All Russian Men Love Birch Trees,” based loosely on her own experiences as a non-Jewish German coming to Israel and getting reluctantly caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Hungary has organized a wide variety of events featuring the delegation it is bringing to Jerusalem, whose most prominent member is probably playwright and novelist Gyorgy Spiro (at the LC on Monday at 12:30 P.M. with journalist Shmuel Fast). Spiro is author of the sprawling novel “Captivity,” which imagines the life of a young Roman Jew whose adventures take him around the empire in the 1st century, C.E., in the period between the death of Jesus and the Great Revolt. His visit will also coincide with a reading by the Cameri Theater of his play “Prah,” about a couple who win the big prize in the lottery but don’t know how to contend with their good luck (Thursday at 5 P.M, in the Cameri’s cafe). Arriving from New York will be filmmaker, rock musician and writer Geza Rohrig, a founding editor of the Jewish journal Szombat (Sabbath), and author of a book of fictional “Hasidic” tales. For further details of Hungarian events (all of which, I’m told, will be in English), see the daily listings at the www.jerusalembookfair.com site. They include a program of Gypsy music, a food-tasting session called “Budapest Bites,” and a meeting at the Hungarian stand with Gyorgy Dragoman, author of the popular novel of a child growing up during the communist regime, “The White King.”

Arctic Circle island

On Tuesday at 5 P.M., Israeli critic Alit Karp will host the prolific Norwegian writer Roy Jacobson, who spends half his time either in the forests of southern Norway or on an island in the Arctic Circle (the other half, he’s in Oslo). They will discuss his novel “Child Wonder,” which takes place in Oslo of 1961, “before oil. Before anybody had any money at all.” In it, the very strange and mysterious half-sister of a young boy named Finn moves in with him and his mother, in the period between Advent and the Orthodox Epiphany of the following year. Although she is “damaged,” as Karp described it to me, she “brings them redemption, by teaching them something about themselves.”

A few short takes: Returning to Israel after a successful visit some years ago is Lidia Jorge (at the LC Tuesday, 8:30 P.M.), whose novels deal with the social changes her country, Portugal, has undergone since the end of the colonial period and dictatorship, in 1974. Polish novelist Joanna Bator and journalist Jacek Hugo-Bader will speak with critic and filmmaker Masha Zur Glozman on Thursday at 3 P.M. at the LC. Hugo-Bader’s “White Fever” describes his journey by jeep across Siberia, a sardonic but not very encouraging account of Russia in the 21st century. Bator’s “Sandy Hill” (published in Hebrew) is a family saga, focusing on three generations of women in communist Poland. And from Romania comes Varujan Vosganian, an ethnic Armenian and highly controversial politician (he was recently appointed economics minister), whose novel “The Book of Whispers” (newly published in Hebrew) looks at the fate of the Armenians in the 20th century. Writing about it in this paper in 2010, Riri Sylvia Manor called the book “a true literary celebration,” in which readers “bleed with the vanquished, are persecuted and flee with them, and become Armenians like them.” Vosganian will discuss that book with historian Yair Auron at the LC, on Monday, 11 A.M.

Israel Museum director James Snyder, who oversaw the “renewal” of that institution several years to great acclaim from critics and museum-goers alike, will meet art historian Phyllis Hattis at the Literary Cafe on Thursday at 7 P.M. Hattis is the widow of William Rubin (1927-2006), the late, longtime director of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, where Snyder served as deputy director for a decade before taking over in Jerusalem. Responding by e-mail to a query from Haaretz, Snyder, who was traveling, wrote that he will be speaking with Hattis, a dealer and curator, on the occasion of her “monumental” book about Rubin’s collecting career at the MoMA, where he was responsible for the “incredible growth” in the museum’s holdings. Working with Rubin during the period when the latter curated four Picasso exhibitions for the museum, said Snyder, “were surely the watershed moments for me in my curatorial training.”

As noted above, in addition to the Literary Cafe meetings, and numerous events at many of the national stands, the book fair will also present several panel discussions about big themes, including “Selling Books in a Digital Age,” and two panels on literary criticism of the traditional type and in the new forms that can be found online.

“Selling Books” (Tuesday, 10 A.M., Dulzin Hall B) will bring together, among other participants, top executives from the American e-publisher Open Road (Jane Friedman), the Canadian e-publisher Kobo (Peter Swienkels), and the new Israeli startup Total Boox, which has a pay-as-you-read business model for its e-books. Digital is the future, and the future is already here, so you might as well learn what they have in store for us.

On Monday evening (7 P.M., Dulzin B), Prof. Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi will host an international panel of three literary critics Florence Noiville, from France’s Le Monde, Gregor Dotzauer (Der Tagesspiegel, Berlin), and Leon Wieseltier, longtime literary editor of The New Republic to discuss their profession and the question of its continuing relevance. (It will be followed the next evening at 6 by a session on literary blogging, which Danna Harman previews separately in the fair supplement) Ezrahi explained to Haaretz that she intends to ask her panelists how the proliferation of outlets for the distribution of information and an accompanying delegitimization of authority has affected the “collective” experience of literature; and in what way the growing economic and political pressures that traditional media properties operate under have affected their work as editors and writers.

Finally, a word about Zev Birger, who died June 2011, at age 85, several months after overseeing book fair number 24. Everyone who knew Birger and sometimes it seemed as if Birger knew everyone was amazed by his ability to keep up the pace, especially as his pace at 85 would have been awe-inspiring on someone half his age. He died after being hit by a motorcycle as he emerged from a concert at the Jerusalem Theater one Saturday night, which almost seemed like the appropriate way for someone of his interests and energy to go. The fact that the fair is continuing at full steam is a tribute to the way he established and institutionalized it. And the decision to name the Editorial Fellows program in Birger’s memory a program that he pioneered and was proud of anew every two years as it added a new group of alumni to its ranks seems especially fitting.

Haaretz