“I once thought of teaching my son a private language,” writes Yair to Miriam, a woman he barely knows but engages in a passionate correspondence, in David Grossman’s Be My Knife.
Isolating him from the speaking world on purpose, lying to him from the moment of his birth, so he would believe only the language I gave him. And it would be a compassionate language. What I mean is—I wanted to take him by the hand and name everything he saw with words that would save him from the inevitable heartaches. So that he wouldn’t be able to comprehend the existence of, for instance, war. Or that people kill. Or that this red, here, is blood.
The longing of parents to protect their children, and their inevitable failure to do so, lie at the very center of Grossman’s fiction. It is, of course, a universal theme: even where life does not show its most savage side, parents learn the pain of helplessness. But for Grossman, who was born in Israel in 1954, that pain takes on the starkest and most violent forms, thanks to the course of Jewish and Israeli history. In the Holocaust, millions of Jewish parents saw their children murdered; over the course of Israel’s wars, tens of thousands of parents sent their children to die in combat. No wonder a man like Yair would dream of severing his son’s connection with his society at the root, which is language—in his case, the Hebrew language. Seceding from Jewish history offers the illusion of protection, which he knows he can never offer his child in real life.
No such secession is possible for the characters in Grossman’s two masterpieces, See Under: Love and To the End of the Land. These books are as different as the work of a single writer could be. The former, published in Hebrew in 1986, is like the work of many young writers an artist’s bildungsroman, deeply if not literally autobiographical. It is also wildly ambitious and inventive, pushing back against the constraints of realism and making free use of myth, fable, and magic; the extreme darkness of its themes, above all the Holocaust, is set against the joyous freedom of its techniques. To the End of the Land, which appeared in Hebrew in 2008, is by contrast an autumnal work, soberly realistic for the most part, in which two middle-aged friends review their own troubled relationship and the way their lives have intersected with their country’s.
Yet both these books are focused on the damage that results when parents fail, despite their best efforts, to protect their children from history. See Under: Love takes the child’s view of this failure. Its hero, Momik Neuman, grows up in Israel in the 1950s as the child of terrified and secretive Holocaust survivors, who think that their silence about what happened “Over There” will protect him from truths too horrible for a child to know. In fact, this secrecy only turns the bookish, awkward boy into a kind of researcher: determined to figure out what kind of animal the “Nazi Beast” he hears about might be, Momik starts breeding various animals in his basement, hoping that one of them will turn out to be the right species.
Fantasy fills the space of absent knowledge, as Momik elaborates a whole theory—full of pathos in its childishness and hopefulness—about the war that must have happened “Over There,” in Europe, and the heroic role his father must have played in it. As we follow Momik into young adulthood, and as he becomes a writer very much like David Grossman (who is not, himself, the child of survivors), we see that the Holocaust has become the center of his inner life, consuming his personal relationships and his literary imagination. Neither in his life nor in his work can he escape the wound of history, which his parents inflicted on him while thinking they were sparing him.
To the End of the Land, written two decades later, takes the parent’s view of this same transaction. It tells the story of Ora, an Israeli woman whose son Ofer is on the verge of being discharged from the army when he is suddenly recalled to fight in Israel’s 2002 invasion of Lebanon. Ora becomes superstitiously convinced that if she refuses to remain at home, it will be impossible for the army to notify her of Ofer’s death in combat (the Hebrew title of the novel translates as “A Woman Escaping a Message”), which means that he cannot die. So she takes off on a long hiking trip through the Galilee, taking as her companion Avram, whose life has intersected with her own in complicated ways. The bulk of the novel is made up of Ora’s retelling of her life with and without Avram, and especially her loving evocation of Ofer, and her words seem infused with her desire to keep him safe.
The book ends before we know whether or not Ofer will return alive from Lebanon: the reader is made to share Ora’s suspense, not granted the relief of narrative closure. But whether he lives or not, we already know that Ofer has been marked in irreversible ways by his army service. As Ora unravels the story of their lives together, we eventually learn the details of an episode that has put mother and son at odds. At one point during his service in the occupied territories, Ofer was part of a unit that took an old Palestinian man captive, locked him in a room, and forgot about him for two days. For Ora as for the reader, who has seen Ofer grow up from an excessively sensitive little boy—as a child he declared himself a vegetarian because he couldn’t bear the idea of killing animals—this act of barbaric insensitivity feels inexplicable. By becoming a soldier, even if he is not killed, Ofer has already moved decisively outside his mother’s moral influence; he is lost to her before he is lost. Once again, the parent is unable to protect the child.
Yet the seeds of this militarization are planted very deep in Ofer’s consciousness. In one of the best and most revelatory episodes in To the End of the Land, Grossman describes the young Ofer’s terror and depression when he comes to realize how many Arab countries are at war with Israel, and how small Israel looks on the map compared to them. The shadow of extermination, which we have already seen passing over the lives of Ora and Avram, now falls on Ofer too:
And of course you want to keep his world innocent and free of hatred, and you tell him that those who are against us don’t always hate us, and that we just have a long argument with some of the countries around us about all sorts of things, just like children in school sometimes have arguments and even fights.
But Ofer can see right through this happy talk, and he grows more and more frightened until one day he “suddenly starts crying that he doesn’t want to be Jewish anymore, because they always kill us and always hate us, and he knows this because all the holidays are about it.” Nothing can console him—until Ora takes him to see the IDF’s Armored Corps, where “tank barrels and machine guns” sparkle in the sun. As he climbs on the tanks, his fears vanish: force provides the consolation and antidote for fear.
This dynamic, Grossman suggests, is at the very heart of Israeli identity. Indeed, for Grossman, who in addition to being a novelist has also written important books of reportage and commentary on Israeli politics, it’s impossible to understand the State of Israel and its policies without taking this profound experience of powerlessness into account. In Death as a Way of Life, his 2003 collection of essays, Grossman recounts a personal anecdote that has also made its way into his fiction. “A very dear member of my family, a survivor of the Treblinka death camp, arrived at my wedding with a bandage on her forearm,” he recalls.
She was covering her tattooed number so as not to mar the celebration with a memento of the Holocaust. I remember how I was unable to take my eyes off that bandage. I understood then, very sharply, how much all of us here in Israel are always walking on a surface as thin as that bandage, under which lies a void that threatens, every moment, to drag down our daily lives, our illusion of routine.
This sense of the fragility of the State of Israel, its potential to simply disappear, is especially acute in an Israeli of Grossman’s generation, who grew up in the aftermath of the Holocaust and lived through the apocalyptic wars of 1967 and 1973. To the End of the Land opens with the first meeting of Ora and Avram, still just teenagers, when they are abandoned in a hospital during the Six-Day War. In their isolation, they try to puzzle out what is going on in the world around them:
I think they’re winning
They’ve occupied Tel Aviv
What are you…who told you that?
I don’t know. Maybe I heard it
You dreamed it
No, they said it here, someone, before, I heard voices
This is a fever dream born of war and illness, but it is also, Grossman hints, a collective nightmare from which practically every Israeli suffers. Later in the novel, Avram grows up and serves in the army during the Yom Kippur War, when he is taken prisoner by Egyptian forces and horribly tortured. When Avram is returned to Israel, Ora visits him in the hospital, where he asks bewildered questions—what year it is, what happened to him—and then demands, “Is there…Is there an Israel?” It is a question that no American POW would think to ask.
Taken together, See Under: Love and To the End of the Land look like a question and an answer. The last section of See Under: Love is devoted to the story of Kazik, a boy born in the Warsaw Ghetto, who lives an entire human lifespan in the course of twenty-four hours. In Grossman’s marvelously free and polyvocal symbolism, Kazik is simultaneously an emblem of the Holocaust, a version of Momik himself, and a kind of Everyman, discovering in condensed form and under the worst possible circumstances the full bitterness of which human life is capable. He is raised by a group of profoundly damaged refugees who are holed up in a Warsaw zoo—one of the novel’s many phantasmagoric conceits—and the relationship between them and their ward echoes the relationship between Momik and his own young son.
In the refugees’ prayers for Kazik, then, we are meant to hear Momik’s—and, perhaps, Grossman’s—own deepest aspirations as a father. These prayers, which come on the novel’s very last page, are a plea for innocence and ordinariness, for emancipation from history: “All of us prayed for one thing: that he might end his life knowing nothing of war…. We asked so little: for a man to live in this world from birth to death and know nothing of war.” The question the novel poses, then, is whether it is possible for a child—especially, but not only, a Jewish child—to escape from the trauma of history; and the answer Grossman gives in To the End of the Land is a resigned negative. Twenty-two years after See Under: Love, he is still writing about war and children who grow up surrounded by war.
Falling Out of Time, Grossman’s spare and poetic new book, forms a conclusion to this sequence so natural, so seemingly inevitable, that it is uncanny. At the time Grossman began To the End of the Land, an epic novel about losing a child in war, he had not undergone that experience himself. Yet while the book was still being completed, in August 2006, his younger son, Uri, was killed in combat while serving in a tank corps in Lebanon, just like the fictional Ofer. This fact, which is noted in an afterword, adds an almost unbearable pathos to To the End of the Land: if the book is a parent’s prayer for a child, then life gave the answer it always gives in Grossman’s work, a blank refusal. There is something dreadful about the way Grossman was fated to experience what he has always regarded as the worst suffering, a parent’s helplessness, in its most extreme form. It is as though this writer, who so consciously takes on the burden of representing his people’s historical experience, was made to taste that experience to the dregs.
It is impossible to read Falling Out of Time otherwise than as Grossman’s response to Uri’s death. The book appeared in Hebrew in 2011, five years after Uri died, and it opens with a bereaved father and mother conversing five years after the death of their son: “For five years/we unspoke/that night,” the father says in the stripped-down free verse that Grossman uses for most of the story’s dialogue. “You fell mute,/then I…./One after/the other, the words/died, and we were/like a house/where the lights/go slowly out.”
Yet the parents are identified only as “Man” and “Woman,” and everything local and identifiable—everything novelistic—has been stripped away from them. Not only are they not explicitly identified with the author and his wife; in a significant departure for Grossman, they are not identified as Israeli, or Jewish, or indeed as the residents of any particular time or place. Insofar as the book has a setting, it is a lightly sketched Europe, the Europe of fairy tales, where a duke reigns over a village and listens to stories told by a town chronicler. Loss has turned the man and woman into archetypes, and drained their world of the kind of specificity in which Grossman usually revels.
What this means is that Falling Out of Time is not really fiction. It is, rather, a poetic drama, proceeding almost entirely in alternating monologues, which could easily be imagined on stage. As in a medieval mystery play, the characters are not individuals but types: “Man” and “Woman” are joined by “Midwife,” “Cobbler,” “Duke,” and others. And every one of these characters, whose laments make up the substance of the book, turns out to be a bereaved parent: this is a book of songs on the death of children.
There is almost no plot to speak of. In the opening scene, Man breaks his five years’ silence with a declaration that he is going to go to his son: “To him, there.” “To the place where it happened?” asks Woman, but that would be too simple: “No, no. There,” Man replies. It becomes clear that he intends, sacrilegiously, to go to the land of the dead—to find where his son is now that he is no longer alive. This quest, with its echoes of Orpheus and Eurydice, leads him out of the house, where his designation is changed to “Walking Man,” while his wife, who refuses to join his obsessive journey, becomes “Woman Who Stayed at Home.”
As Walking Man proceeds in ever-widening circles around his town, he is joined by a parade of mourners, each of whom describes the circumstances of his or her loss. For the Man and Woman, news of their son’s death came precisely as Ora feared it would come in To the End of the Land, in the form of an official messenger from the army:
At night people came
They walked a long way,
and perhaps, as they did so,
they stole a taste, a lick.
With a child’s wonder
they learned they could hold
death in their mouths
like candy made of poison
to which they are miraculously
This kind of homely, precise metaphor enlivens Grossman’s verse, which as translated by Jessica Cohen is generally bare, like prose starved until it occupies only a word or two per line. Setting aside the occasional awkward poeticism (“Come, noiseful void”), the style is deliberately colorless, adding to the overall subdued and mournful atmosphere, in which the mourners “live/the inverse/of life.” This can sometimes congeal into portentousness, and indeed the entire book seems a difficult balancing act between flatness on the one hand and melodrama on the other. Cohen handles this well in her excellent translation. The title, for instance, which might convey no particular image on its own, becomes vivid and convincing in Grossman’s metaphor:
They came at night, knocked on our door,
and said: At such and such time,
in this or that place, your son
thus and thus.
They quickly wove
a dense web, hour
and minute and location,
but the web had a hole in it, you
see? The dense web
must have had a hole,
and our son
One by one, the town’s other shattered parents notice the Walking Man and are compelled to follow him, Pied Piper–style, toward the land of the dead. “There is/no there!” the woman sanely insists, but Grossman finely evokes the sense that the dead are not simply erased, but elsewhere, still leading a kind of existence that intersects with our own. (“I have known for a long time:/it is you/who decides/how to appear in me/and when,” the Walking Man observes.) Each of the mourners speaks about death in the terms his or her profession prescribes. The stuttering midwife wonders whether her dead daughter will be welcomed in the next life “with loving arms/and a warm, fragrant t-t-towel,” just as the newborn is welcomed in this world. The elderly math teacher offers an “axiom”:
(“the life of the son”)
must never be located
in the universe
at a distance
from which the father
(“the observing subject”)
may encompass all of him
with one gaze
from beginning to end.
In this way, Grossman is able to try out many different tones and metaphors for grief. But this theme-and-variations allows for no sense of progress toward a resolution, only a continual return to the incomprehensibility of loss, the void that sustains and haunts all this speech: “It can’t be that it happened to me, it can’t be that these words are true.”
Falling Out of Time would hardly be a work by Grossman if it didn’t contain some reflection on the way writers, in particular, respond to loss. In fact, there are three novelist-surrogates in the book. First is the Man, whom we inevitably identify with Grossman himself. Then there is the Centaur, who turns out to be not half-man and half-horse, but half-man and half-desk, so thoroughly has his identity merged with his work. He is a crude and blustering figure, filled with aggression, and clearly ambivalent about his need to turn his own loss into a fiction:
That’s the only way I can somehow get close to it, to that goddamn it, without it killing me, you know?… I have to feel, even just for a minute, just half a second, the last free place I may still have inside me, the fraction of a spark that still somehow glows inside, which that lousy it couldn’t extinguish…. And I have to mix it up with some part of me. I must, from deep inside me, and then exhale into it with my pathetic breath so I can try and make it a bit—how can I explain this to you—a bit mine, mine…
For the Centaur, writing is the only possible way to experience his grief. Yet there remains something monstrous about him, as his name suggests, because he can only deal with grief by dominating it, using it as a tool of imagination. Yet the opposite writerly approach—not to subjectivize loss but to scrupulously record it—is no more satisfying, as Grossman shows in the character of the Town Chronicler. This figure serves as the narrator of the closet drama, offering the equivalent of scenery and stage directions in his prose observations.
Only gradually does he come to center stage, as we learn that he has been ordered by the Duke to wander the town and record all its doings. The Town Chronicler is the writer as perfect observer, never getting involved in the things he sees—as the Centaur accusingly tells him:
Isn’t it incredibly fortunate that you, as part of your job, and undoubtedly in return for a handsome salary, can spend as much time as you want peering into other people’s hells, without dipping so much as your pale little pinkie inside them? Think about it! What could be more titillating than someone else’s hell?
What the Centaur doesn’t realize, but the reader eventually does, is that the Chronicler, too, is a parent who has lost a child. His constant recording is a kind of penance or discipline meant to deal with that loss, but it proves no more helpful than any of the other characters’ solaces. None of them can help longing for reunion with the dead. But when, at the end of the book, they finally reach their destination, it is not a place but a wall—a wall in which the forms of their loved ones appear and disappear, tantalizingly present, yet permanently unattainable.
Grossman leaves the reader still caught in the throes of grief, without a catharsis. The closest thing to a resolution, at the end of this bitterly painful book, is Grossman’s sense—which has motivated his fiction from the beginning—that death is not only the absence of life, but itself an event in the life of the survivors:
I understand, almost,
the meaning of
the sounds: the boy
as holding truth.
He is dead,
dead. But his death,