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The King of the Bitter Laugh

Dominique Nabokov
David Grossman, Jerusalem, 1997

1.

David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar is not funny; in fact it might be one of the least funny novels I have ever read. True, it is about an aging Israeli stand-up comedian, Dov (aka Dovaleh) Greenstein, and in the course of chronicling his performance one night at a seedy comedy club in a small town in Israel, Grossman includes many examples of his patter. Some of it is of the reassuringly familiar kind, featuring schlemiels and schlimazels, schmendricks and schmucks, assembled in such collections as Michael Krasny’s recent anthology of Jewish jokes, Let There Be Laughter.1

“The angel of death,” Dov calls out to three law students in his audience, “appears before a lawyer and says his time has come. The lawyer starts crying and wailing: ‘But I’m only forty!’ Angel of death says, ‘Not according to your billable hours!’” If that doesn’t seem sufficiently ethnic, here is another in Dov’s repertoire that is much closer to the canonical form:

An Italian, a Frenchman, and a Jew sit in a bar talking about how they pleasure their women. The Frenchman says: “Me, I slather my mademoiselle from head to toe with butter from Normandy, and after she comes she screams for five minutes.” The Italian says: “Me, when I bang my signora, first of all I spread her whole body from top to bottom with olive oil that I buy in this one village in Sicily, and she keeps screaming for ten minutes after she comes.” The Jewish guy’s mute. Nothing. The Frenchman and the Italian look at him: “What about you?” “Me?” says the Jew. “I slather my Golda with schmaltz, and after she comes she screams for an hour.” “An hour?” The Frenchman and the Italian can’t believe their ears. “What exactly do you do to her?” “Oh,” says the Jew, “I wipe my hands on the curtains.”

But these jokes, which at least have the modest virtues of both predictability and bad taste, quickly give way to something deliberately appalling and offensive:

There’s an Arab walking down the street next to two settlers in Hebron. We’ll call him Little Ahmed…. All of a sudden they hear an army loudspeaker announcing curfew for Arabs starting in five minutes. The settler takes his rifle off his shoulder and puts a bullet through Little Ahmed’s head. The other one is a wee bit surprised: “Holy crap, my holy brother, why’d you do that?” Holy Brother looks at him and goes, “I know where he lives, there’s no way he was gonna make it home in time.”

If we had not realized it already, we know now that Grossman’s comedian is leading us into a very dark room, where the exit signs are all extinguished.

In Grossman’s celebrated 2008 novel, To the End of the Land, the heroine Ora wanders in torment across the Israeli countryside, refusing to return to her house for fear that there will be a knock on the door from an officer bearing the news that her son, who is serving in the army, has been killed in combat. (That tragic fate befell Grossman himself, whose son was killed in Lebanon in 2006.) The weight of anxiety is crushing, but the setting is outdoors, expansive, sunlit.

A Horse Walks into a Bar, by contrast, is unrelentingly claustrophobic. The club is dingy, the crowd restive, the comedian at once manic and uneasy:

Even when he laughs, his look is calculating and joyless, seeming to monitor the conveyor belt on which the jokes emerge from his mouth.

Some members of the audience get up almost at once and head for the door; many others follow as the performance grinds on; but one of them watches as if tied to his seat, and the reader joins him in queasy fascination.

Two weeks earlier this spectator, a retired judge named Avishai Lazar, received a phone call from the comedian, inviting him to attend the performance for old times’ sake. At first the judge was baffled. Stiff, sober, and still in mourning for the death of his wife, he has no taste for stand-up comedy and does not acknowledge Dov’s claim that they were boyhood friends. But slowly dim memories return, and he forces himself to attend to the caller’s urgent request:

“I’m listening,” I said.

“I want you to look at me,” he spurted. “I want you to see me, really see me, and then afterward tell me.”

“Tell you what?”

“What you saw.”

The novel is in effect a record of what Judge Lazar saw, and it is unbearably bleak. “All dark and comfortless,” as the blinded Gloucester says in King Lear.

In both his fiction and nonfiction, Grossman has vehemently inveighed against the injustice and folly of the Israeli occupation. But the darkness here is not primarily political, at least not directly so. The anti-settler “joke” about Little Ahmed, greeted with an uncomfortable mix of laughter and disapproval, is an exception. The comic has been told by the management to stay away from politics, and for the most part he complies. The violence that A Horse Walks into a Bar explores is more private and intimate. Its central interest is not the vicious treatment of vulnerable others but the cruelty that wells up within families, circulates like a poison in tight-knit groups, and finally turns inward against the self. Grossman’s literary kinship here is not with Swift’s A Modest Proposal but rather with Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground or Kafka’s “The Judgment.”

2.

I remember the first time I read “The Judgment.” It was the winter of 1964, and I was a student at Cambridge University, living in a small room in a building that had been erected in the seventeenth century and that seemed to have had only a few modest renovations since that time. (Where are the showers, I asked when I first arrived, and was told that the college terms were only six weeks long.) There were gas fireplaces, operated by putting six-pence pieces into a slot, so at least the rooms did not become intolerably cold, particularly if you drew the heavy outer door closed—it was called “sporting the oak”—and created a kind of hermetic seal. A risky method, of course, since it was an obvious invitation—to which some depressed students succumbed almost every year—to commit suicide by turning on the gas and leaving it unlit.

On one of those bleak English afternoons when it begins to grow dark around 3:00 and the wind seems to come directly from the steppes, I sat by the fire and read what was my first Kafka story (as it happened, it was the story he regarded as his breakthrough). I found it utterly baffling. A dutiful son, recently engaged, helps his aged, infirm father into bed and tucks him in. “Am I well covered up?” the father asks, and the son reassures him that he is.

“‘No!’ cried his father, cutting short the answer, threw the blankets off with a strength that sent them all flying in a moment and sprang erect in bed…. “You wanted to cover me up, I know, my young sprig, but I’m far from being covered up yet.’”

The father reveals that he has long been lying in wait, until the terrible moment of judgment: “I sentence you now to death by drowning!” The son rushes down the stairs, out the front door, across the road, and toward the railing of a bridge. “Dear parents, I have always loved you, all the same,” he cries, as he lets himself drop.

I could not, for the life of me, understand what was going on. I recall throwing the book down in puzzlement and disgust. Then hours later, with my mind elsewhere, I felt a strange commotion, as if someone had violently plucked a string within me. The agitation, I realized at once, had to do with the story, though nothing had become any clearer to me, except for the presence in it of a weird current of laughter.

This current flows into A Horse Walks into a Bar. It makes itself felt at once in the comic’s strange penchant for self-punishment. “Do you really want to laugh?” he asks his audience. “Then he scolds himself: ‘What a stupid-ass question! Helloooo! It’s a stand-up show! Do you still not get that? Putz!’ He gives his forehead a loud, unfathomably powerful smack.” The judge is taken aback by what he perceives in the blow as “a leakage of murky information that belonged somewhere completely different.”

During the evening more and more such information leaks out through the same acts of violence directed inward, until, near the show’s climax, Dov strikes himself again and again with his fists:

The spectacle looks like a fight between at least two men. Within the whirlwind of limbs and expressions I recognize the countenance that has passed over his face more than once this evening: he is uniting with his abuser. Beating himself with another man’s hands.

When the audience has finally drifted away, leaving only the comic standing by the judge’s table, the whole ghastly sequence concludes with a direct allusion to “The Judgment”: “I sentence you now to death by drowning!” Dov says, “then holds the flask up over his head and drizzles the last few drops on himself.” No suicidal leap from the bridge, but the novel stages a comparable act of self-destruction, and in the course of doing so, it enters into the Kafka-zone where tragedy and comedy are braided together.

3.

The phenomenon of Jewish humor is so central to modern life and so familiar in American popular culture from Groucho Marx to Woody Allen that it is easy to overlook the sea of sorrow on which it is built. That sorrow was not only an expression of the long history of exile following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, but also an artifact of the Christian communities among whom the dispersed and defenseless Jews found themselves. That is, Jews were supposed to be miserable; that had to be the inescapable consequence of their failure to recognize Jesus as the Messiah and their stubborn refusal to convert. Some were permitted to survive and were even granted protection by the pope and other European grandees, but only on condition that they remain unhappy.

Hence the endless beating and spitting and insulting; the grotesque accusations followed almost inevitably by execution or massacre; the sudden confiscations of property and wealth; the badges, restrictions, and other rituals of humiliation. It was only in 1646 that an English physician, Thomas Browne, ventured to refute the widespread belief in the foetor Judaicius, the stink that all Jewish males were said to emit, and only in 1668 that Jews were no longer compelled to race naked down the Corso in Rome during Carnival. As recently as late-eighteenth-century Frankfurt, even the most elderly and respected Jews still had to step off the sidewalk and bow deeply at the approach of any Christian.

What was expected from such people, at least in public, was not laughter but lament. “That old tune—do you still know it?” asked Heinrich Heine in his long poem “Jehuda ben Halevy.”

How it starts with elegiac
Whining, humming like a kettle
That is seething on the hearth?

Long has it been seething in me—
For a thousand years. Black sorrow!
2

But Heine, born in 1797 to a wealthy Jewish family that had converted to Lutheranism, was not interested in continuing the collective weeping. Embracing radical politics and the Napoleonic promise of emancipation, he discovered on the far side of grief and oppression a strain of laughter, often sharply satirical, that he mastered and bequeathed to posterity.

It is a laughter that echoed throughout German-Jewish culture, extending into the cabaret scene of the 1920s, and that found its equivalent as well in the less assimilated Yiddish world of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In I.L. Peretz’s “Bontsha the Silent,” the heavenly host, including both angelic defender and prosecutor, contemplate the unending meekness of the deceased Bontsha, who had never once throughout his miserable life protested his cruel fate. His outcries, the heavenly judge tells him, could have brought down the whole world, but he refused to complain, and now in Paradise his sublime silence will be rewarded with absolutely anything he chooses to have. After a moment, Bontsha asks if he could have a hot roll with fresh butter every morning. A terrible silence falls on the great hall. “Then the silence is shattered. The prosecutor laughs aloud, a bitter laugh.”3

Grossman’s Dov is the king of the bitter laugh. He directs it out toward the members of his audience, especially the most vulnerable among them. Then he turns it even more ferociously back upon himself, using it as a sharp instrument to burrow ever deeper into the wreck of his life. He announces as the centerpiece of his comic routine “My fiiiiirrst funeraaaaaal!”

When the crowd laughs, he curses them. What follows is an unbearably sad account of a damaged childhood, each painful, discontinuous detail emerging in mad disorder, twisted together with half-told jokes and crude insults, bursts of self-pity and self-loathing. Dov’s father Hezkel was a barber, impatient and short-tempered, barely holding things together, veering from one hare-brained scheme to another in order to support his wife and small son. His mother Sarah was a Holocaust survivor, haunted by the horrors she had endured, incapable of the simplest household tasks, perpetually disoriented, an object of pity and ridicule. “Always with her head down,” Dov recalls, “and the schmatte over her face so no one could see her, God forbid, chop-chop alongside the walls and fences so no one would snitch on her to God and He’d find out she existed.”

Little Dovaleh used to meet his mother at the bus stop when she came from her shift at the munitions factory in order to keep her from getting lost on the way home. It was then that he learned to walk on his hands, he tells the audience, since, when he did so, “no one noticed her, see?” And when they reached home—before his father’s return put an end to the fun—he continued his comic performance: “I spent my whole life trying to make her laugh.”

Though the friendship between Dov and Judge Avishai Lazar dated from this period in their lives—they both went to the same math tutor every afternoon for a year—the young Avishai knew nothing about Dov’s mentally unstable mother, or about the beatings he routinely received from his father, or about the hazing he endured almost daily at school. The boy—a good actor—seemed to him sunny and optimistic. Only somewhat later did Avishai glimpse something seriously wrong in his friend’s life, something disturbing enough to account for the fact that the adult Avishai had entirely blocked all conscious recollection of their childhood friendship.

What he witnessed happened when they were fourteen years old, during a school trip to a military-style youth camp in the south. They were in the same tent when Avishai saw Dov brutally and viciously bullied by their laughing platoon mates. The future judge did nothing to stop the unspeakably cruel treatment of his friend:

We made no sign of mutual recognition. Even as photo negatives of ourselves, we were completely in sync. His scream had frozen in my throat, or so I felt. I held my head up high, looked away, and walked out, still hearing their cackles.

The repressed memory of this quiet, cowardly betrayal comes back to the judge in the course of the comic’s excruciating account of receiving the news of the death of one of his parents. Dov’s story of his “first funeral” is a suspenseful tour de force. It is the climax of the novel’s strategic weaving together of manic humor and tears. Grossman’s cunning is to make the revelation mutual: that is, Dov had asked the judge “to see me, really see me,” but in the course of doing so, the judge sees himself. And it is only then that the novel can allow itself to close with a tiny gesture of tenderness: “‘How about you let me take you home?’ I suggest. He thinks for a moment. Shrugs again. ‘If you insist.’”

4.

I had a childhood friend—let me call him Alan—who was brought up in a Jewish old-age home where his father was the director. There were distinct advantages to this unusual upbringing, since Alan, an uncommonly sensitive and precocious child, was surrounded in effect by doting grandparents who showered upon him their ceaseless love and attention. But there was, of course, a significant downside: these bobbies and zadies kept dying on him, one after another.

For some years Alan and I lost track of each other, but then we found ourselves together in college. One day he phoned me to tell me he had just received terrible news: his father, still quite young, had died suddenly of a heart attack. He was going to return to Boston for the funeral, he said, and I offered to drive him back.

I had had at this point in my life virtually no experience of death; he had had all too much. Perhaps this fact, along with David Grossman’s searing and poignant novel, can help to explain what remains otherwise very strange to me about this drive: namely, that we spent the entire time singing and telling jokes.

  1. 1

    Michael Krasny, Let There Be Laughter: A Treasure of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means (William Morrow, 2016). 

  2. 2

    The German-Jewish Dialogue: An Anthology of Literary Texts, 1749–1993, edited by Ritchie Robertson (Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 89. “A strange people,” Heine wrote to a friend in 1850; “for thousands of years constantly beaten, constantly crying, constantly suffering, perpetually forgotten by God yet still cleaving to him, more tenaciously and loyally than any other people in the whole world!” (Quoted in Navid Kermani, Between Quran & Kafka: West–Eastern Affinities, translated by Tony Crawford (Polity, 2016), p. xii.) Heine’s role as the “fountainhead and genius of German Jewish humor” is discussed in Ruth R. Wisse, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Princeton University Press, 2013), p. 35. 

  3. 3

    I.L. Peretz, “Bontsha the Silent,” in A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, revised edition (Penguin, 1989).