BOOKS / Down a little deeper: At the Hay Festival, Michael Glover listens to David Grossman and Doris Lessing

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The Independent Culture
There is a secret compact that exists between any author and any reader; but when authors appear in the flesh before a live audience, that compact is changed in unimaginable ways.

Which of the many authors who have confronted their readers at Hay this week have given most generously in their allotted time; have spoken most honestly, most cogently and most intelligently of their preoccupations as writers and human beings?

First prize must surely go to David Grossman, the Israeli novelist who was in discussion with Michael Ignatieff earlier in the week. Things had not seemed to augur well. Grossman, a small, bespectacled man who sits huddled into himself, making him seem smaller than he really is, had a look of extreme wariness on his face at the beginning of the discussion. Understandably enough, I suppose, given the presence of such a man in the chair opposite - so seemingly comfortable in his awareness of his respected intellect and his lanky body. And yet when Grossman began to speak, those little doubts were entirely and immediately dispelled.

Grossman, speaking not in Hebrew, of course, but in a broken English that was both more passionate and more eloquent than that of almost any English person, not only explained the major themes of his work, but also helped us to look with a much greater sympathy upon the condition of the people of Israel, that much misunderstood nation.

Ignatieff's questions were cogent and to the point, of course, but the intellectual reach of Grossman's responses seemed to outpace them. Ignatieff spoke, for example, of the modishness of much writing about death - one of Grossman's abiding preoccupations. Does it not lend a kind of specious weight to a book? he asked, rubbing his hands together. And has it not been the ruination of many writers, this pursuit of some mistaken notion of the authenticity to be discovered in dark subjects alone?

Grossman curled forward in his chair: 'Of course, a writer should have a full range, and I mean by that humour too. But there is something in my culture that says that death is right, and all the rest is a mistake that will be corrected very soon. It is a hidden sub- current in my life, and I have had to teach myself to live with the idea of death from a very early age. As Mozart said in his diary: 'Every night when I go to sleep I think that tomorrow I shall not be.' And living with death can be very fruitful to life. My writing is a desperate attempt to show vitality.'

But most remarkable of all was Grossman's closing statement, which Ignatieff described, in the way that a practised telegenic man might, as 'a natural out'. Why did Grossman persist in writing on Jewish and Israeli themes? 'I write from what is a wound inside me,' he said. 'In fact, it is burning inside me. Forty generations of Jews have prayed to be where we are - where I am - now; to have a nation of their own, some place where we do not feel a stranger, a foreigner. There is so much to be explored in this reality, this language, of ours. So much of this reality is still obscured from my eyes . . . What we are striving towards, of course, is the meaning of some future reality which will be lived without an enemy. What does it mean to live life without an enemy? One almost violates a taboo by allowing oneself such quantities of future - some sense of sequence in our reality; to be able to see the fruits of the third and fourth generations. But this cannot happen until we have learned to live in peace with other peoples who also require similar satisfactions - the Palestinians, for example. It will not be a love affair between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It is a matter of common interest - to remember who we really are. Only then will there begin some mutual sense of curiosity about each other . . .'

This pursuit of a settled identity, some fundamental sense of a stable and enduring reality, feeds Grossman's private and public themes. The two had merged into one, and he had unburdened himself to a quite humbling extent. As the man in retailing from Manchester who was sitting next to me said: 'I just wish that Arafat and Rabin and Assad could have been here today.'

Doris Lessing also stood before us in the Festival Theatre (amid much creaking of spars and thrashing of wind-blown canvas) as a witness to the tragedies and hopes of a country. This time, of her native Zimbabwe, that country which had denied her entry for so many years. Her talk, which was in part a re-presentation of African Laughter, that recent account of the four visits that she made to Zimbabwe between 1982 and 1992, was both a sombre witnessing to past colonial atrocities and an equally sombre account of the mismanagement of the country since independence in 1982. Lessing is not one to suffer fools gladly, as was evident in her spiky responses to some of the fools who tossed questions in her direction. What has African culture to do with your writing? asked one woman. 'I can't answer that question,' said Lessing. 'There are so many African cultures. Africa is not like the Isle of Wight or Long Island. I suggest you get hold of the excellent Heinemann African Writers Series.'

Success or failure before a live audience is not merely a question of intellectual prowess, of course. It is also in part a matter of spiritual generosity; of how many layers of thought an author is willing to risk stripping off. The audience may be eager - but what of the author? And how much of him or her will be left after he or she has done so?

I put this question to Ed Doctorow during a chance encounter in a bookshop the day after he had been in discussion with Christopher Bigsby and Barry Unsworth about the use of history in contemporary fiction.

Your audience seemed to be looking for spiritual illumination, I said to him. He half-raised one eyebrow. But what happens if they chance upon something fundamental about you that you don't wish them to know? Doctorow, dropping me one of his dead-eye looks, replied: 'I go down a little deeper inside myself.'

(Photograph omitted)

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