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Skin & Fear 

David Grossman and the literature and nakedness

Wednesday, Apr 3 2002
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“. . . what will be left of me when all the destruction is over?”

--The Smile of the Lamb

In the lounge of a midtown Manhattan hotel, David Grossman checks his cell phone. Tourists slouch all around him, exhausted from their day’s labors, surrounded by shopping bags, collapsing into their cocktails. Even seated, though, Grossman, 48, seems wired with energy. His eyelids are heavy with jet lag, but his boyish eyes, magnified under wire-framed lenses, are more alive than anything else in the room. He talks about the role of kids in his novels. (“We are all little congealed children,” he says in slightly Hebrew-accented English, vowels tightened, consonants blurred, “and I want to melt that.”) A phone rings somewhere, and Grossman checks the little blue Motorola sitting on the table in front of him. He talks about his years in radio, beginning when he was 9, acting in radio dramas; something beeps a few tables away, and Grossman checks his phone. He talks about the Israeli peace movement (“There are very few of us left,” he jokes. “This is why it‘s called left.”); something beeps again, and Grossman checks his phone. He talks about his years in the military, and this time it is his phone beeping, but the phone is a loaner, and he can’t figure out how to answer it.

It‘s been exactly six months since September 11, and the televisions behind us are broadcasting images of an all-too-familiar tsunami of ash cascading through the financial district, and of George Bush offering homilies. The day before yesterday, 13 Israelis were killed, 11 by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem, two by a pair of gunmen in Netanya. Tomorrow we will learn that the Israeli Defense Force killed 31 Palestinians in Ramallah and Jaba--lyah. Grossman tries to figure out what time it is in Jerusalem, if his wife is home yet, and safe. “Because of the jet lag, I still wake up at 4 o’clock,” he says. “I open to CNN immediately. And the hours when my son is going to school and coming back, all the time, I write with CNN [on], which is horrible.”

Whether at home or here in New York, on a quick four-city book tour for Be My Knife, his latest novel to be translated to English, he is always, he says, mentally tracking his loved ones‘ movements. “There is no spontaneousness,” he says, stumbling over the word slightly. “We live in fear. When we go to a restaurant once in a long while, one eye is always on the door. When we send our children to school, we accompany them or we drive them. It means nights that you do not sleep out of anxiety. Fear shrinks the soul.”

Grossman leans over the table as he speaks. His body, small-framed and almost military in the efficiency of its movements, disappears, and it’s his head that you notice, like a turtle‘s, alive and always in motion. “You live so many years in violence, in fear, in hatred,” he says, “you give away parts of yourself -- and maybe they are the most important parts, and maybe it is irreversible.”

If he often writes about what Israelis call “the situation” in newspapers and magazines, Grossman hasn’t confronted it overtly in his fiction for more than a decade, not since his first novel, The Smile of the Lamb, which was explicitly about the occupation. Since then he‘s written five novels, as well as two volumes of nonfiction, a play and numerous children’s books. His second book, See Under: LOVE, is a Holocaust novel like no other, beautiful and profound and heartbreaking, about a little boy who tries to re-create “the Nazi beast” in a Tel Aviv basement, a writer in the Warsaw ghetto who is transformed into a salmon, and a concentration-camp inmate who cannot die, who takes his revenge on the camp‘s commander by spinning stories so lovely and terrible that they melt his calcified heart, destroying him. Grossman followed with The Book of Intimate Grammar, a sweet but devastating novel about coming of age (or failing to), the lighter The Zigzag Kid, and Someone To Run With, a novel not yet available in English about homeless children in Jerusalem and, as Grossman puts it with a smile, “about love, music and crying -- all the good things.”

Be My Knife, published in Israel in 1998, is a love story of an antiquated sort, an epistolary romance in the age of e-mail and anthrax. Yair, a happily married man in his 30s, sees Miriam, a happily married woman in her 30s, across the room at a school reunion. “His heart crushes for her,” Grossman explains. “He does not know that he’s in love. It takes him some time to realize, but he feels a need to tell her about himself.” Yair rents a post-office box and writes to her. To his surprise, she writes back. They swear to be completely honest, open to the point of self-destruction. “This is the core of my pact with you,” Yair writes: “I hereby relinquish all my wooing masks, along with my self-censorship, all of my defenses . . . I want to be able to say to myself, ‘I bled truth with her’ yes, that‘s what I want. Be a knife for me and I, I swear, will be a knife for you.”

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