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Jewish Book Week 2015

This year’s Jewish Book Week saw three German-language authors take to the stage: Doron Rabinovici, Jenny Erpenbeck and Charles Lewinsky.
Georgina Edwards reports.

The Jewish cultural community is something not easily defined, therefore not taken for granted. Wary of labels and overgeneralisation, Charles Lewinsky, author of the very recently translated Melnitz, said, ‘I am a Jew and I am a writer. I am a German-language author who happens to be a Jew. I’m not a Jew by profession.’ Later, laughing at a question about his Orthodox relatives’ reception of his choice of career, he says ‘Writing is a very Jewish profession.’ Celebrating Jewish literature always circles round to the question of what we can call ‘Jewish’.

Author Charles Lewinsky Photo: Lukas Maeder Farbe
It seems a free, liberal approach to these definitions is embodied in the act of writing. Melnitz, a 640-page novel, was dubbed an ‘old-fashioned’ sweeping family saga in the style of Tolstoy by journalist John Glancy, yet Lewinsky veers away from this idea of austere literary genius: ‘I didn’t want to write that type of book.’ It just happened. The book, originally planned to span a Jewish family’s history through the First and Second World Wars, took on a life of its own. You had to go further back, Lewinksy realised, to take account of the historical events that moved the characters in the present. The ostracisation of the Jews in Switzerland began in the middle ages, continuing on through to the twentieth century. Uncle Melnitz, the ominous voice of Jewish history in the novel, continues to remind the family of this ongoing persecution: ‘God has punished for our sins with good memories.’

Yet Lewinsky doesn’t let determinism or pessimism obstruct the freedom of his writing or of his characters. Melnitz remains an embodiment and reminder of Jewish persecution throughout history, yet Lewinksy argues that this leaves his other characters relatively free to laugh and to live their lives as normal. In order to live your life, or to write the lives of characters, you don’t need to be a master of events. As Lewinksy writes Melnitz, he knows where an aunt and her niece are going as they step out of their house onto a street in Zurich – he knows the city and its street, he knows what his characters are going to do. Then suddenly they turn and walk down the street in the other direction. ‘I thought: you’re going the wrong way!’ Lewinsky explained to his audience, ‘So I followed them.’ That is the moment a character comes alive, when he won’t do what you tell him.

In contrast to this rather intimate conversation with the anecdotal, humorous storyteller Lewinsky, whose writing largely threw up personal and historical questions, the atmosphere at the open discussion later the same day with writers Jenny Erpenbeck and Doron Rabinovici was subtly different, more actively and earnestly engaged in relevant political events such as the Jewish-Palestinian conflict. Yet both writers seemed reluctant to publicise their work as didactic in this way. When asked, ‘Do you consider your book a Jewish book?’ Rabinovici laughed and answered wryly, ‘I do when I’m invited to Jewish Book Week.’ The book is also an Austrian book, Rabinovici explains, and Erpenbeck agrees – her book is Jewish in the beginning and German at the end. Yet the audience aren’t satisfied with ambiguity. ‘What about the moral continuity of the main character throughout the novel?’ is one question directed at Erpenbeck – but she prefers to get away from this linear view, instead thinking of her narrative as a spherical exploration of the many possible lives a dead baby girl could have had throughout the twentieth century. Rabinovici firmly believes that writing about Jewish problems is relevant and very much ‘not about a different time’, and that it therefore reaches out to people, yet he has to pause for thought when a member of the audience asks ‘What should European Jews do now?’ The spectators turn expectantly to the novelists on the elevated stage, hold their breath, waiting for the unelected spokespersons’ reply. After exchanging a glance with Rabinovici, Erpenbeck replies, a little uncertainly, but not without a hint of a smile, ‘That’s not a very literary question.’ The background forces of cultural celebration, literary interest and political awareness pulled the discussion to and fro, none ending with precedence over the others. This uncertainty (the writers’ reluctance to make authoritative statements on the lives of others outside their writing) was productive and fuelled a discussion which could have continued long after the event came to an end.

Author Doron Rabinovici Photo: Gunnar Klack
Why is it that Lewinsky, Erpenbeck, Rabinovici and even historical writer Gombrich were reluctant to dub themselves specifically ‘Jewish’ writers at Jewish Book Week? I think it was less an objection to the association with a culture they had contributed to, and more to raise awareness of the act of labelling itself, to encourage their audiences to question what motives lie behind this urge. In doing this, they resist the pigeonholing of literature according to ethnic background, and keep the discussion of Jewish writing, and why we celebrate it, alive.

Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest novel is The End of Days, tr. Susan Bernofsky (Portobello, 2014).

Charles Lewinsky’s novel Melnitz has just been published by Atlantic Books, tr. Shaun Whiteside.

Doron Rabinovici’s novel Elsewhere was published in 2014 by Haus Publishing, tr. Tess Lewis.