Archive for the ‘David Grossman’ Category

More Than I Love My Life

March 16, 2022

David Grossman, and translator Jessica Cohen, won the International Booker in 2017 with his previous novel A Horse Walks into a Bar. Its central character was a comedian whose performance is revealed to the reader through the eyes of an old friend – one he has specifically asked to watch him. His new novel, More Than I Love My Life, longlisted for the same prize, is also filtered through a narrator, Gili, who, at times, seems more of an observer than a participant despite the fact she is the granddaughter and daughter of the main characters, Vera and Nina. Further suggesting her role as observer, much of the novel centres on a film she and her father, Rafael, are making of their troubled family history – the story of Vera’s abandonment of Nina as a young child, and Nina’s subsequent abandonment of Gili when she is three years old.

In 1962, Vera arrives in Israel from Yugoslavia with her seventeen-year-old daughter Nina. Vera, like Rafael’s father, Tuvia, is widowed, but before they can meet and marry, fifteen-year-old Rafael encounters Nina and falls in love. As she walks away, he holds out his hand:

“I can actually see him standing there with his hand out.

“And that’s how he’s remained, with the outstretched hand, for forty-five years.”

Gili characterises her father’s relationship with her mother in this way because, as we shall see, whatever occurs in the years which follow, he is always there for her when she needs him; “you know me,” he tells her, “If you were to suddenly turn into…I don’t know… a hunchback, then I’d start loving hunchbacks.” But she also warns us that the story of their first meeting has been told to her by her father who insisted “every detail in the story was important, because that is how you construct a mythology.” The idea of mythologizing those we love will turn out to be central to the novel.

Though much of the novel consists of flashbacks, it begins at Vera’s ninetieth birthday, and a final appearance in the lives of her family of Nina (“my rarely seen mother”) who, after a time in New York, is now living in a village close to the Arctic circle. Shortly after the party she reveals that she has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and will lose her memory over the coming years:

“Even right now I’m being a little bit erased, look… now I’m in colour, but three or four years from now I’ll be flat white, then transparent.”

Before it’s too late, she wants to know the truth about her childhood, a time she has previously attempted to forget. When she was a little girl her mother was sent to Goli Otok, an island used by Tito as a gulag, and she was left alone, her father having been already killed by the regime. It is for this reason she asks Rafael to make a film of Vera’s memories as the family return to Croatia and to the island.

The truth she is looking for is the reason Vera abandoned her, this sense of abandonment having defined her and prevented her from forming any lasting relationships of her own, including with her daughter. Subconsciously she feels this was a choice, and that Vera put her dead husband before her living daughter. Even as she marries Rafael’s father, Vera tells him that she still loves her first husband, Milosz, “more than anything in the world, more than my life” and he, too, is mythologized. The novel questions the ability of characters to see beyond the idealised images of this they love, and the damage this can unwittingly cause.

As the family journey to Croatia, Vera’s story is revealed, not only in her speech, but in a separate first-person narrative of her time on the island, climaxing as the family arrive there:

“Empty and barren. We’re alone on the island. Only a madman would come here in this storm.”

Will the storm be one of cleansing or destruction?

The novel has a complex structure which Grossman skilfully navigates, but the various barriers between the reader and the story can, at times, dilute its impact. It’s no surprise that one of the most effective sections is the direct narrative of Vera’s years on Goli Otok. The filming does provide some powerful moments as, for example, when Nina begins to address herself (much to the confusion and panic of the others) when in fact she is addressing the future, amnesiac Nina. It also provides an excuse for various videoed recollections over the years, and a symbolic, if slightly contrived, ending. However, both Gili and, to a lesser extent, Rafael remain largely behind the camera. Rafael as a character rarely goes beyond his love for Nina which, being unconditional, is also uninteresting. Gili is even less memorable. In fact, even Nina struggles to compete with Vera – which is at least in keeping with the family dynamic.

On the other hand, the novel once again showcases Grossman’s ability to demonstrate the impact of historical trauma on the individual. The punishment which a totalitarian regime inflicts on Vera is felt not only by her but by her child and grandchild – the harm does not end when the violence stops. This is an accomplished novel, as one would expect from a writer who has written ten others, certainly good enough to make the shortlist (though it’s early days yet) but, in the end, lacking the focus and emotional power of A Horse Walks into a Bar and therefore unlikely to repeat his win.

A Horse Walks Into a Bar

April 8, 2017

David Grossman has been longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction prize (the precursor to the Man Booker International) more than once, most recently with To the End of the Land in 2011. A Horse Walks into a Bar (translated by Jessica Cohen), however, seems to be something of a departure: as its title suggests, its protagonist, Dovaleh Greenstein, is a stand-up comedian, and the novel consists of one night’s performance filtered through the narration of an old friend whom he has invited along to observe. “Why the long face?” is the barman’s response in the hackneyed joke of the title, and the novel could be said to answer that question, exploring the unhappiness at the centre of Dovaleh’s life.

Right from the start, Dovaleh seeks to antagonise as much as amuse his audience:

“Are you going to sit there and declare, so help you God, that I am actually in Netanya at this very minute, and I’m not even wearing a flak jacket?…I get creeped out by this Netanya dump. Every second person on the street looks like he’s on the witness protection programme, and every other person has the first person rolled up in a black plastic bag inside the trunk of his car.”

Hidden beneath the humour is a violence, simmering beneath the surface, and directed at himself as much as the audience. More than once he slaps himself on the forehead, “an awful blow, that slap.”

“I’ve seen that grimace before: a little rodent gnawing on himself.”

Though interspersed with jokes (often when reminded by the audience), his act is largely a retelling, a rediscovery, of an event from his childhood. As his monologue progresses, so the truth of what happened becomes clearer to him. Towards the end he says:

“I remember everything suddenly. That’s what’s amazing about this evening… You’ve done a great thing today for me by staying. I suddenly remember everything, and not in my sleep but like it’s happening right now, this minute.”

His humour is a defence from unpleasant truths – even as a child he would walk on his hands in an attempt to avoid being bullied. Grossman seems to be questioning whether humour, perhaps specifically Jewish humour, is therapeutic, or in fact a damaging refusal to face facts.

The novel is not easy (but then neither was the last novel I read with a comedian at the centre, Heinrich Boll’s The Clown, with which this shares both tone and message to some extent). Dovaleh’s stage persona is deliberately unpleasant: pugnacious and vitriolic, with a sense of something pathetic at its centre slowly being uncovered. The performance is a car crash, and while that holds a certain fascination, there are numerous squirm-inducing moments. The novel is a tightrope of heightened emotion, dipping into jokes with a feigned loss of balance: it can be exhausting to watch.

It’s a novel of crisis, a long dark night of the soul: Dovaleh asks his childhood friend, our narrator, Avishai Lazar, to observe him – “I want you to see me” – as if no longer able to see himself clearly. (That he is an ex-judge suggests, of course, that Dovaleh wants to be judged). And, like all of Grossman’s recent work, it’s a novel of loss.

Whether A Horse Walks into a Bar will make the short list is difficult to say. It possesses a formal daring and emotional intensity difficult to ignore, but it feels like a novel which will be more admired than loved.