The first thing David Grossman did in a recent Jewish Week interview was apologize: “The protest ran an hour later than expected,” he said, after pushing back the planned start time. “I couldn’t leave.”
For several years the towering Israeli novelist has been a mainstay at the weekly protests outside Sheik Jarrah, the Arab neighborhood in east Jerusalem from which longtime residents have recently been evicted.
Though the interview came out at a portentous moment — the week his latest novel, “To the End of the Land,” came out in America, immediately lionized as one of the best novels of the year, perhaps even the decade — his personal commitments would not be abandoned.
Like many Israelis, he is not optimistic about the chances for peace to come from the latest round of talks. But he believes his voice, added to a sea of others at Sheik Jarrah, might make a difference: “The tangible gains are in showing an alternative,” he said about the protests. “We say that we wish not to be enemies [with Arabs]. We wish to be together as neighbors, as human beings.”
Grossman, 56, is one of the few prominent liberal Israelis whose voice still matters. In a country that treats its novelists like sibylline sages, his latest novel — a best-seller in Israel, and already rising fast on American lists — burns with a white-hot center that is, paradoxically, kept aglow by its tender humanity.
“I just try to tell the story of how Israelis, which are a very moral people, how they can become trapped by their own circumstances,” he said, adding, “So much of [‘To the End of the Land’] is about how painful war is. But at the same time, I tried to grasp all the nuances of feeling within Israel.”
And he knows them well. It has become impossible to write about “To the End of the Land” without mentioning its tragic origins. Grossman began writing the novel in 2003, not long after his middle son, Uri, had been drafted into the military.
Writing was a way for Grossman to grasp the chaos his country was descending into, he said. “I wanted to document step by step what was happening in Israel … to see how the soul of a nation gradually changes and become fossilized.”
The novel also became a kind of indemnity against any Israeli parents’ worst fear: the death of their child in battle. At the same time, the book opened a channel of communication between Grossman and his son; each time Uri called home, he’d ask his father, “What did you do to them this week?”
The novel follows a single mother, Ora, whose younger son Ofer re-enlists in the army. Ora thinks she can escape her worst fear — that military officers will ring her doorbell, bearing news of her son’s death — by leaving home.
As Grossman writes: “All those times [Ora] has walked to the door when the bell rings and told herself, This is it. But that door will remain shut a day from now, and two, and in a week or so, and that notification will never be given, because,” she think to herself, “there will be no one to receive this notice, and so it will not be delivered.”
To escape, Ora goes on a month-long trek with an old lover, Avram, throughout Israel’s countryside — the same hike Grossman himself did while Uri was at war — keeping the thought of Ofer alive by talking ceaselessly about him.
Grossman said that making the protagonist a mother, rather than a father, was integral to the story. “I fell that the connection between mother and child is more primal” than father and son, he said. “I sometimes say that I am a motherly father. I see how my wife” — Michal, who he met during his own service, just before the 1973 war — “raised our own children, and it is just so primal.” He added that he tried avoiding sexist lapses, too: “I don’t idealize women … Ora is flesh and blood, with all the flaws too.”
What happens to Ofer in the novel will not be revealed here, but it is widely known what happened to Uri. Near the end of the 2006 Lebanon war, Grossman got a ring at his own doorbell. It was late in the night, a Sunday, at 2:40 a.m. The day before Uri was killed when a Hezbollah missile hit his tank, the officer said. Two days later, on Aug. 14, the war officially ended.
This back-story is recounted in a postscript to the novel, where Grossman writes that the manuscript was already complete by the time of Uri’s death. “Most of it was already written,” Grossman writes. “What changed, above all, was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written.”
There is no question that Uri’s death, and the haunting parallel to the novel’s plot, influenced the book’s attention in Israel. “No doubt it affected [the novel’s] reception,” said Michael Gluzman, a Hebrew literature professor at Tel Aviv University. But he repeated a refrain heard by almost anyone who has read the book so far: it is exceptional, no matter the circumstance in which it arose.
As Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, another scholar of Grossman’s work at Hebrew University, put it, “This is kind of the consummate novel of Grossman’s career. All the writing he’s done up to this point leads to this book. … His imagination is so humane,” she added, “so full of grace.”
For Israelis in particular, the book hit a raw nerve. The narrative framework — Ora’s fear for her son’s life — torments the psyche of Israeli parents everywhere. “Bereavement is a very significant topic in Israel,” Gluzman said. “You have to understand, this is a very small country; whenever someone dies, everyone knows about it.”
Israelis knew about Uri’s death almost immediately, and not long after his death, Grossman’s eulogy was printed in newspapers throughout the country. But even before Uri was killed, Grossman had joined Israel’s two other leading novelists, A.B Yehoshua and Amos Oz, both close friends of Grossman, in denouncing the Lebanon war. Later at an awards ceremony where Grossman was honored, and not long after Uri’s death, the author refused to shake hands with Ehud Olmert, then Israel’s prime minister.
Even though Grossman had, at the war’s outset, endorsed Israel’s right to defend itself, the war quickly seemed overtaken by craven political calculus, he believed. Many Israelis believed Olmert felt a need to counter criticism that he was too light on terror; Lebanon was low-hanging fruit. “There was a lot of skepticism toward the last 72 hours of the war,” said Gluzman. “It was seen as a photo-op.”
But Grossman does not like to dwell on how much the writing of his novel, its reception or his political views have been affected by Uri’s death. He says: “I’ve wrote about the same topics for 30 years, well before what happened to my son. …I have no control over how people read my book,” he added, “I only hope they approach it as a work of art.”
That is what American critics have done so far. Just before the novel was released in the United States, The New Yorker ran a lengthy profile of Grossman. The New York Times Sunday Book Review placed its review, by Colm Toibin, on its front page, calling it “one of those few novels that feel as though they have made a difference to the world.”
And writing in The New Republic, Robert Alter, a Hebrew literature professor at Berkeley and noted Bible translator, called it “the definitive novel of the present Israeli condition,” adding that it is “one of the best novels that has appeared in any language over the past decade.”
Not much has been lost in translation either, Alter wrote, giving sincere praise to the translator, Jessica Cohen. Cohen herself said that Grossman’s writing, while deeply allusive to biblical Hebrew, also lent itself well to mellifluous English prose. “I think that what characterizes his language is that it has tremendous scope. It can be very colloquial in one sentence,” she said, “then, within the same sentence, have an allusion to a biblical verse.”
There were a few hitches, however, most notably in translating the title. The Hebrew edition, released in 2008, was called “Isha Borachat Mi’bsora,” whose nearest translation is “Woman Flees Tidings.” But the power of the original title lies in the double entendre: “mi’sbora” can mean either “news” or “gospel” depending on whether it’s used in a contemporary Hebrew or biblical Hebrew context.
“It’s a very loaded word and has no easy translation,” said Ezrahi, the literary scholar.
Grossman’s editor at Knopf, Deborah Garrison, said that her publishing house wasn’t thrilled about the literal translation either (“Woman Flees Tidings”). “Until the End of the Land” was tossed around as another option, but Garrison said: “that was a little awkward.” So they swapped “Until” with “To” and called it a day.
Despite the difficulties selling books in translation in America, Garrison added that there was only perfunctory talk inside Knopf about whether it should publish “To the End of the Land.”
“This was just one of those causes where you say, ‘It just doesn’t matter. This is worth it.’”
While several critics have been skittish about calling the novel “anti-war,” or at least downplaying the fact, Grossman is less hesitant. “Of course, part of it is anti-war,” he said, but not all of it. What the novel is certainly not, however, is a polemic. Grossman said it was instead his personal attempt to give life to a nation hollowed out and made numb by war. “Israelis surrender to the temptation of war and occupation” too easily, he said. “And there is a temptation there. But wherever people are, there is never a permanent status quo. I believe things can change.”
David Grossman will be in New York for two readings this week. The first is with Paul Auster on Monday, Oct. 11, at 8 p.m. at the 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Ave. (212) 921-7, $19. The second is with Nicole Krauss on Wednesday, Oct. 13, at 7 p.m. at the New York Public Library Celeste Bartos Forum, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, (917) 275-6975. $25; $15 for seniors and students.