David Bezmozgis’ Adventures in the Free World

On the 15th of November, 2012, The Department of Jewish Studies, in collaboration with the Department of English, were happy to host David Bezmozgis for a fascinating discussion of his novel, The Free World. Bezmozgis is an award-winning writer and The Free World, which came out in 2011, is his first novel. He immigrated to Canada from the Soviet Union when he was six and much of his writing (including this novel) revolves around the experience of Soviet Jewish immigrants.

Bezmozgis, himself a McGill alumnus, spoke freely and casually, inviting the attendees to ask questions. His writing is influenced both by Jewish-American writers like Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, and Saul Bellow, and by Jewish-Canadian writers to which he was introduced during his undergraduate studies: Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton, and A.M. Klein.

Bezmozgis lecturing (Photo: Eric Caplan)

The Free World, Bezmozgis explained, offered him a chance to experiment in ways which he had not done previously: writing in the third person, and writing from the point of view of women and adults, and this flux of perspectives helped him depict the chaos and uncertainty of leaving the Soviet Union. The novel itself is set in Rome in 1978, a year of world-wide political turmoil, and was written in the course of a grueling seven years, during which Bezmozgis attempted to immerse himself in the world of his characters, through geography, language, and old letters. In fact, Bezmozgis said, the Russian language even pervaded his style of writing in the novel, affecting his diction and syntax in order to manufacture the appropriate atmosphere.

One particularly fascinating topic raised by Bezmozgis was his use of actual letters written in Yiddish (translated by our own Esther Frank) and sent from the front during the Second World War, one of which was actually included in the novel.

When questions arose, Bezmozgis seemed thrilled to engage with the audience, who asked him about various elements of his writing process. He discussed how Judaism pervaded his writing not only because of his own heritage and literary influences, but because his cast of characters (all Jewish save one) were inevitably touched by their Jewish identity by virtue of living in a state which discriminated against Jews. He also broached the topic of the purpose of his writing, citing empathy as the purpose of all art in his opinion.

All in all, the Bezmozgis lecture was intriguing and met with a very engaged audience, happy to ask questions and at times even debate with the writer, who proved a fascinating speaker. We would like to once again thank him for coming and wish him good luck.

– Elay Kornecki

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