Betrayal: On David Grossman
Like Aron, Grossman belongs to the generation of Israelis who celebrated their bar mitzvahs around the time of the Six-Day War. Like Aron, he was introverted and bookish, sensitive to the suppleness of language, aware of the pollutants that can contaminate it in a society where words are used as blunt instruments. Yet the parallels between novelist and protagonist may be too neat, since in recent years Grossman's faith in language has wavered. "I have to admit that many times I feel that words can no longer penetrate the screen of horror," he wrote in the preface to his essay collection Death As a Way of Life (2003), which charts the rise and fall of his hopes for peace in the tumultuous decade after the Oslo Accords. In one of the essays, composed after a string of suicide bombings prompted a further escalation of Israeli attacks, he concludes by informing the reader, "What I feel like doing now is not writing an article. I actually feel like taking a can of black spray paint and covering every wall in Jerusalem, Gaza and Ramallah with graffiti: LUNATICS, STOP KILLING AND START TALKING!"
During the second intifada, Grossman grew decidedly less forgiving of the Palestinians--of Arafat's double talk, of the nihilism behind suicide attacks--and less hopeful about the prospects for lasting peace. Though he never stopped criticizing the occupation or drawing attention to the suffering of civilians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, his language lost some of its verve. Death As a Way of Life lacks the vigor of The Yellow Wind and Sleeping on a Wire, in no small part because instead of scaling walls its author seems hemmed in by them. The book reads like a lament for a lost opportunity for ordinary people to experience in their daily life something Grossman views as one of literature's animating impulses: the power to dissolve the distance between oneself and "the Other." "The purpose of literature," Grossman writes in "The Desire to Be Gisella," the most searching essay in Writing in the Dark, is to redeem a character in a story "from alienation and impersonality, from the grip of stereotypes and prejudices...to comprehend all the facets of one human character: its internal contradictions, its motives and inhibitions," and then to realize that many of the same emotional currents course through yourself.
The toll of the conflict has also reverberated in Grossman's fiction. In books such as Someone to Run With (2000), an entertaining if slightly saccharine novel that explores the world of street kids, drug dealers and stray dogs in Jerusalem, and Her Body Knows (2002), a pair of novellas about the perils of passion and jealousy, there was little trace of the surrounding atmosphere, a fact that did not go unnoticed by critics. In The New York Review of Books, Gabriele Annan expressed surprise that "there is scarcely an Arab to be seen" in Someone to Run With, this from a novelist who "is also a political journalist who has written about life in Arab villages." The omission was no accident, and it prompts one to wonder whether Grossman's desire to see past labels, coupled with exhaustion, is narrowing instead of deepening his scope. As Grossman told an audience in New York City in the spring of 2007, "in the works of fiction I have written in recent years, I have almost intentionally turned my back on the immediate, burning reality of my country, the reality of the latest news bulletin." He wanted to write "about other things, things no less important, things for which it's hard to find the time, the emotion, and the total attention, while the near-eternal war thunders on outside."
Retreating from the shadow of war is a familiar habit among Israeli novelists. Writers who grew up in the aftermath of 1948 sought to slip the chains of collectivism forged during the decades of kibbutzim and youth movements, of Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion. As the critic Hillel Halkin has noted, the literature of this generation abounds with figures such as Yonatan Lifshitz, the protagonist of Amos Oz's A Perfect Peace, who longs "to be alone at last, entirely alone, to find for himself what it was all about." Oz and his peers sought to refurbish what Yaron Ezrahi has termed "the impoverished language of the Israeli self" by overcoming the "difficulty of discovering or inventing one's private voice in the midst of this chorus of pioneers, all singing the epic of the return of the Jews from exile and the resurrection of our ancient language in the Holy Land." A half-century later, Grossman arrived at the end of a week filled with turmoil and, in his diary, noted what he'd forgotten to think about: his children, his family, his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. "So many cherished things and private moments are lost to fear and violence," he sighed. "So much creative power, so much imagination and thought, are directed today at destruction and death (or at guarding against destruction and death)."
And yet the situation Grossman finds himself confronting in Israel today is arguably the opposite of what Oz's generation faced. When Israelis come home from work these days, they don't instantly engage in heated debates about what happened in the Knesset, much less in Nablus or Ramallah. Quite often, they turn on a reality show, or flip open a laptop and network on Facebook. Although the age of the kibbutz is long gone, the language of the Israeli self is again impoverished, this time laid waste by solipsism and detachment. Grossman's A Woman Flees Tidings was a runaway bestseller in Israel, perhaps because of what readers knew its author had suffered, perhaps because it recounts a scenario so familiar in a nation where losing a child to war is an almost universal fear, or perhaps because, as historian Tom Segev suggested to me, the book taps into a widely shared desire to escape, to flee bad news. The problem in Israel today isn't too little space for private concerns, one could argue, but apathy and cynicism about public ones.
Despite his disappointment with the conduct of Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Grossman hasn't succumbed to fatalism. In 2006, on the eleventh anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, only a few months after Uri's death, he delivered a speech in which he called on Israel's leaders to stop making excuses and talk to their enemies (the speech is reprinted in Writing in the Dark). Yet in a society that, for the moment, is circling inward, walling itself off from the larger world to avoid further disappointment and pain, even as the rage around it builds, it's hard not to wonder whether this "troublemaker and magician," as the critic John Leonard once described Grossman, feels choked off. Grossman's best work shows how much can be wrung out of unsettling encounters with the unfamiliar, from entering "the vortex of [one's] greatest fear and repulsion," as he put it in The Yellow Wind, and emerging mended, enlarged, purified. It would be difficult to think of someone more entitled to withdraw into himself than Grossman. But it's equally hard to imagine this bringing him much satisfaction, not least because he knows that those who retreat inward only flee further from the truth. "A society in crisis," he once said, "teaches itself to congeal into one story only and sees reality through very narrow glasses. But there is never only one story."