Thursday 13 March 2008

What is (Jewish) literature?

'In Praise of Diasporas', Jewish Book Week, London, 2 March 2008

What is a Jewish book? The short answer might be that it’s a book by a Jewish writer, or perhaps a half-Jewish writer. Adam Thirwell says he feels half-Jewish, though it’s his mother who’s Jewish, which qualifies him to be wholly Jewish. But then, writing in the Jewish Quarterly (which is a quarter Jewish?), Thirwell says he doesn’t think there’s any such thing as Jewish literature, or presumably a Jewish book, any more than there’s such a thing as Italian literature – or an Italian book?

But wait – surely an Italian book is one written in Italian? Which would make a Jewish book one written in Jewish? That won’t do, of course, because although books written in Hebrew or Yiddish are as convincingly Jewish as books written in Italian are Italian, there are many books written in other languages, including Italian, that seem pretty Jewish. Take the work of Bruno Schulz, who wrote in Polish, mostly in the 1930s. Schulz was the focus of a London Jewish Book Week session: ‘In Praise of Diasporas’, with Adam Thirwell, the biographer Anne Sebba and the actor and director Simon McBurney (standing in at the last minute for the more glamorous, but no more Jewish, Zadie Smith).

The idea of disapora is central to the Jewish experience, and what’s important about it is not that Jews are scattered around the world and live amid various cultures, speaking and writing in various languages, but that they nonetheless maintain a sense of Jewishness. So is it this sense of Jewishness that constitutes Jewish literature? There was in fact something of a consensus that it’s a mistake to read books that way. Thirwell noted that anything labelled disaporic writing is ‘freighted with melancholy’ – it is a burden to read someone like Bruno Schulz that way, since his focus was on the ordinary, the everyday, not on identity or homelessness. McBurney (who relished the challenge of staging the writer’s ‘unstageable’ work) said that Schulz was indeed an outsider, not because he was Jewish, but because of his powerful imagination.

Sebba suggested that the idea of diaspora is symbolic of the fact that all writing draws on disparate influences, so perhaps ‘Jewish writing’ is just an example of that. Rather than trying to distill an essential Jewishness, we should be open to unexpected elements. Indeed, Thirlwell argued that, rather writing than for the reader, great writers always write against the reader, meaning that expectations based on identity or ethnicity are bound to be confounded, except perhaps in mediocre literature. Might it even be said, then, that Jewish writing is an attempt to escape Jewishness? That all worthwhile literature is about transcending, rather than affirming, identity? Thirwell cited Kafka’s famous bewilderment that the Zionists felt they had so much in common with other Jews, when he felt he had hardly anything in common even with himself.

Whether such self-estrangement is an aspect of the diaspora experience, the modern condition, or even the human condition, is a moot point. But certainly it is a recognisable feature of much modern literature, Jewish or otherwise, and perhaps older literature too. Moreover, Sebba emphasised that readers in turn take different things from the same text – not only different from one another, but different from themselves at different times – and there was some discussion about whether common meaning is even possible. If the writer starts from a feeling of rootlessness, an openness to manifold influences, and a sense of self-estrangement, can readers ever expect to share a common experience, to constitute an audience rather than a collection of atomised consumers? The miracle of literature is that we can and do.

Common meaning doesn’t come easily, however. It is only through sharing our ideas about books, whether in formal criticism, or informal discussion, that we cohere our subjective impressions into considered readings. ‘Jewish literature’, like any other brand, is perhaps best considered as a frame for such discussion rather than a particular literature with a discernable essence of its own.


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