Been There: Literature for the wrong audience

The young were restless at a recent Beit Hanassi event.

Kids get restless when they have time on their hands and when they're bored. Both these reasons came into play last week when several groups of high school and junior high students were invited to Beit Hanassi to listen to a panel discussion between President Shimon Peres and four literati in the first of what Beit Hanassi hopes will be a series of literary evenings. Some of the older students may have been interested in the discussion, but the younger ones couldn't wait for it all to be over. They fidgeted, whispered to each other and playfully began hitting each other. The event started nearly an hour after the time stated on the invitation, and the kids were supposed to stay put. Wishful thinking. Moderator Gadi Taub, who teaches communications and journalism at the Hebrew University, started off by noting that Peres was an avid reader. The other participants were best-selling author and former television personality Meir Shalev; Russian immigrant writer Boris Zeidman; and writer and literary scholar Prof. Nurit Graetz, who teaches at Tel Aviv University. As host, Peres was the first to speak after Taub, who had posed a question about the difference between Jewish writers and Zionist writers, bearing in mind that writers were a vehicle for Zionist aspirations long before the creation of the state and were the moral compass of the nation in waiting. Taub asked Peres whether he thought that the writer has a special role. Peres noted that early Hebrew writers were instrumental in reviving the Hebrew language. "The greatest invention of all is language," he said, "but no one knows who invented it." Peres marveled at the fact that a people living for centuries in exile, and not united by the borders of a homeland, had managed to a preserve its language. What keeps a language alive, he added, is a writer. After the creation of the state, there was plenty of material for writers because Israel was always in the news. "We're more drama than state," he said. Fascinating though Israel may be as a country, said Peres, it's not as fascinating as the enthusiasm with which Israeli literature is received abroad. He is always amazed, he admitted, by the volume of Israeli literature translated into foreign languages. Something else he found intriguing was that so many people in Israel are bilingual, speaking a mother tongue at home and using Hebrew in the wider sphere. Zeidman, whose second book is about to be released, is a perfect example of this. His mother tongue is Russian, but he writes in Hebrew and is often frustrated by the grammatical structure of the language. As for the role of a writer, Zeidman saw writing as bringing something of himself to the wider public and initiating some sort of interaction. As far as Shalev was concerned, the role of the writer was simply to write. His own writings were not created to spell out a certain message or with a certain readership in mind, he said. In a bygone age, Graetz pointed out, writers wrote against the backdrop of collective history. Later, there was a new vogue in writing and everything became very personal. In an era of globalization, she said, everything is disposable. "You don't keep anything, you keep throwing out." Presumably this also applies to the writers' deepest, darkest secrets. By now, the junior high school kids were bored beyond belief, and the fidgeting and pulling and poking at each other escalated. Another question that came up during the discussion at Beit Hanassi was the amount of license a writer is permitted when writing about factual events. Shalev said that when he was doing the research for his book A Pigeon and a Boy, which is largely about the 1948 battle of San Simon, he traced one of the commanders whom he interviewed extensively. Toward the end of the interview, Shalev, wanting to be fair, told the ex-commander that he wanted to embellish the story with a tale of a pigeon. "There have been so many lies told about the battle of San Simon," the ex-commander retorted, "that you may as well add yours." Peres's comment on this was: "A good book is written by someone whose eyes are open wider and who gazes with greater depth." When the literary evening concluded at the end of an hour, the restless kids could hardly wait to leap out of their chairs. It was doubtful that they had absorbed much of the evening's discussion. It was just another version of the old saw: You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.