This year Melbourne added yet another literary festival to its already busy calendar – the biannual Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival, held at the end of May. For a new festival, its program was surprisingly rich and ambitious, with many Melbourne-based and visiting speakers, including guests from the USA and Israel (the full program is available here http://www.mjwf.com.au/ ). The festival was well-attended, even on the last day – Monday – and the Gala night was a sell-out.
My personal highlight at the festival was a video link interview with Irvin Yalom, perhaps the most renowned living psychotherapist and the author of such internationally bestselling novels as When Nietzsche Wept and Lying on the Couch. Possibly this says more about my age than anything else, but it felt spookily futuristic to be watching Yalom’s interviewer, Rachel Kohn from the ABC’s The Spirit of Things, sitting on the stage talking to a laptop computer screen while behind her loomed Yalom’s gigantic face staring straight at us, his audience, as though we were in Blade Runner. However, the ensuing conversation captivated me such that I soon forgot about my technophobia.
Although I’m not a great admirer of Yalom’s fictional skills, I find both his nonfiction and fiction books fascinating intellectually since he always weaves philosophy and history into his writing. I enjoyed listening to him discuss his philosophical influences – both on his practice as a psychotherapist and a writer. Yalom’s favourite philosophers are Nietzsche, Epicurus, Schopenhauer and Spinoza, the latter being the subject of his most recent novel, The Spinoza Problem. Beyond philosophy, Yalom spoke on a wide range of topics including rationalism, psychoanalysis, Nazis, Jewish self-hatred, love. I particularly enjoyed Yalom’s engagement with the usually taboo topic of fear of death. He talked about the work he has done with terminally ill people and how this triggered his own fear of death to the extent that he had to seek professional help. Yalom also shared the story of how his own father died right in front of him while he was still a medical student.
The audacity of Kohn’s interviewing enhanced my enjoyment further. Famous people are often treated with excessive reverence by their interviewers, such that they sometimes sound more like prophets than thinkers. Yet Kohn was gutsy enough to challenge Yalom at times, particularly when he talked about his unwavering faith in rational thinking as panacea for all of life’s problems. The interview ended with a discussion of the role of writing in Yalom’s life. I found it interesting that he feels that being a writer has benefited his therapy practice. As a storyteller, he’s so interested in people’s stories that he often becomes enchanted with his patients. The downfall in this is that some of Yalom’s patients worry their lives might too boring for him…
Another notable session I attended was with Dara Horn, a novelist from New York, interviewed by the Melbourne-based writer Tali Lavi. Horn writes complex novels often dealing with historical characters and events, and sometimes set in different centuries at once. In 2007 she was chosen by Granta magazine as one of the Best Young American Novelists (more details about her can be found at http://darahorn.com/about-dara-horn/ ). Although I had some difficulty with Horn’s over-enthusiastic, somewhat frantic, delivery style, I enjoyed the content. Horn is a highly intelligent speaker. When she doesn’t try too hard to entertain and slows down a little, her ideas sparkle.
One of Horn’s favourite writing themes is memory and she spoke about the unique memory-related problems posed by our age of ubiquitous electronic devices that record every trivia thereby robbing us of the freedom of choosing what we wish to remember. Our memories, Horn argued, aren’t as selective as they used to be and this doesn’t necessarily benefit us. I also liked her suggestion that readers should read historical novels not as faithful recreations of the past, but as metaphors for contemporary anxieties and obsessions. As a writer, I also found interesting Horn’s discussion of the literary inspiration she derives from the bible, which, she suggested, is more optimistic than Greek mythology which is based belief in fate that humans have little control over. Horn mines biblical texts not only for their philosophy but also for the language. Her own writing voice is steeped in the biblical vocabulary even when she writes contemporary stories. One of Horn’s most memorable points was that while the act of reading is an act of resuscitation of books, writing for her is an act of resuscitation of the past.
The panel in which I participated was about the impact of internet on the contemporary literary landscape. I enjoyed sharing the conversational space with fellow panellists Michael Gawenda, the former editor of The Age and a deeply intelligent man, and Bram Presser, who is talented in both music and writing, and is currently working on a novel based on the story of his grandparents’ survival during the Holocaust. Josh Kinal from hookturn.com.au was our chair.
The four of us discussed the benefits and disadvantages of online writing, the poor quality of current investigative journalism, the impossibility to replace real books with the rather amorphous e-readers and the plague of niceness amongst literary bloggers and tweeters. I was so glad to see that our session was attended by a class of midgrade schoolers. Having seen them also in other festival events too made me feel more hopeful about literature’s survival in our electronic, flickering, tweeting era. For another generation at least.