Throughout his career, David Grossman has been a voice for peace and reconciliation between Israel and its Arab citizens and neighbors. In these six essays on politics and culture in Israel, he addresses the conscience of a country that has lost faith in its leaders and its ideals. This collection, Writing in the Dark, includes an already famous speech concerning the disastrous Second Lebanon War of 2006, the war that took the life of Grossman's twenty-year-old son, Uri.
Moving, human, clear-sighted, and courageous, touching on literature and artistic creation as well as politics and philosophy, these writings are a cri de coeur from "a writer who has been, for nearly two decades, one of the most original and talented not only in his own country, but anywhere" (The New York Times Book Review).
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Writing in the Dark
By David Grossman, Jessica Cohen
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2008 David Grossman
All rights reserved.
Books That Have Read Me
An unforgettable scene in Fellini's film Roma depicts the discovery of an ancient catacomb filled with breathtaking murals. But when the murals are exposed to the spotlights of the researchers and camera crew, they fade and quickly vanish.
Explaining the process of inspiration, for me, is like trying to explain what occurs in a dream. In both cases we must resort to using words to describe an experience that by nature resists definition. In both cases we can rationally analyze the events and consider, for example, the themes and characters that may have influenced the dreamer and the needs that led him to conjure up these particular influences rather than others in his dream. But we will always feel that the essence of the dream, its secret, the unique glimmer of contact between the dreamer and the dream, remains an impenetrable riddle.
I remember what I experienced when I felt I was under the rays of a vast and inspiring literary power — when I read Kafka's Metamorphosis, for example, or Yaakov Shabtai's Past Continuous, or Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers. I have no doubt that some part of me, perhaps my innermost core, seemed to be in the realm of a dream. There was a similar intrinsic logic, and a direct dialogue conducted with the deepest and most veiled contents of my soul, almost without the mediation of consciousness.
When I talk, then, of this or the other author and how he or she touched my life and influenced my writing, I know that it is merely the story I tell myself today, in a waking state, under the spotlights, filtered through the natural sifting process of memory.
When I was eight years old, my father suggested that I read Sholem Aleichem's Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor's Son. Father himself had been a child in the Galician shtetl of Dynow, just a few miles from Lemberg, otherwise known as Lvov. Like Mottel, he had lost his father at a young age and lived with his brothers and sisters and hardworking widowed mother.
Father, who immigrated to Palestine in 1936, did not talk much about his childhood. Only rarely was the curtain drawn to reveal a strange, enchanting, intangible world, almost like a shadow theater. Then I could see my father as a little boy, sitting in the cheder opposite a sternteacher who used to fix broken china during class, binding the pieces together with wire. I could see Father at the age of four, walking home from the cheder in the dark, lighting his way with a candle stuck inside half a radish — nature's candlestick. I could see the doctor bringing a precious remedy for my grandfather's ailment as he lay on his deathbed: a paper-thin slice of watermelon. And I could see my father looking out the window.
Father handed me Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor's Son (in Y. D. Berkowitz's Hebrew translation), and I read the title of the first chapter while he held the book in his hands — "Today's a Holiday — Weeping Is Forbidden!" — and then the following words: "I bet no one was so delighted with the warm sunny days following Passover as I, Mottel, the son of Peissi the Cantor, and as the neighbor's calf, 'Menie' (as I, Mottel, have named him)."
I did not understand a word of what I read, and yet there was something there. I took the book from my father's hands and climbed up onto the windowsill, my favorite reading place. Outside was Beit Mazmil, where the residents were trying to accustom themselves to the neighborhood's newly ordained Hebrew name, Kiryat Yovel. It was a cluster of apartment buildings whose occupants had made their way from seventy exiles and who argued in seventy languages. The dwellers of the tinshack neighborhood, whom we called asbestonim, looked on enviously at those who were lucky enough to get a tiny apartment in one of the buildings. There were young couples who confronted life with determined optimism, and Holocaust survivors who walked the streets like shadows and whom we children feared.
"Together we basked in the first warm sunrays of the first mild after- Passover days; together we breathed in the fragrance of the first tender blades of grass that burst through the newly bared earth; and together we crept out of dark narrow prisons to greet the first sunny spring morning. I, son of Peissi the Cantor, emerged from a cold damp cellar which always smells of sour dough and medicines. And Menie, the neighbor's calf, was released from an even worse odor — a small filthy stall, dark and muddy, with crooked battered walls which let in snow in winter and rain in summer."
"Do you like it?" my father asked. "Read, read, it's just how things were with us." And perhaps because of the expression on his face at that moment, I had a sudden illumination: I realized that for the first time, he was inviting me over there, giving me the keys to the tunnel that would lead from my childhood to his.
It was a peculiar tunnel. One end was in Jerusalem, in the young State of Israel, which believed that its strength depended partly on its ability to forget so that it could cobble together a new identity for itself. And the other end was in the land of Over There.
From the moment I stepped into that land I could not leave. I was eight, and within a few months I had devoured all of Sholem Aleichem's writings that existed in Hebrew at the time — the children's stories, the writings for adults, and the plays. When I reread the works before writing this piece, I was amazed to discover how little I could have understood as a child, and how powerfully the things beyond the visible text must have worked on me. Because what could an eight- or nine-year-old have understood about Rachel's tormented love for Stempenyu? Or the political views that Sholem Aleichem gave to a detached and wayward Jewish character like Menachem Mendel, or to his complete opposite, Tevye the Milkman? What did I know about the life of yeshiva students who ate at the table of a different homeowner each day of the week? About the hostility between the "landlord" class and the workers, or about the conflict between the Zionists and the Bundists?
I did not know, I did not understand, but something inside me would not allow me to let go of the inscrutable stories, written in a Hebrew I had never encountered before. I read like someone entering a completely foreign world that was, at the same time, a promised land. In some sense, I felt that I was coming home. And it all worked its magic on me in a muddled way: the words with the biblical ring, the characters, the customs, the ways of life, and the fact that the page numbers were marked with letters rather than numbers, as in Bialik and Rawnitzky's Book of Legends. Even the smell of the pages was dense and so different from the scent of the other books I read — translations of The Famous Five and The Secret Seven, The Paul Street Boys and Kajtus the Wizard, the works of Erich Kestner and Jules Verne, andIsraeli books like Shraga Gafni's adventure stories, Eliezer Smoli's Frontiersmen of Israel, the adventures of the secret agent named Oz Yaoz, books by Nachum Gutman, and anything else I could get my hands on.
Parenthetically I will add that I belong to a generation that was accustomed to reading texts in which they did not understand every single word. In the early 1960s we read books in archaic and poetic Hebrew; we read translations from the 1920s and '30s that did not employ our daily language at all. The incomprehensibility imposed on us was certainly a barrier to fluid reading, but in hindsight I think that part of my reading experience in that period came from this very same incomprehensibility: the mystery and the exoticism of words with an odd ring, and the pleasure of inferring one thing from another. I note this because most children's books today (and children's magazines even more so) are written at the readers' eye level and ear level, if not lower, usually preferring the simplest — and sometimes the most simplistic — words possible, often favoring slang. Of course this has many advantages and perhaps results in a broader readership, yet I miss the reading experience of my own childhood, when in the course of reading, the child would fill in linguistic gaps and unwittingly acquire a large and rich vocabulary, learning to view language as an entity with a life of its own.
Inside the six volumes of Sholem Aleichem — a collection of small red books published by Dvir — I discovered the most imaginative world I had ever found in any book. It was a world that was neither heroic nor grand, ostensibly containing nothing that could draw the heart of a child. But it spoke to me, and must have given voice to a longing, a real hunger, that I had not even imagined before. I read about cunning matchmakers, tailors, and water-drawers; about tutors (melamdim) and pupils (dardakim) in the cheder; about priests and laundresses and snuff-takers and smugglers. I read about sheepskin mantles and peasant overcoats. I met moneylenders and usurers, and robbers who attack you in the woods at night. There were places called Kasrilevke and Yehupitz, and people called Hersh Leib, Shneyer, Menachem Mendel, Ivan Pichkur, and Father Alexei. Strangest of all was that Jews lived together with goyim. What did this mean? Why did they want to live with these dangerous goyim? Why did Tevye's daughter Chavaleh marry a goy? And why did the goyim throw Tevye out of his home, and how was it possible so simply, with the wave of an arm, to uproot a man from his home and his life and tell him, "Go"?
Incidentally, I did not fully comprehend the meaning of the word goy, and the term "Christian" was also a little vague. I am fairly certain that until the age of nine I was positive — perhaps like many children — that "Christian" (in Hebrew, notzri) was a type of Egyptian (in Hebrew, mitzri). Either way, they were both "the enemy."
Everything in the stories amazed and daunted and attracted me: the sense of a tenuous existence; the suffering embedded in the everyday; the constant fear of pogroms or "hunts"; the fluent dialogue with God, almost like small talk; and the absolute authority of dreams and their meanings. There was also the constant presence of the dead, a series of "patriarchs" and "matriarchs" with whom people conversed on a daily basis even if they had been dead for years. And the experience of total dependence on despots, the fatalism, the physical weakness, the compassion — even toward those who hate you — and the irony, and again and again the peculiar intimacy with calamity, the calamity that always hovered over everyone's head so that its imminence was never in doubt.
It is worth noting that I did not know any other children who read Sholem Aleichem. When I excitedly told my best friend in the neighborhood about my new experience, he gave me a sideways look and his lips began to curl into a smirk. I quickly changed the subject, but the incident forced me to make increased efforts in such pursuits as suicidal leaps from trees and climbing up tall cranes, all to clear my briefly sullied name. Very quickly, with a child's instinct — a survivor's instinct — I realized that the shtetl must remain my secret world, to be shared with no one.
Between the ages of eight and ten I was a double agent from "here" to Over There and back again. I conducted an intensive life in both realities, experiencing with great enthusiasm all that life in Israel of the early 1960s had to offer — a spirited existence that was both miserable and miraculous. Like most children in the neighborhood, I worked tirelessly to expose Arab spies (half the country was busy with that) and spent days in physical training so that I could either make it onto the Israeli team that would defeat the evil Germans or get into the paratroopers. But whenever possible I dived back into my Jewish shtetl, which was becoming more and more tangible, comprehensible, and relevant to me, animating within me some Jewish note — that was at the same time very diasporic — giving it a voice and sensations, and a clear existence in my world.
The odd thing was that all that time I was convinced that the world of Sholem Aleichem — the world of the Eastern European shtetl — continued to exist alongside my own. Not that I dwelled much on the question of its existence or lack thereof in reality: its literary form was so bold and vital that it never even occurred to me to ponder its subsistence outside the pages of the six volumes. But in the recesses of my mind it was clear to me that this world did indeed live on somewhere out there, with its various laws and institutions, its special language, and its mystery. It was a world always accompanied by a sad yet smiling melody, a lamentation resigned to the loss — but the loss of what? That I did not know.
And then when I was about nine and a half, in the midst of a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, one of those clumsy, hackneyed, repetitive rituals that are so helpless in the face of the thing itself, in the face of that unfathomable number, six million ...
It struck me all at once. Suddenly. The six million, the murdered, the victims, the "Holocaust martyrs," all those terms were in fact my people. They were Mottel and Tevye and Shimele Soroker and Chavaleh and Stempenyu and Lily and Shimek. On the burning asphalt of the Beit Hakerem school, the shtetl was suddenly taken from me.
It was the first time I truly understood the meaning of the Holocaust. And it is no exaggeration to say that this comprehension shook my entire world. I remember my distress during the following days, a distress characteristic of the children of real survivors, because I imagined that I now bore some responsibility to remember all those people; it was a responsibility I did not want.
Every child has his first experience of death. The characters in Sholem Aleichem's stories were the first people to die in my life. I could not read about them any longer, yet I could not stop reading. For a while I read in a way I never had: with care and gravity, I read all six volumes again, for the last time (I was very careful not to laugh in the places that always made me laugh), and the reading was both my contact with the intolerable pain and my only way to heal it. Each encounter with the text brought home to me again the enormity of the loss, but somehow also made it a little more tolerable. Today I know that at ten I discovered that books are the place in the world where both the thing and the loss of it can coexist.
The first part of See Under: Love tells of a boy named Momik who tries to understand the Diaspora in Israeli terms. Large parts of the book are an attempt to write about a Jewish existence in an Israeli idiom. But it also attempts the opposite: to describe Israel in a "diasporic" language. That is the book's internal music, its counterpoint.
See Under: Love is a novel about a story that was lost, torn to shreds. There are several such lost stories in the book, which have to be told again and again because that is the only way to assemble the traces of identity and fuse the fragments of a crumbled world. Many characters in the book are looking for a story they have lost, usually a childhood tale, and they need it very badly so that they can retell it, as adults, and be reborn through it. It is not innocence that drives their desire to tell children's stories, for they have virtually no innocence left. Rather, this is their way to preserve their humanity, and perhaps a modicum of nobility — to believe in the possibility of childhood in this world, and to hold it up against the sheer cynicism. To tell the whole story again through the eyes of a child.
The arbitrariness of an external force that violently invades the life of one person, one soul, preoccupies me in almost all my books. In See Under: Love it was Nazism; in The Smile of the Lamb and The Yellow Wind it was a military occupation that views itself as enlightened, while its victims are subjected to the tyranny of a power they perceive as supreme; in The Book of Intimate Grammar I tried to describe the way one's soul — that multifarious glimmer of life — is forced to adapt to the impersonal dimensions of matter, to the unequivocal quality of flesh.
Excerpted from Writing in the Dark by David Grossman, Jessica Cohen. Copyright © 2008 David Grossman. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
Books That Have Read Me,
The Desire to Be Gisella,
Writing in the Dark,
Individual Language and Mass Language,
Contemplations on Peace,
Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Rally,
Also by David Grossman,