Monday, March 01, 2010

Jewish Book Week: A Beginner's Guide to Jews on the Edge

Billed as a discussion between novelists Will Self and Adam Thirwell about 'the many possible manifestations of Judaism - half-Jews, non-Jewish Jews, self-hating Jews, anti-semitic Jews et al - and whether any of these semitic permutations actually matters', this Sunday afternoon session could not have been more different in atmosphere from the Theresienstadt session I attended in the morning. Maybe it was the jokey billing, maybe it was the thought of Will Self's rebellious intellect, but long before it began there was a thrill of anarchy and rebellion in the air. Having been late for the morning session, I determined to be early for this one, entering as people were leaving from the last session, only to find myself, along with other early arrivers, turfed out for security reasons. Well, the woman in front of me and in the front row wasn't having that. She refused to move, she said she needed that seat, she was hard of hearing, and they would have to lift her bodily (and, as she pointed out, she wasn't exactly petite), and things were held up as they failed to remove her and the rest of us exiles watched the altercation from the door, highly entertained.

Well, I got my seat behind her back, and the huge hall filled up almost to capacity. Adam Thirwell kicked off by pointing out that he and Self hadn't chosen the title of the event, and, needless to say (and gratifyingly for me) the thrust of their interest turned out to be literary rather than sociological. They had had the idea, Self said, while at a literary festival in Lyon, and as a result of a talk in praise of the novelist Celine, a passionate anti-semite. Turning to examine the concepts of Jewishness held by Jews and others, he said that when he tells Gentiles that he is half-Jewish, they often ask which of his parents is Jewish, and when he says his mother they say, 'Oh, well, you're Jewish then!', and he found it interesting that Jews had managed to impose so successfully on Gentiles this matrilineal notion of Jewishness. For him, he said, such a notion simply doesn't add up: his mother wasn't observant, and he feels it ill behoves him to claim to be more than half Jewish.

Thirwell then said he was a matrilineal Jew (ie he wasn't claiming the matrilineal notion, just saying his mother is Jewish), but 'barely cultural', and he feels embattled when he is forced to 'be' more Jewish than he feels because of this matrilineal notion. Why was it not possible to have a two-part identity? Self referred to a piece he had written for the Jewish Quarterly, 'On Writing Half-Jewishly', which he said he had thought a sweet little piece, but had been attacked for it by the author Cynthia Ozik, who said that he may be famous but if he claims placelessness he can only be a blur; that people are born whole not half. Untrue, said Self (rightly): people are born multifarious.

In fairness, though, said Self, we have to look at it historically. Up until very recently it was possible to hear casually anti-semitic remarks (and older people are far more familiar with the experience). Self had memories of hearing them as late as the eighties, and each time he had had a choice in terms of identity: either to express a Jewish identity or deny it by remaining silent (implying that neither expressed the truth of his sense of identity). The state of half or demi can only be realized in the absence of anti-semitism.

There is an interesting category, he said, where Jewishness is often formed against anti-semitism, and I was reminded of Philipp Manes's growing espousal of Jewishness in the Theresienstadt ghetto, as discussed in the morning - which momentarily made me lose my grip on the current discussion, and the point that Self went on to make about Sartre (who wrote that 'if the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him'). We have to look at it all, Self said, in terms of the diaspora and the 1880s and 1890s pogroms. One interesting thing is the reaction of indigenous Jews to that of 'stetl' Jews, as they called them; the ambivalence towards the latter, particularly from Sephardic aristocratic Jews. At this Thirwell commented that one strand of his family had been very established, but another strand had arrived from Lithuania in this era, and one of the things that interested him was this intermingling (by which I think he meant the interest of multifariousness within Jewishness.) Self said that at first there had been a repression of these newcomers, then acceptance and fast assimilation aided by a religious mission and the opening of numerous synagogues.

So where does that leave us as writers? Self asked, getting to (for me) the nub of the matter. Self-hating, said Thirwell, which people half-laughed at, but which actually sent off a ripple of shock. What is a Jewish writer? Self asked. Would we only be Jewish writers if we wrote in Hebrew or Yiddish? The two then discussed Kafka, a Jewish writer who wrote in German as a way of 'avoiding his fathers' (Self) but who wrote of being, in doing so, like a donkey with its back legs stuck in mud and its front legs flailing. Thirwell pointed out the similarities of this to the image of the cockroach on its back in Metamorphosis - the fact that Kafka was obsessed with the notion of the difficulties of linguistic assimilation and mutant forms. He also noted that Kafka had problems with the word 'Mutter' - he felt it was not his word, it seemed far too comical to describe a Jewish mother.

Self said, but as far as he knew Kafka's family were assimilated and didn't speak Yiddish in the home at all, and the fact that he wrote in a very Czech German wasn't commensurate with his having a Yiddish background. Thirwell said but the fact is that there was a there was a Yiddish theatre in Prague at the time which attracted Kafka as having a more sincere language. In any case, Self said, Kafka seems the paradigmatic example of the fact that you can't really speak of Jewish writers in relation to language. He is marked out for his quality of prescience of the coming Holocaust, and while you can say he is a paradigmatic Jewish writer, he is a world writer at the same time. Thirwell said though that he did think there was something in Kafka that was in danger of being lost: that he represents a way of thinking about what assimilation and identity mean, that he is concerned with complicated identity; and Self agreed that there was a dialectical process of assimilation taking place (analagous with what took place in the 1960s here) (and which the Shoah would replace with a different set of priorities) which involved anxieties about assimilation.

Thirwell now turned the conversation to the issue of the Jew as victim in literature. Roth admired Bellow, he said, but attacks Bellow for returning in his later fiction to a Gentile-imposed model of the Jew as victim. We must stop acting as victims, Roth said: it's not always 1933. (Though it felt very close this morning, I couldn't help thinking.) In Thirwell's opinion one strand in American fiction does think it's still 1933, that there is still a tragedy about to happen, and Israel has a role in this perception. Self agreed: Israel is made to stand as proxy for this historical memory. Both agreed that, in spite of his criticisms of Bellow, Roth himself has failed to come to terms with victimology and the trap of the self-hating Jew. Self now expressed the view that Roth, in his flight from humanism and his fear that it could drive him back to Judeo-Christianity, is a curiously cold, dessicated, arid writer. Thirwell noted that on the level of structure and form, Roth is an interesting writer, but on the sentence level he is indeed dessicated, bland, and here the conversation turned to an issue which was of greatest interest of all to me, the issue of Jewishness and literary style.

Self noted that Kafka wrote a kind of unornamented anti-style, whereas Proust could be placed at the other extreme, consisting of a highly stylised anxiety about Jewish assimilation. Thirwell said that, re Kafka, even so he creates a specific Kafka-language, which Self said was a microcosm of a pre-existant dialect, a crudescence of a certain kind of Czech German. In Proust, Thirwell said, it's a question of who you're allowed to desire, and the (unfettered) style is an expression of that - the problem of borders. Self referred to Otto Weininger's pre-WW1 book Sex and Character in which he characterizes the Jew as hermaphroditic, a book which was influential on both Proust and Joyce (who of course presented a positive non-victim portrait of a Jew).

This was all getting extremely interesting to me when the hard-of-hearing woman in front of me stood up and said Couldn't we ask questions? and started to ask one which appeared to be intended to bring the whole thing back to what she seemed to consider the matter in hand, the question of half- and quarter-Jewishness (maybe she hadn't heard their protestation that they weren't responsible for the thrust of the title).

There was now a bit of an altercation: the audience shouted out for discussion to continue rather as it had been doing, and the woman sat down, but accused Self of delaying the start of the session (and so running on too long) by taking too long eating his lunch, at which Self quipped, No, it was drugs. The thread of the argument was sadly lost. What we were trying to say, said Self, is that it's good to stand outside as a writer (to be half), and Thirwell got back to the issue of language/style by saying that every writer creates his or her own minor language anyway, and there are certain ways in which the issue of language gets inflected by identity, and there was a brief discussion about Bashevis Singer.

After that, the floor really was thrown open to questions. One of the most interesting was the first: a woman asked what they thought about Pinter who she felt lost by never declaring his Jewishness in his work. Self said that he liked her style! which caused laughter, but Thirwell defended Pinter by pointing out that Ashes to Ashes is a play about the Holocaust, and asked why anyone has to be Jewish in their writing. Self said, Yes, are we looking at him through identity politics he wouldn't have agreed with, or is there really a lack in his work? But then do we think Beckett paid attention to his Irishness in his writing? Yes, of course he did! Thirwell said, But does this have anything to do with whether or not these two are good writers? Self said perhaps all the silences in Pinter are really him saying, 'I'm Jewish! I'm Jewish'! which caused a good deal of laughter.

Jewish book Week runs until Sunday March 7th, and you can book for events here.

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