A Review of the International Writers’ Festival
Okay, so I lied. This is not a review of the International Writers’ Festival (Mishkenot Sha’ananim) but rather of the two sessions that I attended. Both of them were very worthwhile. The first was largely entailed by the screening of the first part of Mukdash LaNevat Beiti, a two-part documentary on Shai Agnon and his complicated family relationships. The movie was preceded by a brief but highly informative talk on Agnon’s work vis-à-vis his family and was followed by a “questions and answers” session with the director.
I am embarrassingly ignorant in Agnon and I just lapped it all up, without even stopping to taste. How thrilling to meet Agnon’s children. (Children! They’re over ninety bli ayin hara). Digestion was harder. The filmmaker’s aim, so I understood, was to put a finger on that elusive character, Agnon’s wife, Esterlain. But after much mulling, I realized that we, the viewers, still knew precious little about her. Part two is set to be screened on Channel One this Saturday night. Maybe it will help.
One message that did come out of the session was how Esterlian had been cancelled out and perhaps, how she had cancelled herself out as a person in lieu of the needs of her husband, the great writer. The frustration I found myself dealing with in the aftermath was the presentation of this case as something special. True, not every woman was married to Shai Agnon. Still, the event of women’s bowing out of their own lives in order to devote themselves to the fulfillment of the needs and aspirations of their men was really commonplace at the time. And let’s face it, to a not insignificant degree it remains that way to this very day.
Upon this backdrop, session number two was most uplifting – an hour-long conversation between two women writers, the Israeli, Avirama Golan, and the American, Marilynne Robinson. Here again was I, lapping up every word, but this time savoring every bite. My only qualm was that there was not enough room to take it all in. I mean that. Interviewers or public discussants have this irritating tendency to jump in as soon as their significant other (for the current purposes) inserts a full stop, without taking the time to pause, properly, in the manner of a blank page placed between chapters.
The book that took center stage was Robinson’s Home. Golan remarked that the house in Home was so carefully and lovingly described — “it’s almost as if it is a character in the book.” Robinson concurred and I drew a tear, thinking of the house my parents built in Johannesburg. A fortress on the hill, it was. But it was abandoned and now it’s dead.