David Grossman’s Article of Faith
Jan 1, 2011
17 Min read time
When David Grossman writes fiction, the Talmudist in him disappears, and the novelist in him is imaginatively overcome by the inward-turning moodiness of the Israeli born into war.
David Grossman, To the End of the Land
Translated by Jessica Cohen
Knopf, $28.95 (cloth)
Pick up almost any Western European novel of the 1950s—by, say, Natalia Ginzburg or Peter Handke, Marguerite Duras or Christa Wolf—and chances are you will find yourself in an unidentified place, listening to people named K or Z speaking a language of disconnect and milling about inside a story line that seems continually to circle back on itself. Inevitably, there is something stunned, dreamlike, anesthetized in these narratives, some eerie inwardness trapped in the prose that slowly fills the reader with anxiety, if not dread.
All too soon we realize that we are in the country of “the catastrophe.” The characters are survivors, and the disconnect is the emotional rubble through which they wander. What unites these books, even beyond the disconnect, is a severe absence of sentiment. It’s not that the writers are cynics, far from it. It is only that sentiment here would be a waste of time. These writers are standing at the end of history, staring hard, without longing or fantasy or regret, into the is-ness of what is. The moment is stark; the prose is here to honor the starkness.
This is the body of imaginative writing we call postwar literature. When the affect of World War II wore off in Western Europe, the region’s postwar writing slowly dissolved out, too. In Eastern Europe, where people continued to live under police-state socialism, it was as though the war had never ended. Decade after decade, Russian, Polish, Czechoslovakian writers produced novels, stories, poetry that echoed postwar writing in that it gave us the surrealism of permanent catastrophe. Writers felt compelled to dramatize the grotesque sense of emotional displacement to which whole populations adjusted every day that they got out of bed in Moscow or Warsaw or Prague. As one generation of writers aged, and the strength of feeling that had fed its work weakened, the next rose up to continue testifying.
Israel, too, is a country whose literature seems permanently postwar. That is, generation after generation of Israeli writers emerge to tell the tale of what it means to be living under the black cloud of a lifetime of war—everyone’s lifetime—where the dread of imminent disaster forms and deforms the national sensibility every hour on the newscast. If the guns aren’t actually firing or the shells exploding when the writer is at the desk, they soon will be; if the people one loves are alive today, tomorrow they won’t be; if the torment of the regulation nightmare eases up—allowing for a night or two of unbroken sleep—it is sure to return full force in a week or a month.
While the tone and the rhetoric of Israeli writing is certainly different from that of eastern Europe, in much of it the same stunned sense of disconnect prevails; even more so, in fact. In Israel the catastrophe has gone on for so long, and has pressed so many people into the position of victimizer as well as victim, murderer as well as murdered, that a haunting sense of complicity colors the disconnect. As well it should. The real force of postwar writing is the discovery in oneself of the bestiality that had previously been assigned the enemy: always a cause for existential despair. In Israeli writing of the last decades, as in the writing of those European novels of the ’50s and ’60s, that despair is often central to a story-telling narrator up against the wilderness of his or her very own self.
A brilliant example is a 1970 novella by A.B. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s major writers. In Facing the Forests, the protagonist is a failing graduate student, depressed and reclusive, who’s into something like his eighteenth year of writing the dissertation, hasn’t slept with a woman in five years, and is perpetually walking the streets of Jerusalem beneath a burning sun. On impulse (to get the dissertation done, he tells himself), the student takes a job as a fire watcher in a national forest that, he discovers, has been planted over the remains of an Arab village long ago razed to the ground. He settles with his books into his remote perch in the forest, of course gets no work done, and is soon going mad from the isolation. The situation turns morbid when he begins actively to worry about a fire being set in the forest; worry morphs into anxiety, anxiety into obsession. Soon he is fantasizing nonstop that the old Arab caretaker lurking about the forest, the only survivor of the original village, is plotting to burn it down. In the end, the student comes apart, and it is he who sets fire to the forest.
This fable has always felt emblematic to me. The internal silence that suffuses its prose is thick enough to cut with a knife. It is the silence of that burning sun, beneath which hallucinating images thrive; it is the silence of the unacknowledged history of the forest itself; the silence of those who cannot gain a purchase on empathic experience. In an odd way, not easy to analyze, that silence has, throughout the decades, flavored the best of Israeli writing.
• • •
David Grossman is the Israeli writer of the hour. Although a celebrated novelist, he is also a distinguished journalist who, over the last 30 years, has written steadily in newspapers and magazines in response to almost every social and political event of any size or significance that has taken place in his country. The difference between the story-telling Grossman and the essayistic Grossman is instructive.
In 1987 Grossman wrote The Yellow Wind, a journalistic account of three months spent in the West Bank, where he looked hard at Palestinian life under the Israeli occupation. Until that time, he had lived all of his 33 years in Jerusalem. By his own admission, when he looked at an Arab he saw not a fellow creature; he saw only an Arab. Those three months in the West Bank radicalized him. When, upon its publication, I read the book, it reminded me of books that had been written by white, middle-class American kids who’d gone south in the ’60s to discover for themselves what it really meant to be black in America.
Grossman lives in the thick of it—waking each day to wonder, ‘Is this boy coming toward me my murderer, or that woman over there?’
The Yellow Wind gained Grossman an international reputation because of its astonishing even-handedness. Concentrating on ordinary, law-abiding Palestinians, living in exile on their own land, he began for the first time to see them as individuals and to take the true measure of what the occupation had done to them. “Have you visited there, Lod?” he asks about a city on the West Bank, once closed but by 1987 open to travelers. A woman stares at him. “Of course not,” is her response. “Aren’t you curious to see it now?” he pursues. “Only when we return,” she replies. It’s Grossman’s turn to stare. For the moment, he sees this attitude as a dangerous unwillingness to compromise.
“Again and again,” he writes, “that absolute demand: everything. Nablus and Hebron and Jaffa and Jerusalem. And in the meantime—nothing. . . . In the meantime, a dream and a void.” For the West Bank Palestinian, “Everything happens elsewhere. Not now. In another place. In a splendid past or a longed-for future. The thing most present here is absence.” The meaning of which the children, generation after generation, are being schooled to understand. In a wretched kindergarten, “living their whole lives in a colorless world without happiness,” the children
spend long summer and winter hours in a cold and mildewed kindergarten, which has neither a glass window nor electricity. With the all-pervading stink rising from the 'bathroom,' a grotesque symbol of their situation.
But an Arab intellectual, free to live elsewhere in the world, gives Grossman a lesson in the strength of passive resistance: I choose, he says, “to remain here. To see how my home becomes my prison, which I do not want to leave, because the jailer will then not allow me to return.” This, Grossman is told, is sumud: “a sort of passive combativeness, gritting one’s teeth to keep from giving in, and to keep from losing one’s mind.” Thousands upon thousands of Palestinians are unconscious samadin, daily transforming their formidable passivity into an art and a weapon.
Grossman knew then and there that an uprising was overdue, and sure enough the very next year came the first intifada. It turned him into a passionate dove, an indefatigable activist, and in time the author of Death As A Way of Life, a 2003 collection of newspaper pieces written over the ten violent years following the Oslo Accords.
“Noise,” Grossman wrote in his introduction:
That’s the first word that comes into my mind when I think of the last ten years. So much noise. Gunshots and shouts . . . explosions and demonstrations . . . calls for revenge and the throb of helicopters above and the screeching sirens of ambulances and the frantic rings of the telephone after each incident. . . . I also write articles because of the noise. . . . I have to admit that many times . . . . I very much want, instead of writing, to run through the streets screaming.
But Grossman didn’t run screaming and he didn’t stop writing, because to sit down at the computer, with his fingers on the keyboard, was to start putting things in balance—an exercise that led him, each and every time without exception, back to the soul-saving perspective that makes his journalism a thing of lasting value:
Even if we are doomed to years of violence and animosity, to fragile peace agreements that will be violated over and over again, we must keep creating an alternative. . . . If we don’t do this, our children will remember only dimly what is really worth fighting for.
The most depressing development of these last years, he thought, had been
the heady attraction of hatred, of the hunger for revenge. In a single breath, it is as if a veneer of culture and humanity has been removed from [our] two peoples to reveal brutishness and barbarity. . . . In this struggle, the battle lines today are drawn not between Israelis and Palestinians, but rather between those who are unwilling to come to terms with despair and those who wish to turn it into a way of life.
This passage is typical of many in a book written by a man living in the thick of it—waking each day to wonder, should the children go to school on the same bus? should I take this route home, or that one? is this boy coming toward me my murderer, or that woman over there?—yet continually struggling to make the largest sense of things, because making large sense provides hope, and hope is civilizing. Remaining civilized is, for Grossman, an article of faith.
The voice in these pieces is that of a secular Talmudist, a writer who never fails to see that, for an Israeli, a military “win” can only bring a pyrrhic victory because the welfare of the other is integral to his own. This, in sum, is why Grossman as an essay-writing journalist—philosophically inclined, morally generous, politically empathic—is among the best to make use of the genre, and in a certain sense the genre repays him by allowing this work to succeed so richly.
• • •
When Grossman sits down to write fiction, the Talmudist in him disappears, and the novelist in him is imaginatively overcome by the inward-turning moodiness of the Israeli who has been born into war, grown up with it, served in it, married and had children, and lived to watch those children suffer or die in it. Inside this welter of shocking experience lies the inherited sensibility that Grossman seeks to transfer to the page so that you, his foreign reader especially, will feel viscerally what he feels, know viscerally what he knows. His new novel, To The End of The Land (much better named in Hebrew as A Woman Fleeing the News), is dedicated to this proposition.
The book tells the story of Ora, the 48-year-old wife of Ilan and mother of Adam and Ofer, each of whom has served, or is serving, in the army and has, to one degree or another, seen action. Ora has been worn by time into an anxiety-ridden Cassandra of alarming proportions. She cannot stop expecting the worst. And what, for her, is the worst? Not merely that one of these men she loves so fiercely will die, but that, one by one, the humanity in each of them is hardening. She fears that soon, when confronting either her husband or her sons, she will face an emptiness of soul that will make life not worth living.
As the story opens, Ilan has left her—her high-minded refusal to accept things as they are is ruining his life, he says—and is traveling in South America with Adam, their oldest son, who feels about her as his father does. Alone with the younger Ofer, she has struggled to gain control of herself by planning a hiking trip with him in the Galilee now that he is on the verge of finishing his army service. An emergency call-up interferes with the plan: Ofer volunteers for action, and Ora begins to feel she’s losing her reason.
We feel, with Ora, the granulated misery of all the years running through her veins, compromising her nervous system, corrupting her blood.
On a sudden, she indulges in a piece of magical thinking. Instead of sitting in the house (as usual) waiting for bad news, she will take the trip to the Galilee herself. If there’s no one home to receive the news, it can’t be delivered, and if it can’t be delivered, she tells herself, nothing will have happened to Ofer.
On her way out of town she picks up Avram, a friend of her adolescence who’s been an emotional basket case for the twenty years since his POW experience during the Yom Kippur war, and persuades him to go north with her. The rest of the novel is Ora and Avram tramping steadily along the Israel Trail, while Ora talks at him, randomly going down this path or that in her mind to memories and recollections that fill in the story of her life as a girl, a wife, and, above all, a mother. Ofer is never far from her thoughts.
This is a novel that gains and loses power, gains it again, loses it again. It is self-consciously literary; its dialogue is stiff and artificial, its rhetorical devices often strained. Avram is a deus ex machina, if ever there was one: he exists only to allow Ora to talk. In fact, everyone in the book is a shadow, introduced for the sake of making Ora’s verbal fever plausible. Even in recounting one of Ora’s most important memories there is a bit of the kind of emotionalism that makes this reader wince. A group of soldiers, including Ofer, on duty in the occupied territories, had inadvertently locked an old man, an Arab, into a meat locker, where he sat for two days before they found him. Ofer shrugs the incident off, dismissing it as “human error,” and Ora is beside herself due to his callousness. When she has made her family crazy with her Cassandra-like hand wringing, Ilan forbids her to speak any more, to any of them, about the incident. Alone in her car, she beats the steering wheel and cries out, “But it’s Ofer, do you understand that, Ilan? It happened to us. It’s our Ofer. How could Ofer, how could he?” (Emphasis in original.)
In these lines one hears Grossman’s naked—that is, untransformed—ambition for Ora as a figure of mythic conscience. The problem is that when the reader feels the ambition, the prose loses power. On the other hand, the power, when it returns, is penetrating.
Grossman’s ability to get inside his character when she is obsessing is a mark of literary brilliance. To put down on the page the exact quality of her obsession—pulling it, like a thread, out of the center of her being—feels so true, runs so deep, that whenever we are back inside it we feel what we are meant to feel: the granulated misery of all the years running through her veins, compromising her nervous system, corrupting her blood.
There isn’t a memory Ora has that isn’t seen in relation to the war: the one just starting or the one just ending or the one taking a rest. And always that existential concern of hers about remaining morally accountable, and her paranoid conviction, finally, that she herself is culpable:
Now it grows and swells and threatens to burst: her stupidity, her failure in the principled and complicated matter of being a gentle human being in this place, in these times. Not just being gentle . . . because you are incapable of being anything else by nature, but being intentionally and defiantly gentle, being a gentle person who dives headfirst into the local vat of acid.
Ora magnifies her sense of failure because she knows that she is continually beside herself. She also knows that when you are beside yourself you cannot reason. If you cannot reason you cannot act morally. If you cannot act morally, you are suspect. Living in a country where most people are beside themselves and can reason only intermittently, sooner or later everyone comes under suspicion: including yourself.
She remembers that during the worst period of suicide bombings she suddenly started riding buses, where many of the attacks were taking place. For weeks on end, she would unexpectedly feel compelled to leave whatever she was doing and, like a sleepwalker, board a bus, any bus, ride it to the end of the line, get off, then get back on the bus again. Once:
She got on the empty bus, and her eyes refracted a split-second scene that was torn, shattered, and bloody. She wondered where the safest seat was; had she not been embarrassed, she would have asked the driver.
Instead, she kept twisting about in the middle of the bus, trying to decide where to sit, and then, when she saw the driver watching her in his mirror, it flashed on her that he was thinking she was the suicide bomber.
Why the pages occupied by this memory are stunning, I cannot tell you; but they are. Every scrap of thought and feeling attributed to Ora’s memory of riding the buses puts the reader inside an Ora who at that moment ceases to be a character in a novel and becomes a flesh-and-blood woman alone with a life in which the surreal is the norm.
The aloneness of Ora remembering the bus rides is made rich by the largeness of her recognitions; but on occasion she suffers another kind of aloneness, one that is diminishing. She recalls an evening in a restaurant when Ofer is home on leave, and the family is momentarily together. She wishes badly to sink into the bliss of this togetherness, but her wish is not granted. All three of her men are united by the military experience, and she knows that when they first come together they want her to not be there so they can talk army freely. She also knows the moment will end:
In just a short time she’ll be able to splash around in the warm, sweet latency that commingles . . . complete happiness and family. But there’s always that lousy, unavoidable moment before, a sort of transit toll they charge her, the three of them, on her way to that sweetness. It is a regular torture ritual that she perceives as cunningly, conspiratorially, aimed solely at her, which she alone provokes in them, and it is precisely because they sense how much she yearns for that sweetness that they tighten ranks to withhold it.
This is an insight, war or no war, worthy of Tolstoy; and here again the insight is memorable, and the prose haunting. Such writing appears repeatedly, and, when it does, it presses on the reader’s heart. Yet, finally, the book drains rather than exalts. Which is, I think, as it should be.
Grossman’s writing is a startling demonstration of the split within an author whose life’s work is dominated by a single concern—how to stay human in inhuman circumstances—but needs two genres to fulfill itself. So the essays get the reason, and the novels get the pain. The reason supplies elegant writing about “the situation”; the pain exhibits its raw emotional cost. What is perhaps most moving about the split is that in the journalism the writing is more perfectly controlled, while in the fiction the material is calling the shots. Between the two we have a perfect metaphor for this, our one and only life.
January 01, 2011
17 Min read time