“. . . 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.”
Yair’s vow and the novel‘s title are taken from a line Kafka wrote to a lover, “Love is that you are my knife with which I dig deeply into myself.” And they dig — into each other and into themselves. Just one thing happens in this book: Two people fall in love. They torment each other with pleasures offered and withheld, and, through their torments and their joy, learn to see themselves anew. They strive to cut through, as Yair puts it, “all the adult epidermis that has scabbed over us throughout life.”
Skin is an important theme for Grossman — scabs and nakedness. At one point in Be My Knife, an angry Miriam returns one of Yair’s letters unopened. Yair, mad with despair, drives to her house. He sits in his car and removes his clothes, “one piece after the other, and the shoes and socks, and then I was already a different person. It happened to me in the space of a few seconds, such a border to cross — one minute you‘re dressed and in the next: flesh, animal, less than an animal, as if the skin had peeled off you with the clothes, the epidermis, and the entire pile of skin underneath it.”
There is a section in The Book of Intimate Grammar in which a lonely neighbor hires the child protagonist’s father to knock down a wall in her apartment. At first she is amused by the spectacle: a coarse, brutish man showing off for her, regaining his youth with every blow of the hammer. She pays him to knock down another wall, then another, and before long she‘s sold all that she owns to keep him near her, hammering away, tearing down every wall that she, now a shivering wreck, has left. This is the sort of love that Grossman proposes for Yair and Miriam, a passion that approaches suicide, but is, at the same time, their only hope. Yair wishes he could stand before Miriam, entirely transformed: “new, free, naked. Even for just one day. Even for one page of a letter. One blink of absolute freedom? Why not? Really? Otherwise, what am I worth?”
Grossman lifts his coffee cup to his mouth with both hands, almost prayerfully. “There is a very strong tendency,” he says, “to interpret every book from Israel, and from me or Amos Oz or A.B. Yehoshua, as a political declaration. It is not.” It’s not so easy, though, to separate politics and literature: When asked about the situation in Israel, Grossman invariably ends up speaking about literature, and when asked about his writing, he ends up talking politics. “I try to keep it separate right now,” he says. “The situation is very extreme, extremely extreme, so to say, and of course there is a lot of temptation to write about it, but right now I feel I want to purify literature, my literature at least, from the poisons of this reality. I want to write about the things that are more important — relationship nuances, love, parents and children, families — because I am afraid that if we put all our energy in the shield of our identity, we shall wind up like the armored a suit but without the person inside, and I want to write about the person.”
It is of course profoundly political for an Israeli in the 18th month of the current Intifada to insist, in literature or without, on vulnerability; to publicly decry the soul-shrinking consequences of constant aggression and constant defensiveness. And it is unavoidably political — in the midst of constant bloodshed, as a citizen of a nation that fears destruction from all sides, as one of a people upon whom unimaginable destruction has been wreaked — to write a novel suggesting that the greatest, most courageous achievement you can hope for is the almost unthinkable task of laying yourself out before another — even if only from the safety of a P.O. box, naked and bleeding and flayed — and to ask that other to be your knife, to cut you deeper still.
One of the deadliest symptoms of the scabbing, the congealing that Grossman describes, is an inability to step outside the brittle confines of the self, to imagine oneself in a lover‘s body or in the body of one who hates you. In The Yellow Wind, Grossman’s 1987 book about the toll Israel‘s occupation of the West Bank takes on Palestinians and Jews alike, he records a meeting with a group of Jewish settlers. He asks them to put aside issues of right and wrong for just a moment, and to try to “imagine themselves in their [Arab] neighbors’ places and tell me what seems to them to be the most hateful manifestation of the occupation.” They answer that the situation is not their fault, and Grossman says that may be true, but that‘s not the question. They answer that they haven’t taken anyone‘s land. Maybe not, Grossman says, and reminds them that’s not the question. They say that they did not start the war, and again Grossman asks them to imagine themselves as Arabs. Finally, one man answers that he cannot and will not consider the Palestinians‘ perspective even for a moment, “because he is caught up in a struggle with them, at war, he said, and were he to allow himself to pity, to identify, he would weaken and endanger himself.”
Fifteen years and thousands of miles away from that moment, which doesn’t seem far off at all, Grossman says, “This is what terrifies me, to see how people fossilize in front of this situation, that they regard as a divine decree that orders us to kill the Arabs and be killed by them, to live by the sword. It is not a natural law that we have to suffer that. Now, if you go and tell about this reality — but in different words, not in the usual cliches, the cliches of the government, of the army, of the media, but you find new words — suddenly people feel that they are exposed to this reality from different points of view, and now they can react to it differently.”
It is this, Grossman says, that makes a writer worthy of attacking political problems, “this ability to change points of view and suddenly to see the story from a different angle, and by that to liberate yourself from your own prison.” It is hard to imagine many writers more worthy than Grossman, this unlikely redheaded Quixote with a child‘s eyes who preaches, despite all the gory evidence to the contrary, that literature can change minds and melt hearts congealed by fear and hatred, or to imagine anyone better able, to quote See Under: LOVE, to write and flirt and play the clown like “a wedding entertainer, and something of a liar and an adulterer of words, and write with love, and most of all with madness.”
After two hours of talking, Grossman politely excuses himself. He has to save his voice, he explains, for a reading tonight. He walks off toward the elevator and up to his room, where the telephone and CNN await him.