Novelist John Irving cancels long-awaited Israel visit due to COVID-19

Author was coming for Jerusalem Writers Festival and to work on final chapter of latest book, ‘Queen Esther,’ set in 1980s Jerusalem; now. he’ll do a Zoom interview for festival

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Novelist John Irving was scheduled to appear at the upcoming Jerusalem Writers Festival opening May 27, 2024, but had to cancel his in-person appearance due to a bout of Covid-19 (Courtesy Derek ODonnell)
Novelist John Irving was scheduled to appear at the upcoming Jerusalem Writers Festival opening May 27, 2024, but had to cancel his in-person appearance due to a bout of Covid-19 (Courtesy Derek ODonnell)

Novelist John Irving, writer of modern literary bestsellers such as “The World According to Garp” and “Cider House Rules,” last visited Israel some 40 years ago.

The 82-year-old storyteller planned to return to Israel this week to appear at the 12th Writers Festival in Jerusalem, and to work on the final chapter of his latest historical novel, “Queen Esther,” set in the 1980s in the capital city.

Unfortunately, a bout of COVID-19 forced Irving to cancel his trip, and instead, his May 28 evening session with filmmaker Ari Folman will be conducted via Zoom, although Irving said he plans on coming soon.

“I love Jerusalem and I was very much looking forward to being there for the Jerusalem International Writers Festival,” said Irving in a statement, adding that he had contracted COVID for the second time and was urged by his doctor and family to be cautious.

“There’s no small amount of nostalgia attached to this trip,” said Irving from his home in Canada in a phone interview last week. He recalled his last visit, when his European Jewish publishers prevailed upon him to travel to Israel as “Hotel New Hampshire” was being translated into Hebrew.

“They said, ‘Oh, you must go to Israel,'” said Irving.

Novelist John Irving’s ‘Hotel New Hampshire’ was published in 1981 (Courtesy)

All but two of those colleagues are now long gone, as is the Hebrew translator Irving worked with at that time.

“I’m 82, there’s almost nowhere else I can go that won’t remind me of the people I was with, but that is not a feeling that will be out of place in the novel,” he said.

Appearing at the Writers Festival was meant to be “the fun part” of the visit, said Irving. More than that, he felt it was vital for him to show up as Israel battles Hamas in Gaza, prays its hostages will come home and mourns all those lost during and after the Hamas attacks of October 7.

“I feel it’s all the more important given what’s happening and the eternal conflict,” said Irving.

So Irving made plans to attend the Writers Festival this year, held May 27 through May 30, with time to walk around Jerusalem and reestablish the setting for the final chapter of this novel.

“I wanted to coincide being there with also being up to the final chapter in the novel,” said Irving. “I need to retrace my steps, to be again everywhere I was. I need the landscape detail.”

Irving last visited Israel in the 1980s, in a trip organized by some of his favorite European translation publishers, whom he described as European Jews with longstanding ties to Israel.

At the time, Irving was working with his Hebrew translator on “Hotel New Hampshire” after “The World According to Garp” had been translated into Hebrew. During the visit, he began taking notes about a novel he would someday write.

“I know everywhere I was, everyone I was with, I know who said what to whom and I know what happened,” said Irving, “and I knew I’d be coming back to Jerusalem simply to refresh my memory of the visual detail.”

Like many of his novels, Irving has been working on this latest one, named “Queen Esther,” for five or six years. While he doesn’t like to discuss the plots of his books before they’re published, he always knew that he would revisit Jerusalem when he reached the writing of the final chapter.

“I’m very ending-driven, I know more about endings than beginnings, and I never start writing until I know what the ending is,” he said. “I need to retrace my steps, to be again where I was, because I wasn’t taking pictures or taking notes.”

As it turns out, this would have been a good year for Irving to visit Israel.

Irving compared his lifelong support and hopes for Israel to his feelings about the United States, where he was born, raised and lived until he and his wife moved to Canada and he became a Canadian citizen in 2019.

“Am I pro-Israel?” said Irving. “Turn that around and say that if Donald Trump were president, would I still be pro-American? I hated Ronald Reagan but didn’t stop being pro-America, I was always just anti-Reagan.”

Similarly, said Irving, while he may disagree with the actions of the Israeli government, he has always been a supporter of Israel, although he doesn’t have “a Jewish or Israeli friend who likes [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and the people I know there are spending a lot of time at protests.”

Irving said he believes the world is in “a perilous place,” and his birth country, the US, has never been more divided, and constantly “slipping backward.”

Novelist John Irving’s ‘Cider House Rules’ was published in 1985 (Courtesy)

He referenced his 1985 book “Cider House Rules,” a historic novel about a time when abortion was illegal and unsafe. Irving said he didn’t write the book to be quaint but to point out that it could happen again and the dangers that entailed.

“My birth country couldn’t have gone further back in terms of sexual politics than it has, and it’s still trying to make it worse,” he said. “That doesn’t make me prophetic, it makes the world stupid.”

The award-winning writer said his process of looking closely at the society and culture in which he was raised began years ago when he lived in Vienna as a foreign student in his 20s.

“I began to see my birth country more clearly when I lived in another country,” said Irving. “I saw my country from the perspective of another country.”

It’s one of the reasons he likes living in Canada, where he and his Canadain-born wife moved, said Irving. “I’ve always liked the perspective that Canada has of the US. I’m happy where I am.”

At 82, Irving has said more than once that he’s done writing his longer novels. That may be hard for him, as the loquacious writer often speaks the way he writes, in full, rambling sentences that cram in many ideas.

He noted that literary fiction has gotten shorter over the years, and his latest novel, “The Last Chairlift,” which didn’t receive positive reviews, was published at a particularly unpopular time for long fiction.

By comparison, “Queen Esther” will end up being a novel “of normal length by today’s standards,” said Irving, not a novella or short novel, but “to my readers, it will look like a short novel for me.” At the same time, his notes for future works are even shorter than for “Queen Esther.”

Even so, mixed reviews don’t bother this lifelong writer.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever published a novel where reviews have not been mixed,” said Irving. “My novels are socially disturbing and, if not always political, at least socially provocative. I’ve never been a critics’ darling. That isn’t why I write.”

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