an e--mail conversation with the great Israeli novelist
In 2010, four years after he lost his son Uri in the invasion of Lebanon, Israeli writer David Grossman utilized his grief to create the deepest yet most soaring kind of novel. To the End of the Land was also a commercial success, selling more than 100,000 copies in a land of seven million. But the grief was far from extinguished, and Mr. Grossman has just published a new novella-length book - Falling Out of Time - that uses a minimum of words and plot lines to dig even deeper, using archetypal characters with names like The Walking Man, the Midwife, the Town Chronicler, all of whom share the heartache of losing a child. It felt more than a little invasive to delve into these matters in a recent interview, but cowardly not to. Our discussion follows.
Daniel Asa Rose: This new book reads more like poetry than straight narrative, perhaps befitting its dirge-like quality. It also strikes me as having the incantatory cadences of a prayer book:
“Whether I come or go,
whether rise or lie --
it is here.
When I am alone or sitting in the square,
or teaching a class –
it is here”
David Grossman: It is kind of a prayer book for a secular person who faces the question of death and cannot find solace in the belief of the afterlife, and will try as hard as he can to reach the most remote place where the living can be in touch with those who are dead.
DAR: Would it be correct to see Falling Out of Time as a kind of companion piece to To the End of the Land? A sort of coda, using up leftover vapors of grief?
DG: To the End of the Land is a book that describes the fear of losing a beloved one and tells of an attempt to turn back the wheel of events, while Falling Out of Time describes the situation after the catastrophe has occurred. It tells of the attempts of the characters to find a language with which to speak the unspeakable. When we lost our son Uri almost 8 years ago, we received many letters of condolence from Israel and abroad, many of them from writers. I was astonished to see that they wrote with almost the same formulation, as if dictated – “we are speechless,” “there are no words to describe” -- and so forth. Other people who came to see us spoke the same way -- not because they are insensitive, but because often we do not have words to express such sadness. It is in these moments that we need to have the most nuanced language, to describe exactly where you are now, what you are experiencing. In the beginning I was mute and had no words that could match what I felt, but after a while I found a growing need to articulate it; to give names to what happens to us is what makes us human. And the more nuanced we are verbally the more nuanced we are within our being. At the same time I felt the temptation to avoid the pain that comes from direct contact with grief -- the temptation to deny and to find solace by escaping it. On the contrary, I wanted to be there fully with what I faced. I think this book is the result of these two contradictory powers – the first to remain silent in the face of what happened and then the need to give a name to every sensation. If I were doomed to be exiled to this island of grief then at least I would try to map it with my own words. The result is this book that as you have noted contains much poetry – since poetry is the closest art to silence.
DAR: To the End of the Land, and this book even more so, read as though the words weren’t so much plucked from the air as mined from someplace deep within. Was there a sense of inevitability behind the words?
DG: I always prefer books that are inevitable. So many of the books I read are simply too “evitable.” But I am always attracted to books where I feel the author had no choice but to write this story.
DAR: To my ear, the language as well as the sentiment of Falling Out of Time has the same distilled quality as something from Samuel Beckett. Will you ever get to the point where the language and the sentiment are distilled so much that, like Beckett, there’s little left but silence? Would you want it to get that far?
DG: When we talk about death, when we talk about the loss of our beloved, we always stand in a place where there are not enough words and they are beyond our reach. This book was an attempt -- as far as I could go -- where words can still serve me and words can still radiate and through them find a way back to life, to find a way for me and for the reader to return to life and fight against the gravity of loss and grief.
DAR: The other connection I kept making was to the Noh plays of Yeats. The same semi-mystical dream quality, the same obsession with … not ghosts, exactly … but with deceased people whose presence is not absent, to use your kind of construction, or whose absences are still very much present. Have you read much Yeats, or are you aware of being influenced by him?
DG: Thank you – these are deep, intelligent questions and I am flattered with the comparison. I love to read Yeats but I cannot say he is my literary mentor. I think that Yeats is a religious writer in his soul, a mystic, and I am very much a secularist. It is important for me to acknowledge that there is no afterlife, and that we must create our solace alone and by ourselves.
DAR: The short choppy lines lend the book a breathlessness that feels like after one has wept a great deal. Intentional?
DG: I would say the contrary. There is no crying and not a drop of tears in this book. It is not sentimental. It is emotional. And what you see as breathlessness is of one holding back his tears.
DAR: A technical question: Why does the midwife have a stutter, at least in the beginning? Is it to distinguish her voice from the others or that, as someone who brings new life into the world, she has particular trouble articulating the un-articulatable? “if only I knew the th-th-there, too, when you arrived, when you finished dying, you were welcomed with loving arms and a warm, fragrant t-t-towel ….”
DG: Many of the protagonists have difficulty expressing themselves. This is the paralysis one often feels in such situations of loss, when reality does not progress naturally and harmoniously. The midwife’s experience is inarticulate: both life and words are chopped off. There is a violation of the right order of things with the death of her child. But when the midwife decides to join the walking people she then stops stuttering and like them she starts using poetry. The usage of poetry indicates the beginning of the recovery from her paralysis.
DAR: As the child of Zionists (my parents met at a Zionist youth camp in the Catskills in the late 40s), I witnessed a generation of American Jews grow from a state of rapturous idealism to one of increasing despair, not to say disgust, with the nation of Israel. What would you offer the old believers?
DG: I would offer them that with all the criticism they have for the Israeli government, it is important not to forget the great idea that is the basis and at the heart of the creation of Israel. Even for those who are against the policies of the government, it is essential to remember the story of the homecoming of a whole people after a millennium, and after persecution and the Shoah. Coming back to the place where they originated as a nation, as a religion, as a language. For me it is still one of the greatest human stories and I insist on remembering this when I criticize the government and the occupation and the army. Things went terribly wrong since Israel occupied the territories in 1967. But I believe the options that are in front of us are still worth fighting for, to have a normal life and to experience a life of peace and removing the threat of death that has been hovering over our heads for so many years. All of these things can be achieved when we have peace with our neighbors, a struggle with which I have been involved for the past three decades. Not just to settle the territorial problems between us and our neighbors but to also allow them and us another way of being in this life.
DAR: Is the Holocaust still a subject for young Israeli writers? Will it ever again be a living topic for them or as has it been forever relegated to ancient history?
DG: The Holocaust is significant not only for young writers, but for most young people in Israel. It is present in many ways. Some are authentic and express the attempt to understand how the Shoah could have happened and what lessons we should learn. And it also exists in the manipulations of politicians. Our prime minister is an expert in confusing the echoes of the past traumas with the real dangers we are now facing. It is heartbreaking how many people are almost helpless in front of such manipulations, and how we are paralyzed because of the way we are programmed to translate every situation into the terminology of the Shoah. Even when we are given an opportunity to engage in the peace process with the Palestinians, a process we need desperately, we are unable to respond accordingly.
DAR: With these two books of mourning behind you, do you hope to get back to more secular works, even sexual ones? In earlier books such as Be My Knife and See Under: Love you had a way of getting under a woman’s skin that always made me feel you must have been a woman in an earlier incarnation.
DG: It is always a pleasure to write about characters who I will not be. I remember when I was writing Ora [the main character in To the End of the Land], how long it took me to understand her. But eventually I surrendered to her being within me. Inside each of us there is the potential for so many other selves, but because of conventions we congeal into one story line. Writing gives me the pleasure of melting into the others that are within me.
DAR: A question about translation. Your language is so nuanced I’m surprised you never translate your own work. Why do you trust professional translators to do a better job?
DG: You are very generous but I know my limitations. I prefer to give the act of translation to my very gifted translator, Jessica Cohen.
DAR: Finally, after putting down one of your books, what do you most hope your readers come away with?
DG: I don’t know what to tell my readers, but I know my own expectations as a reader: I want to come out a bit different from the way I went into the reading and I want to feel a little bit less lonely. I want to feel that someone out there understands me.