Isolation, and especially self-isolation, is an integral part of being a professional writer. In her famous novel, Virginia Wolff gave this condition a name, A Room of One’s Own. One has to write far from the madding crowd.
So it was no surprise when participants in the Eighth International Writer’s Festival of Jerusalem, organized by Motti Schwarz, head of Mishkenot Sha’ananim, focused on this aspect of their work.
Even more so when the conference, perhaps uniquely for a large cultural event, took place via Zoom, a necessary precaution during this period of coronavirus. Isolation instead of being the prerogative of the lonely scrivener became the mode of existence for most of the planet. Indeed, as a good many of the writers at the conference noted, they were asked to write about the experience of being isolated. Along with criminals in prison, the writers became world experts on surviving in isolation.
Ayelet Tsabari (The Best Place on Earth), a Canadian-Israeli, was asked by a Canadian magazine to write such a piece, which she gladly accepted, seeing this as a challenge. “I wrote about my memory of the Gulf War, but I also wrote how I was living in the moment.” She admits that she needed the money which led to another confession, namely her being grateful for the uncertainty. “I was telling someone the other day that this should be a time for fiction writers to shine, because we know about uncertainty. Partly because writing is such a precarious job. When you sketch out a novel you don’t know how it will end, and you follow the images. It’s the exercise of letting go, something about that process which prepares us for the uncertainty of this situation.”
Prof. Evan Fallenberg (US/Israel, Light Fell) of Bar-Ilan University was also asked to write about the pandemic. “One piece was for a collection about the experiences of corona from around the world; another was about the pandemic experience that was a little out of the ordinary. Not a knowledge piece, but rather just an insightful piece about the experience.”
His response was unambiguous: “I’m calling myself a corona recluse. I turned down those requests. I just feel that I want to be somewhere else. I prefer the world of fiction which I am designing, and not having to deal with the world as it is at the moment. Writers like David Grossman, who are writing such pieces, are doing the job for the rest of us literary citizens who haven’t risen to the call.”
The experience that these writers have had under the coronavirus was very varied, from being silenced by the enormity of the pandemic to being profoundly inspired. Matti Friedman, (Canada/Israel, The Aleppo Codex) for example, averred, “I don’t think there’s too much to say about it just yet. It’s too fresh. I don’t think we can know what it is and then write something in a banal way about things we all know.”
On the other hand, Etgar Keret (Fly Already), one of Israel’s leading literary figures, asserted: “I think this last two months were the most prolific in my life. I feel that writing is breaking the forces of inertia. In normal times, we wake up in the morning, we look after our children’s needs, and then run off to work so we wont get fired, and so forth. But now, we wake up in the morning and we have to ask ourselves: ‘What do I want to do?’ This is inspiring. There’s some kind of new reality in which you cannot touch other people or things. It’s dramatic. It’s challenging. What do I think about my life? Especially when you are a writer. You ask yourself: What is the function of writing?”
Not everyone was so inspired. Nicole Krauss (US, The History of Love) thought the presence of coronavirus was all encompassing: “All of us are forced to think about one thing all the time. There is the actual lockdown and also a lockdown of the imagination.”
By contrast, Zeruya Shalev (Love Life), one of Israel’s younger generation of writers, observed: “I think there is a renaissance of people writing about the structure of the universe, of consciousness, all the way to conspiracy theories about this virus. Will this change the way we think about ourselves and about the world we live in?”
Similarly, Krauss felt that she was in a very strange situation. “I’m in the middle of writing a book and yet now this virus has changed what we look at things,” she said.
Shalev was not sure that the essential things have changed: “The issues I am dealing with – human experience, family, inter-generational issues – they’ve remained the same. I try to concentrate on the human story.”
Rana Werbin, who was conducting this particular session, summarized the feelings of many of the authors who have been caught up in this whirlwind of the pandemic: “The inner side of the person doesn’t really change. You’re dealing with the unknown, or with the mystic element of the world as a theme. There is a feeling that the ecological system or the unconscious is trying to tell us something, or correct something.”
Krauss brought this part of the discussion back to literature: “What interested me in my novels is how we adapt to change when we are confronted with something mysterious and unknown. Everything we’re dealing with now is like a crash course in what it means to live. So much of this is about uncertainty. But that’s what literature has been teaching us forever.”
Some of the authors related to the effects that the virus is having on their current projects.
Tom Perrotta (US, The Leftovers) was aware of the sudden shift of perspective that the virus has given him: “I’m writing a novel now but I’m so aware that the characters are now being superseded by my living through his event. They’re sort of living in a nostalgia for the world before this virus hit us. They’re like us, totally unaware of what’s going to hit them. It makes them more poignant, almost historical. It was about the world that was and is no longer. I didn’t change the novel to fit in with this new and very strange reality. Perhaps if we survive and are writing in ten years time we can write about coronavirus. But right now I’m writing about that vanished world of six months ago.”
Dror Mishan (Israel, Three) had a different take on writing during this period: “I’m tired of people asking me if I’m writing a novel, since no one, apart from doctors, was going to work and we have this marvelous time to sit and write. I have to tell them that not this is not a time to write a novel. The truth is I was planning a new novel in the summer. But I’m not sure this is going to work since I’m constantly preoccupied with what is going on outside. Counting the new numbers of corona victims in Ecuador or China. So I’m not very concentrated at the moment.”
Mishan wondered whether or not there will be a wave of corona novels after the coronavirus has finished. Leonnie Swann (Germany, Gray) thought it was probable, but “I don’t think I’ll want to read them, at least not for three or four years.”
The lingering impression from these writers was that in the very act of writing they were ensuring that such events as the coronavirus would not be forgotten. According to Marco Balsano (Italy, I’m Staying Here), the author of a novel about a village that was decimated by the building of a dam, writers “tell stories that no one else tells. The writer examines the given official storytelling and then writes the hidden story. Since politics won’t change, the writer still has a powerful role to play.” And, despite the title of his prize-winning novel, he says, “I really hope we can meet for real next year in Jerusalem.”