(Venice, Italy) Crossroads of Civilization, Incroci di Civiltà, Venice's international literary festival wrapped up its seventh edition on Saturday, April 5, 2014. Once again, the writers spoke about how we need good literature more than ever. Caryl Phillips from Great Britain nailed it when he said, "Google is not knowledge. Google is information. ...Our brains are becoming increasingly narcissistic. Literature is needed as a counter-balance."
Reading good literature encourages our brains to process information and transform it into real knowledge. Good writers impart knowledge gathered from deep within themselves, transforming it into a feast that humanity can savor. As the world twitters away, those of us who still make time to read good literature dine on satisfying sentences and sumptuous words, a meal that leaves a lasting impression.
Unfortunately, because of schedule conflicts, I was not able to see all the writers I wanted to -- especially Raja Alem from Saudi Arabia, whom I had met back in 2011, but the conversations I was able to attend left me encouraged that Venice's literary festival continues to thrive. Especially heartening was the large number of students in attendance -- the University of Ca' Foscari here in Venice is a valuable contributor to Incroci di Civiltà.
Here are the writers who attended and their countries, stimulating diverse, international conversations about how the world looks from his or her unique point of view:
Naomi Alderman - Great Britain
Raja Alem - Saudi Arabia
Salwa Al-Neimi - Syria
Massimo Carlotto - Italy
Patrizia Cavalli - Italy
Arne Dahl - Sweden
Rita Dove - United States
Abilio Estévez - Cuba
Ge Fei - China
Rhea Galanaki - Greece
Peter Greenaway - Great Britain
Jhumpa Lahiri - United States
Abdolah Kader - Iran/Holland
Daniel Mendelsohn - United States
Carlo Petrini - Italy
Caryl Phillips - Great Britain
Marc Scialom - Tunisia/Italy/France
Sergej Stratanovskij - Russia
Noémi Szécsi - Hungary
Uwe Timm - Germany
Olivier Truc - France/Sweden
Varujan Vosganian - Romania
Binyavanga Wainaina - Kenya (unable to attend)
I did manage to see David Mendelsohn over at the Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi (and bumped into Martin Bethenod, Director of the Francois Pinault Foundation, for the second time that day -- earlier in the morning he was at Le Stanze del Vetro on the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore presenting I Santillana - Works by Laura de Santillana and Alessandro Diaz de Santillana, the outstanding exhibition he conceived; everyone is talking about it; it is a MUST SEE). Mendelsohn was interviewed by Pietro Del Soldà, of Radio Rai 3, who spoke in Italian while Mendelsohn responded in English.
Mendelsohn is an American critic, author, essayist and classics professor. His 2006 memoir has a notable title -- The Lost: A Search for Six Among Six Million. With a background in Euripidean tragedy, he applied his talents to search for the phantoms that were haunting his family: six of his relatives that disappeared during the Holocaust.
Mendelsohn said his problem was how to tell a story that everyone already knew. He was a critic sitting in his pajamas, writing reviews, when he decided to delve into his family's history. He kept reminding himself to keep a narrow focus and stick to the story: "There's never been a story about my family before." His six relatives were representative of the six million Jews who disappeared during the Holocaust. Since his background was in Hellenic studies, he called upon his old friends Herodotus and Homer for help, and used Ring Composition for his structure. This fascinated me, and I knew I had to have his book. But Daniel Mendelsohn is such a riveting speaker that his book was sold out both in English and in Italian. (I will have to get my hands on a copy by other means:)
This incredibly educated, well-traveled, enlightened American man said something that struck me as an American woman who has lived in Europe for sixteen years. While doing his research, Mendelsohn realized how remote Europe was to the United States; that Americans are oblique to Europe. I have noticed the same thing. He said every American is haunted by another history... growing up in a small town in New York State, who visited his relatives in Miami for a couple weeks every year, he kept hearing about "the Old Country," "the Old Country." He said, "Even educated Americans like myself don't understand it." Now he is an American who finally has discovered what the Old Country is.
While traveling in Eastern Europe, every town he visited had a mass grave. It was a question he was repeatedly asked: "Do you want to see the mass grave?" Mendelsohn remarked, "Your whole country is a cemetery!" His relatives were from a small town called Bolekhiv in the Ukraine. In 1890, there were over 4,000 Jews living there; only 48 survived World War II.
Mendelsohn's brother, Matt, who did the photography, wanted to see Auschwitz; he did not. He was amazed when they were driving along the highway and saw the signs for "Auschwitz." "Imagine growing up in a country where the names are places of genocide!" His brother responded: "You grew up the same way." Mendolsohn said that where he grew up in New York State, everything was named after Native American tribes. After I processed the enormity of that thought, I was stunned. That is also how I grew up, surrounded by Native American names -- Pompton Lakes, my little hometown in New Jersey, was named after the Pompton tribe. Although the Indians left a deep impression on my childhood, it was a romanticized version of history -- wearing moccasins, walking toe-heel, toe-heel, gathering berries in the forest. But, in reality, it was genocide. An entire people were wiped out according to plan. The definition from Merriam-Webster:
Mendelsohn said that 9/11 was the first chance America had to feel like Europe. If you are a regular reader of Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog, you will know I just wrote the same thing last week when I commented on the book The Hôtel on Place Vendôme:
"Here in Europe, you can still feel the echoes of the World Wars, something that only a handful of today's Americans understand. The wars touched the lives of everyone in Europe, many of whom are still alive today. The pain of 9/11 shook the world, Americans in particular, but the event itself was isolated to a section of New York. The World Wars were anguish ramped up to the umpteenth power as country after country fell under the control of the Nazis and Fascists. It is almost unimaginable that such a short time ago France was under German rule; the Nazis were bombing Great Britain, and the US and the Soviet Union were allies -- the Soviets were the first to liberate the Jews from Auschwitz."
Daniel Mendelsohn said that the ancient Greeks were alert to the terror in the world, and that Americans have an infantile desire for closure, packaging everything to feel good. He said that there is not always a redemption, and instead we should ask, "How can we heal? What if there is healing?"
Mendelsohn was inspired by Marcel Proust, and closed with these thoughts: "Without pain, life is tasteless. Pain is the salt that gives life flavor. Pain is a necessary ingredient in the soup of life."
Click for The Lost by Daniel Mandelsohn on Amazon
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Ciao from Venezia,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog