On Oct. 1 at Princeton University’s 10th annual Kwartler Family Lecture, Israeli novelist David Grossman read the first chapter of his newly translated book, Falling Out of Time. More prose poem than traditional novel, the book expresses the experience of a parent who has lost a child — as Grossman did nine years ago when his son Uri died on duty during the second Lebanon War.
When Uri died, Grossman was writing To the End of the Land, which, he said, “in a strange way spoke to what happened to us later.” That book is about an Israeli woman whose son has gone off to the IDF to fight, and she has “the poignant intuition that he will not come back.” Rather than waiting for the “notifiers” from the army, she runs away from home, figuring that if she is not there to receive any bad news, her son will not die.
Responding to questions from Lital Levy, an associate professor of comparative literature, and the audience, Grossman touched on his literary approach, his identity as an author, and his perspective on Israeli politics.
Finishing To the End of the Land after Uri’s death
“In a very strange way, the book was the most solid fact of my life back then, nine years ago. The sense of responsibility to the characters that I became so attached to after three and a half years — I felt, I can’t abandon them now. Books and characters are like a couple — you change each other, sometimes you help each other. While I was finishing To the End of the Land I was deeply helped by the book. The instinct of a writer to instill life, warmth, and humor into his characters became a way to fight against the gravity of grief.”
Keeping the planned ending of To the End of the Land
“From the very beginning I knew that the ending will remain open. I think there is something artificial or superficial about a completely decisive ending to a book. In life things change.”
Grossman’s intimate knowledge of emotional estrangement after losing a child
“I was on the island of exile — first, because it is isolated. No matter how much you have good friends and family and supporters, you are isolated. No one has lost this person the way you have. You are exiled from everything you had taken for granted from before. There is even an embarrassment of staying alive. If I was unfortunate enough to be sent there, I decided I will map this island in the only way I know — to write about it.”
Grossman’s use of words to express the “unexpressable”
“Believe me, no one knows like writers that words fall short. The first urge, you want to run and to shout and to cry and to walk in circles, like a magical pilgrimage, or dig a hole in the ground and lay there. Then comes the moment when to be silent is not enough. I realized that silence may be a very efficient way of protecting myself from pain. I deeply do not believe in that; I don’t want to protect myself from anything. There comes this moment when we feel that we have to talk and write and express what is untalkable, unwriteable, unexpressable. This is what makes us human, to give names to feelings and try to be as accurate as possible.”
The use of poetry in Falling Out of Time
“I started to write as prose, and I realized that something is missing. Prose is too thick; it is not nuanced enough to express what I needed. An almost physical power took my wrist and moved it to the next line. [The poetic form] reflects the tension I was trapped in when I was writing — the enormous urge to write it and the enormous urge not to write it.”
The idea underlying Falling Out of Time
“It is a book about people facing the ultimate arbitrariness, which is death. In all my books an individual faces an outer arbitrariness: death, Nazis, military occupation. I’m obsessed almost in how we can maintain ourselves in front of an arbitrariness that is determined to erase us, make us part of the many, the masses.
“Writing this, I was able to get to the point where I was suddenly in the worst possible situation I can think of, and found a way not to be paralyzed in front of what happened, to not be a victim. If you feel you still have some room to maneuver, you can massage this arbitrariness and find access into it and come back to it and choose life after being as close as possible to death…. This was a book about coming back to life, to find a way to go back to life. It is not a trivial thing. There’s always the question and dilemma of how much we can remember and forget in order to allow ourselves to come back to life. How can we forget without killing and remember without dying…. There’s always the temptation not to remember because it’s too painful.”
A novelist writing about politics versus creating literature
“When I write an article, I am much more aware of the reader and even choose the language so it will be communicating with the reader. When I write my fiction, I don’t think of the reader; writing a novel is very egocentric and introverted work.
“I think what writers can contribute to the political debate is their sensitivity to the language, and they can see when language is manipulated, forged, used by those who have an interest in doing all these things. One more thing that gives an advantage to a writer is the instinct to see reality from different points of view. Usually we are quite entrenched in one lifeline. We have one body, one gender, one sense of humor, one biography. Over the years you see people congealing in their one lifeline…. When [I] write…, I want to be invaded by all these options I’m deprived of in everyday life: crazy/sane, Israeli/Palestinian, man/woman, old/child. These particles of options are hovering all the time when one writes; it’s such a pleasure to be exposed to them.”