Boyd Tonkin: Heroes, villains and room to argue

The week in books

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It begins with Simon Schama (and Linda Grant). It ends with Umberto Eco. Along the way, it takes in one of the greatest of all food writers, Claudia Roden, Howard Jacobson, the poetry of Bob Dylan, and a panoply of outstanding authors from across the world. Three of their new books (by Claude Lanzmann, Etgar Keret and Shalom Auslander) you will find reviewed in these pages today. It also boasts an interview with the prolific cultural philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, who – as I found out at the European Cultural Congress in Wroclaw last autumn –enjoys in his native Poland a rock-star status among young fans that belies his 86 years.

Jewish Book Week, which begins its 60th birthday season tomorrow, more or less counts as the international literary festival that London has never quite managed to stage on a regular basis. True, the London Book Fair has taken welcome steps towards building a full calendar of author events on top of its essentially commercial, deal-based foundations. But an absence of suitable venues, a blasé public and the strength of the out-of-town competition have so far meant that live literature remains a rare British art that flourishes best far away from the metropolis.

Jewish Book Week manages at once to feel comprehensive and compact. Its departing director, Geraldine D'Amico, leaves a legacy of both excellence and audacity. How apt that one session this time should feature Eliane Glaser, whose persuasive forthcoming book Get Real pleas for authenticity against the spin of politics, celebrity and the marketplace. Britain's recent boom in literary festivals came about because large audiences craved unspun, unpackaged encounters with ideas, with stories, and those who form and frame them. Jewish Book Week has done as well as any in making, and keeping, it real.

That means, of course, the courage to rock boats, raise hackles and puncture pieties. One JBW event takes on this year's golden birthday boy and, for once, asks him searching questions. Michael Eaton and Leon Litvack will discuss "Fagin the Jew", and the complex relationship that Charles Dickens maintained with Jews in both literature and life. The story still fascinates. To some extent, Dickens renounced the legacy of Fagin, the grotesque crime lord in Oliver Twist who pulls the strings of an army of urchin thieves. In 1854, the Jewish Chronicle lamented that Dickens should apparently exclude Jews from "the sympathizing heart" of this "powerful friend of the oppressed". The charge evidently stung, and Dickens defended himself by referring, not to Fagin, but to the denunciations of anti-Semitic persecution in his Child's History of England.

Deeper change came closer to home – literally. Eliza Davis and her banker husband James (who were Jewish) bought Dickens's house on Tavistock Square. They became friends. She took him firmly to task for having "encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew", but also invited a retraction. He blustered at first, arguing that at the period of Oliver Twist, "That class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew". But Eliza had struck where it hurt.

By 1867, revising the novel for a standard edition, Dickens removed virtually all references to Fagin as "the Jew". In Our Mutual Friend (1865), he is often seen as making amends for the monster with the noble Jewish character of Riah. It is Riah who voices the mature writer's position: "Men find the bad among us easily enough - among what peoples are the bad not easily found? – but they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say 'All Jews are alike'."

So: youthful prejudice dumped; the good conscience of a genius restored. Job done. But literature is never quite so neat. Hideous, demonic, malevolent, Fagin is also, in his way, quite magnificent: a compelling force-field of comic energy, and scourge of hypocrisy. In his final abjection in the condemned cell at Newgate, he almost turns into a martyr. How does a stereotype evolve into an archetype, and why do we fall for fictional ogres? As always with Dickens, whenever he's brought to book, he has tough questions to ask us in return.

Jewish Book Week, Kings Place, London N1 (020 7520 1490; jewishbookweek.com) 18 to 26 February

Unmask the impostor in black

Last week I noted that Amazon's e-publishing success Kerry Wilkinson had entitled one of his crime stories The Woman in Black. Nothing amiss about that. If I care to call my new novel Birdsong or Wolf Hall, no one can stop me. The question does arise, though, of what sort of writer would do so. But Susan Hill, author of the orginal Woman in Black (now filmed), tells me that many readers have complained to her that they wished to download her supernatural tale from Amazon, and got Wilkinson's unwanted thriller instead. She hopes that Amazon might post a warning about the potential for confusion. Let's see. If not, Wilkinson should back off and change his title.

Boris, the Met and Mr Murdoch

Four weeks ago, Boris Johnson took over "unequivocal responsibility for overseeing the police" in London when the Mayor's Office for Policing and Crime replaced the Metropolitan Police Authority. Once and for all, the buck stops with him. So I will repeat the question I asked last autumn, but in a week when more employees of Rupert Murdoch (at The Sun) have faced arrest for alleged corrupt dealings with Met officers. Why does the Mayor accept payments from a Murdoch company? The contract appears, duly recorded, in section 1 (a) (iv) of Johnson's register of interests at City Hall. No one doubts the independence and integrity of News Corp's wholly-owned subsidiary HarperCollins. The firm released his book Johnson's Life of London in October, and has published him for a decade. Insofar as the Murdoch crown still has jewels, HarperCollins shines brightly. But it remains a Murdoch property, at a moment when a London police boss might hope to appear free of all such inconvenient links. Not Boris.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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