Among the proudest exhibits on my shelves are the Hebrew versions of my three novels. Seeing your words translated into a different language is always a pleasure, but there is something very special about these words being represented in a different alphabet – the square, black and matrix letters of the Hebrew Ktav Ashuri. Plus you have to read from right to left which makes the mind mind boggling in a good way.
It is extraordinary to think that a book written by a exhausted mother working in a small office at the top of a narrow London house during the first quarter of the 21st century has become a bestseller in a writing so old that it might as well be Egyptian hieroglyphics. It is the wonder of literature. The realm of imagination has no borders or passports and everyone is free to travel there.
At least that’s how it was always meant to be and how I experienced it personally. On book tours, I would find myself in an auditorium full of Norwegian or Sri Lankan women or Southern beauties sipping iced tea or Wall Street enthusiasts or Indian tech entrepreneurs. I would read aloud to all of these people and there would be those amazing moments of shared laughter – about kids, love, marriage, career, lost socks, lonely earrings. And there would be shared tears – over kids, love, marriage, careers, lost socks, lonely earrings – and the difficulties of combining or finding all of the above.
We agreed, my readers and I, that on the day we went to Heaven (or whatever heavenly destination dictated by their particular faith), a footman with pearly doors would offer a tray on which all the curls glittered. missing ears of our pairs. We may have different languages, religions, and politics, but believe me, the female desire to find her missing earrings is universal.
Not that our experiences were all the same. Once in Tel Aviv, I confessed to a reader that I was worried about my daughter. She said she was worried too. Her daughter had just received her wings as a jet fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force. The mother was worried if a text was not returned quickly. This story of girls not coming back bothered me too, but not because I was worried that my firstborn had been shot in the Sinai desert. I learned a valuable lesson in perspective that day. I felt humiliated. By the way, this same mother told me that in 2003, 28 Israeli Air Force pilots were charged with mutiny for refusing to attack Palestinian camps. It’s not a story you hear a lot about, maybe because it’s a story that introduces a degree of complexity, of nuance, which makes it harder to stereotype an entire people.
That’s what the books do. They make it difficult to stress the difference. “I know literature is not as strong as a bullet,” said great Israeli novelist David Grossman. He is right, fiction is not a weapon, but if it targets the heart as well as the head, it can expand human sympathy, and that can be a revolutionary act. I would never claim to be in the nominated class for Grossman’s Booker Prize, not even close, but sometimes when I look at my shelves and see copies of I Don’t Know How She Does It translated into Cantonese and Russian ( 32 different languages in all), I like to think that there is a Chinese or Russian woman there, just an ordinary woman, a mom with a pile of laundry laughing at what made us laugh, me and my friends, moved by what moved us.
Isn’t that the effect Sally Rooney’s Normal People, who traced the relationship between teenage boys Marianne and Connell, had on millions of readers and viewers of the BBC drama series? We have all been young, groping, infatuated, insecure, convinced that our particular love is the most extraordinary love, a bright spot on vision erasing reason, in the words of Robert Graves. From Delhi to Damascus, from Dawlish to Doha, people felt this, and Rooney built a bridge between them with his beautiful words.
So, understandably, there was dismay this week when it was alleged that the 30-year-old Irish writer had refused to authorize the publication of his new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, in Hebrew, apparently for protest against the Israelis. Palestinian conflict. Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, reported that when publisher Modan approached Rooney’s agent to sign another agreement, the agent refused, claiming his author supported the cultural boycott movement of Israel.
Rooney issued a somewhat misleading statement, claiming that the issue was with the publisher in question: “I just don’t think it would be fair for me under the current circumstances to accept a new contract with an Israeli company that doesn’t. not publicly distance itself from apartheid. and support the rights stipulated by the United Nations of the Palestinian people. Hebrew translation rights were still available, she said, but she would only sell them in a manner consistent with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls for an “economic and cultural boycott of the Israelis. accomplices “. companies and institutions in response to the apartheid system and other serious human rights violations ”.
Is there an Israeli publisher who supports the cultural boycott of his own country? I doubt. Plus, a cultural boycott is such an ugly notion. Art is universal or it is nothing. Why choose to exclude a group of readers on the basis of nationality? The Israelis who came to my readings loved books and were a very literate and demanding audience. Does Rooney refuse to be translated into Mandarin because of the Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong and the genocide against the Uyghurs? How about avoiding publication in the many countries that deny full rights to women? If she does not oppose it, she risks the accusation of anti-Semitism. It makes him look like a fanatic, in the grip of a juvenile, simplistic worldview that increasingly controls the imagination.
Identity politics even threatens to curb creativity itself. Sebastian Faulks’ friends joked that the novelist’s female characters all had “surprisingly full breasts.” Not anymore. The Birdsong author told the Cheltenham Literary Festival this week that he will no longer physically describe what his heroines look like after being criticized for it in his 2018 novel Paris Echo. “What makes you think you have the right to write about a woman?” A reader would have challenged him. Faulks retorted, “Well, ma’am, Flaubert seems to have done a good job of bringing Madame Bovary to life, despite being a miserable, white, male, old French sourpuss”?
Unfortunately not. “Instead of being all bloated and puffy and cranky about it,” Faulks said, “I’ve thought about it a lot.”
The result of these ruminations is a curious decision to leave it up to her readers to decide what the women in her books look like. Apparently, they can understand that Lena, the protagonist of her new novel, Snow Country, is attractive, “because two men are trying to woo her.” Faulks says he felt “released after the decision”. Many readers will feel the opposite; rather we like to have characters portrayed.
On Radio 4’s Today show, they read a clip of Charlotte Gray by Faulks rather accusingly. The novel’s narrator watched Charlotte as she tried to put her luggage on a luggage rack; the way her jacket is pulled up, revealing the folds of her blouse, and her attempt to preserve her modesty. Was this an example of the hated “male gaze”, or was it a highly skilled and likeable writer perfectly capturing the emotions of a man’s desire for a woman? Desire, beauty, passion, falling in love, sex; they are eternal staples of literature and will be until testosterone and estrogen are banned by the government. Which could happen sooner than you think if Keir Starmer and his Crop War Puritans got the power.
What a disturbing moment for Western culture. A cultural boycott is the slipperyest slope. The fear of offending is like burning a book without the fire. How many great novels are not written because the authors hear an inner voice say, “Stay in your lane”? (I hear that anxious voice myself as I think about my next novel.) How many will never start typing because they’re afraid they’ll say something “inappropriate” and be canceled? Frankly, a novelist who doesn’t say anything inappropriate isn’t doing his job.
The realm of the imagination has always been an exhilarating place because those who travel there are not primarily concerned with politics, race, or gender. The business of the novelist is immortal truths, not fleeting piety. What a joy to get lost in a good book, to find consolation in a shared human experience. In love or a lost sock or a lonely earring. But border barriers are rising; soon, only those with the right credentials will be able to be admitted. What need do we have for censors when authors start censoring themselves?
Listen to Allison Pearson and her fellow columnist Liam Halligan on the Telegraph’s Planet Normal podcast, featuring beyond the bubble news and perspectives, on the audio player below or on Apple podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcast app