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Escape Artist

The Book of Intimate Grammar

by David Grossman, translated by Betsy Rosenberg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 343 pp., $22.00

Israel is an ideological state,” Yitzhak Shamir declared when he was Israel’s right-wing prime minister. Even in the Labor Party the ideology is more and more removed from its old vision of Jews united by the dream of socialism, but of course the official consensus in Israel remains that Jews belong together in a state of their own just because they are Jews. That desire for togetherness, now based more on terrible memories and common fears than on Zionism as a political philosophy, is the residual ideology of Israel. For some it can be hard to live with. A leading Hebrew University political scientist confided to me that he had taken to keeping a personal journal just to keep from feeling sucked in by the pressures of common opinion in a state already so regulated by images from history and so organized against enemies. “Holocaust” is now such a figure of speech that it is used by settlers to protest the slightest impediment to Jewish expansion in the occupied territories.

In The Yellow Wind (1987), which first appeared in the left liberal magazine Koteret Rashit, now defunct, the young Arabic-speaking reporter David Grossman (born 1954) astonished and shocked his readers by describing his observations for seven weeks of the tribulations, brutalities, and humiliations routinely experienced by Arabs under occupation in the West Bank. Masses of these Arabs cross the “green line” every day to labor in Israel and they must have enough Hebrew to communicate with Israelis. The Israeli military and civil administrators in the West Bank are intensely involved with the Arabs there and have many stories to bring back to family and friends. Yet the Arabs of the West Bank have been so fundamentally unregarded (in both senses of the word) and mistrusted that Grossman felt like an explorer in terra incognita; he approached the Arabs in hesitation and humility, seeking only to listen.

The title of his book comes from a local Arab myth that tells of “a hot and terrible east wind from the gate of Hell which comes once in a few generations, sets the world afire, finds those it seeks, those who have performed cruel and unjust deeds, and exterminates them, one by one.” Near the end of The Yellow Wind he says

Seven years ago, I felt I had to write something about the occupation. I could not understand how an entire nation like mine, an enlightened nation by all accounts, is able to train itself to live as a conqueror without making its own life wretched. What happened to us? How were they able to pass their values on to me during those years? For two years I sat and worked out those thoughts and dilemmas of mine. I wrote a novel, The Smile of The Lamb, and the more I wrote, the more I understood that the occupation is a continuing and stubborn test for both sides trapped in it. It is the sphinx lying at the entrance to each of us, demanding that we give a clear answer. That we take a stand and make a decision. Or at least relate. The book was a sort of answer to the riddle of my sphinx.

Years passed, and I discovered that one does not have to battle that sphinx. That you can go mad if you allow it to torture you with questions day and night. And there were other matters, and other things to write about and do. Because there are other sphinxes as well.

So I also became an artist of sublimation. I found myself developing the same voluntary suspension of questions about ethics and occupation. I did not visit the territories; I did not even go to Old Jerusalem. Because I felt the hatred of the people there, but mostly because I cannot tolerate relations that are not on an equal basis [my emphasis].

In Sleeping on a Wire, Grossman published an equally penetrating book on his conversations with Palestinians in Israel. But it is clear that he regularly returns to fiction, as in his remarkable See Under: LOVE, because “I cannot tolerate relations that are not on an equal basis.” Perhaps he can no longer travel in the foreign territory that, for all their physical closeness, Arab lives represent to Israelis even when officially they are Israeli citizens. The problem—Grossman is not very political, just independent enough to think it is a problem—is that when, in fact, “relations are on an equal basis,” so that the state is likened to a family and the family history centers on everything and anything threatening it, there is really no way of honorably being an outsider.

Not even just internally, which is the experience of the boy Aron Kleinfeld at the center of Grossman’s The Book of Intimate Grammar. A remarkable dreamer and fantasist, one who is always “Aroning,” wandering in the wonder of his own thoughts, he is fascinated by language and makes up his own. When he discovers in English class “the present continuous”—“I am go-eeng, I am sleep-eeng. You don’t have that eeng tense in Hebrew”—“the secrets of time were revealed to him and the others who experienced time the way he did, under a magnifying glass.”

Aron began as a regular kid but he is made to feel “weird,” a freak, because his physical growth has stopped and he is stunted for his age. He communicates more and more with himself in a grammar so “intimate”—this is his gift, also his peril; he is steadily driven to be more and more alone—that at the end of the book one is not sure whether he will die of his self-enclosure.

Aron lives in a Jerusalem housing project during the 1960s, before the Six-Day War. Although he is eleven and a half, his mother is already planning his bar mitzvah presents, with Aron’s own wishes in the matter firmly disregarded. When we meet him Aron is self-confident, street smart, a little comedian quick to mimic the country’s prime minister (Levi Eshkol) and to imitate Houdini escapes for his pals. His big number is escaping from an abandoned refrigerator into which he has locked himself. Just now he is standing on tiptoe looking down on his parents schmoozing with neighbors down in the street. Aron is on tiptoe because he is worrisomely short for his age. Gideon’s voice is already beginning to crack, and Gideon is not only his best friend; but is seen as a superior boy who quits the Scouts because “there wasn’t enough Zionist content for him.”

The concern of Aron’s parents over his height—meaning mostly his mother’s concern—is just beginning to cast a shadow over Aron, to burrow itself inside him. Devoured by family love as thick as his mother’s Sabbath chicken soup mit lokshen (noodles), he is nevertheless beginning to be their little stranger. Papa is a bear of a man (in deep winter he had escaped from a Russian labor camp); in Israel he loved being a baker, but Mama forced him into government service as a pen pusher so he would end up with a pension. Aron adores him; he is proud of a father capable of restoring to health the project’s sick fig tree. At the request of neighbor Edna Bloom, Papa knocks down an entire wall in her apartment (and then another, and still another), for Miss Bloom is transported by the sight of him in his undershirt wielding a sledgehammer.

Grossman is very funny about the family, Aron’s discovery of Papa’s hidden Alfonso’s Pussy Circus and Mama’s jealousies. Papa cannot go to work in the Bloom apartment without Mama and the children accompanying him. When they return home, everyone lends a hand in massaging his powerful back. He is a gross eater, farts, unabashed, in front of his wife (when he doesn’t she worries he no longer loves her). Mama is the unstoppable family tyrant, knows how to make Aron and his sister Yochi (too heavy in the legs for ballet) feel inadequate. Yochi can’t wait to get into the Army. Mama does not talk so much as she bites. She dunks Aron in her bitterness. Does she have a tongue! When she becomes increasingly cross with her son, he is struck by “the kernel of white hatred inside her.”

When Aron’s bar mitzvah comes, he doesn’t get the guitar he yearned for but relatives thrust on him H.A.L. Fisher’s History of Europe in three volumes—bought at a discount from their union. “A present to match their faces, said Mama later that evening.” They loudly demand to know why he hasn’t grown since they last saw him. Uncle Loniu—“Don’t you feed your bar mitzvah boy”? “Is this why we came to Israel with the sun and the vitamins and the oranges?” Aron feels paralyzed with shame and disappointment, disappears into the bathroom. Yochi boasts, “I know how to stay alive around here” but Aron, though able to keep up a front with his pals, descends deeper and deeper into himself. It does not help that he is lovesick for Yaeli, the new girl in class.

As a satirist of Israeli society Grossman is genial and never raises his voice; his prose is full of lightly brilliant touches. The problem I have with his book is that Aron, for all the contrast between his behaving as a boy and the deepening wonder of his inner life, is more a condition than a person. We see Aron in his aloneness imagining a little dog running along with his bicycle, Aron as an immature sexual outlaw stealing into Edna Bloom’s apartment—more particularly her bed—when she is at work, Aron’s terror when he sees his best friend, Gideon, moving apart from him. He is not in conflict with his family, his country, his friends, but he is ebbing away from all of them. At the end he is so much alone, continuously “Aroning,” that, for an imaginary audience, he once more prepares his “Houdini escape” from the abandoned refrigerator he is locking himself into. An extraordinary denouement, ambiguous and frightening. Will the boy deliberately or accidentally commit suicide? He imagines his old friends—now lost to him—watching his act with their old admiration. That Kleinfeld, what nerve! But since everything is now imaginary except the actual ordeal of being in the refrigerator, wouldn’t Aron also want to revenge himself on them by killing himself—not altogether voluntarily—right in front of their eyes?

These are questions to which there is no answer, just as Aron is embarked on a quest too mysterious, one which we cannot entirely credit; so much of his inner life is openly in Grossman’s hands, in the sharpness and glitter of his sentences. At least in Betsy Rosenberg’s spectacular translation, full of clever Americanisms, they tend to read as if they were separate, for they rise and fall, rise and fall, without affording necessary momentum to the narrative. Remarkable as the book is in its fundamental theme and structure, it is not an easy novel to read; it comes to a stop again and again, because Grossman’s style rather than Aron’s finally unilluminated soul carries the weight of the story. There is a particularly flashy page when Aron writes a note to himself and stuffs it up his nose, imagining that it will travel up to his brain and so communication with himself will be complete. The imagined details as the note makes its way through Aron’s body are dazzling, but the dazzle is all Grossman, not poor little Aron.

There is an obvious connection between the stark, dramatic repertorial style of The Yellow Wind and the virtuosity demonstrated in The Book of Intimate Grammar. Unlike our own pioneers and practitioners of the “non-fiction novel,” Grossman is never a showy presence either in his reportage or his fiction. But from the impression his prose has made on Israel’s leading writers—A.B. Yehoshua has been teaching a course on The Book of Intimate Grammar—one may gather that Grossman is as stimulating artistically as he is brave in reporting the true relations between the occupied and the occupiers, between the Jewish family and those, like Aron Kleinfeld, who, against their will, fall out of it.

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