Thursday, March 25, 2010

Comedy versus Tragedy

Once again I haven't been blogging here. Partly it's because I've been working on a new publication, a reissue of my first novel The Birth Machine, which has taken up much of the time and headspace left over from any actual writing I've managed to do. But partly, too, I have to admit there's the loss of impetus which others have reported, connected to the rise of Facebook and Twitter. As Tania Hershman says, on social networking sites you can get instant feedback and have instant conversations - and without having to write whole mini-essays - and reach a wider audience than just the blogging fraternity. Another thing which has struck me is that by the time you get around to blogging about an issue, on Twitter or Fb things have moved on, and it's become old hat.

But that, precisely, is the value of blogs. The reason that sometimes one doesn't instantly get around to blogging about an issue is that blogs can take a commitment of time, and the reason they do us that is that they can also take a commitment of thought. A blog, it seems to me, is an excellent vehicle for contemplating nuances which can easily be submerged in instant discussions. Take for instance the recent issue of Orange Prize Chair Daisy Goodwin's plea for women writers to lighten up. I've been mulling this for some time, and wondering why I didn't want to join in the discussions, and why something about it all has worried me. Once I had a moment free from retrieving files from old computers and reading proofs, it struck me.

I know there were one or two more subtle voices, but the general thrust of the conversation on the web seemed to fall into bald either-or arguments: there were those who believed that women were too miserable and those who didn't and thought men were just as bad; there were those who were for comedy and those who weren't. Even the intelligent article by Erica Wagner in The Times arguing that comedy is harder to do than tragedy (comedy requires a particularly incisive verbal facility) seemed to imply that comedy is therefore better.

Why does one have to be better than the other? Aren't they simply different sides of the coin of human nature, expressions of different but equally valid individual and social states of mind? Sometimes comedy answers our emotional needs, sometimes tragedy does. Why, as artists, can't we do both? (I certainly like to.)

I'm troubled by this thrust towards either/or and black-and-white thinking, and not just as a writer fighting the culture of branding.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Author Blog Awards

I've been asked to let you know about the Author Blog Awards being run by CompletelyNovel in association with Quartet, Allison and Busby, Simon and Schuster and BookBrunch. Here's what they say they're all about:
There are over 10,000 published and unpublished authors blogging to readers, writers and industry professionals. Despite huge loyal followings and a remarkable wealth of new content, many readers remain unaware of these blogs.

The Author Blog Awards aim to honour the best blogs by both published and unpublished writers. They will recognise the writers who use their blogs to connect with readers in the most imaginative, engaging and inspiring ways. At the same time we hope to attract new audiences to these blogs and help readers find out more about the authors they love…and new authors too.

You can nominate your favourite author blog to win an award and will also have the chance to win something from a selection of prizes including free eReaders, new books, free eBooks, and book tokens. There are three categories: Best Published Author Blog, Best Unpublished Author Blog, and Best Author Microblog. The winners will be announced in April.

Go to the site here.

Crossposted with Elizabeth Baines.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Stationery Lust

I love Hilary Mantel's Guardian article about stationery and its relationship to our writing processes. I am so gratified by her praise for the loose leaf and the ring binder as the best media for writing novels, and her denunciation of the bound notebook, in particular the Moleskine, and its straitjacket of linearity, which I totally agree is not the way you write novels. (And I'm so glad she said it for me: 'Chatwin, Hemingway: has the earth ever held two greater posers?'). 'You must be able to loop back on yourself,' she says, 'and to be able to arrange the elements of which your story consists in an order that is entirely flexible.' And she's right: crossings out won't do: you need to be able to restore those bits you abandoned when you realize they are necessary after all.

Mantel says that 'at twilight' she starts dreaming about old-fashioned stationery: 'pink tape, for instance, that barristers use to tie up their bundles'. But I can go one better: I actually have it! (Don't ask me where to get it, someone gave it to me years ago, a huge cardboard roll of it, and I don't know where they got it.) I use it to tie up those old drafts which, you never know, I might loop back to for those bits I do need after all. And she wonders if you can still still get treasury tags. Well, I can tell her, yes you can, in Staples - or you could last time I needed them - and I use them all the time to bind plays, and yes, there's something really nice about threading those lovely dark-green strings with their sharp metals ends through the holes... Ah, stationery!

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.

Jewish Book Week: Philipp Manes: A Theresienstadt Chronicle

A session chaired by Victoria Glendinning, in which editors Ben Barkow and Klaus Leist read from and discussed As If It Were Life, an account by Pilipp Manes of life in the Czech ghetto of Theresienstadt.

Asked to blog for Jewish Book Week, I instantly chose to cover this session. The Jewish ghetto Theresienstadt had haunted me since reading WG Sebold's Austerlitz, and then last month, on my trip to Prague, I visited the place, isolated among the flat fields, and was overcome, as was Sebold's narrator, and as were my companions, by an oppressive desolation which seems to hang over the place. Built in the late eighteenth century as a garrison town for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was emptied in October 1941, its population relocated, and designated as a collection point for Jews from Bohemia and Moravia (today's Czech Republic) and from Germany and German-occupied territories. It is remarkable for having been used by the Nazis as an apparently (I use the word 'apparently' advisedly) model ghetto to disguise the Nazi's extermination plans, in particular to receive an investigatory visit by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and for its seemingly deliberate concentration of Jews who were well-known outside the Jewish community, members of the professional, intellectual and artistic elites.

Philipp Manes, a Berlin furrier in his sixties, and his wife were taken to Theresienstadt in July 1942, and were there until October 1944 when they were transported to Auschwitz and were two of the last people to enter the gas chambers. During his time in Theresienstadt, Manes, who had always been an enthusiastic diarist, wrote in nine notebooks his detailed account of life in the ghetto where he played a key role as an artistic impresario, developing an intellectual and artistic community which served as a kind of spiritual resistance against imprisonment and debilitating conditions. He seems to have intended the account for publication after the war, and once his final deportation was due he handed it secretly for safe keeping to a fellow inmate who survived. Tragically, the memoir ends in mid-sentence when Manes was deported. After some difficulties and delays, in 1948 the manuscript finally reached his daughter Eva in London. Eventually the manuscript was deposited, along with others of Manes' writings, in the Wiener Library in London, but only in 2005 did it find a publisher and only in 2009 was it translated into English.

The book, which I am half-way through reading, is a fascinating and contradictory expression of fear and hope, of critical reportage and German-patriotic pride in hard work and achievement, and of descriptions of harsh conditions alongside those of soaring artistic and intellectual pursuit - a remarkable expression, in fact, of the reality conundrum that Theresienstadt must have been.

I'm afraid I was a little late arriving at this session, and it had already begun as I entered. There was a deep hush over the room, and a quiet dignity about the three-person panel. Editor Ben Barkow, director of The Wiener Library, was providing an account of Pilipp Manes' life before he entered Theresienstadt: his childhood love of the theatrical, the travel and connection with the artistic community he enjoyed as an employee of the New Photographic Society, the later necessity of taking over his father's furrier firm, the loss of freedom and property as the Nazis put pressure on the Jews, and the consolation he found in writing.

Editor Klaus Leist then read from the very moving account Manes wrote at this time, Last Days in Berlin, which forms the Prologue to this book and describes the preparations Manes and his wife were forced to make for departure, and their feelings of grief as they did so.

The Theresienstadt account takes up where this prologue leaves off, and Ben Barkow outlined its main events - Klaus Leist reading relevant sections - from the first horrible experience, the Schleuse (sluice) when newcomers were deprived of all possessions they had brought, afterwards being put to sleep without cover on the floor of bare stables and later of barracks. However, Manes was very soon put in charge of the 'Orientation Service', meant to direct those who were lost in the ghetto. This was necessary because although Theresienstadt was a small town, built for a population of 7,000, it now held over 50,000, many of whom were disorientated and traumatised: there are, as Barkow said, many heartbreaking stories in the book. Manes was proud of his work in the Orientation Service, which he developed into a kind of adult education centre and cultural agency, organising over 500 lectures, play readings and music concerts in two years. German officers were rarely seen in the ghetto - the place was policed by Czech gendarmes - as the administration tried to keep up an appearance of normality, which the prisoners tended to support 'for the good of the ghetto'. Many, however, sensed an air of unreality which reached its peak in the 'beautification' of the town in preparation for the Red Cross visit of June 1944. Manes's attitude, Barkow said, was realistic, if not cynical. He knew that the measures were meant to cover up the truth, but accepted them. As he wrote: 'Whatever the reasons, they make our life better.'

The main problem Manes had to contend with for his cultural project was the loss of his contributors through transport to the east or the collapse of their morale or health. No one was murdered in Theresienstadt [EB: there were no gas chambers there, though on my visit there I learned that some had begun to be built and then abandoned], but many died, so Manes always had an eye on the hospital and on departing and arriving transports. By the date of his last event, in August 1944, he had lost most of his audience and speakers.

The account describes in stark detail the horrible conditions - the bedbugs and lice, the delousing sessions, the inequities between the German and Czech Jews - and is a fascinating insight into the maintenance of the place. There was no doubt, though, said Barkow, that Manes was starstruck by the intellectual elite among his inmates, and that he felt fulfilled by his role there as a cultural impresario. Even by the end he appeared to have no complete notion of what Auschwitz really was [EB: and it's true that every so often he appears to entertain the German propaganda that it's the place of a new and perfect life for Jews].

Victoria Glendinning now opened up a discussion between the panel members, drawing attention to the peculiar conflict Manes had between being a German and a Jew. He was very much a German patriot and his attitudes, in fact, are often those of a conservative German Christian. Barkow commented that Manes' sense of cultural (rather than religious) Jewishness grew in the ghetto, and while some of his patriotic statements about the SS are troubling, it's possible that they were inserted to protect him should the memoir be discovered [a point which seems valid to me, since some of these patriotic statements follow directly on from harsh criticism of conditions]. He was in fact very proud of Jewish self-sufficiency and capacity to work in the ghetto and thus could be said to be reaching towards a notion of Zionism.

Victoria Glendinning drew attention to Manes's attitude to the Czech Jews in the ghetto [he writes with sadness and possible bitterness of the greater privileges of the Czech Jews, but with almost sentimental admiration of their youth and beauty], and Klaus Leist talked about the snobbery of Germans towards eastern Jews and the anti-German feeling on the Czech side. Czech Jews, as the first to be brought to Theresienstadt, had originally envisaged building a self-sustaining and economically viable community there and thus, by being indispensable to the Germans, ride out the war, but once older Jews were brought in from elsewhere, that dream expired. Glendinning also pointed to the paradox that Manes was perhaps more fulfilled in his role as a cultural impresario there than he perhaps had ever been before in his life - that he even seems smug about it, with which Barkow agreed. She stressed the lack of clarity in the memoir about how much Manes knew of the truth - he did after all get his children out of the country before the war, and he makes quite clear at one point [elsewhere I think] that he understands that the aim of National Socialism is the destruction of Judaism. What about this ambivalence? Was it shared by a lot of Jews? Klaus Leist said that he thought it was, and this may have been a function of wishful thinking [EB: which I think it's possible to detect in Manes's document], and maybe anyway people didn't guess that destruction meant death. Ben Barkow added that very little was known about Auschwitz; Theresienstadt was very sealed off from the world (although someone, I think Glendinning, commented that Leo Baeck knew the truth, but deliberately decided to keep it secret). Possibly Manes chose not to believe: he was, after all, a very conforming individual.

I found that perhaps for me the most moving part of this session came now, when Victoria Glendinning opened it up to two or three questions from the floor. A white-haired woman across the room said that she had been in Theresienstadt and that she didn't recognize this description of people's knowledge about Auschwitz. Some people certainly knew: if a postcard arrived from a relative in a concentration camp and they had marked it with a cross, it meant that there were gas chambers there. But then, she said, in a statement that for me summed up everything, such things operate according to denial mechanisms.

Ben Barkow is the author of Alfred Wiener and the Making of the Holocaust Library and editor of Testaments of the Holocaust.

Dr Klaus Leist works at The Wiener Library, concentrating on deciphering and translating old documents. He edited As If It Were Life, A WWII Diary from the Theresienstadt Ghetto by Philipp Manes with Ben Barkow.

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