Days after arriving in France for my student exchange, I was unexpectedly shaking the hand of a literary and political inspiration by the name of Grossman. No, regrettably not Vassily Grossman’s, whose epic Life and Fate I continue to grind through, but David Grossman’s. The appearance of the Israeli novelist, serving as a “prologue” for the literature festival Bibliothèques idéales was awaited with immense expectation in Strasbourg, the open-doors event itself flanked by the city mayor and witnessed by a near-full Cité de la Musique et de la Danse. For the past two decades, Grossman has established himself as Israel’s best-known writer and among the foremost novelists of the modern age, translated in over thirty languages and read the world over. Equally recognised, however, are his efforts as a political activist, effectively harnessing his influence to speak on matters of peace and social justice, whether through his richly themed novels or participation in Peace Now alongside fellow public intellectuals such as Amos Oz, or as lately observed, addressing the “Tentifada” demonstrators gathered in Jerusalem.
The “rencontre” began on a rather lighter note, Grossman initially asked of his credentials as a rap songwriter, having recently penned lines for Israel’s most popular rappers through his rhyming of slogans from over 120 Israeli bumper stickers, the musical product subsequently topping the national charts for over a year. The focus soon shifted to his latest novel, To the End of the Land, a work tracing the trajectory of Israel since 1967, through the eyes of the mother of a fallen soldier in the army. Inspired by the loss of his eldest son during the war in Lebanon five years ago, it has received plaudits as his finest insight yet into the psyche of modern Israeli society and its evolution over the past decades. When it was first proposed to him by the host of the event, that the novel was essentially one concerning the geography of Israel, Grossman agreed, synthesising it as a mirroring the path he explored from the north of the country to its south. While doing so, he realised the land was “just earth” and only temporary, upon which “all wars and quarrels were a waste of time” and a more normal way capable of being understood. The book, he further suggested, was a clash between two cultures, those of the envelope and what happens within the country. The former consists of the machinery of the army in “delivering the message,” so critical in forging a national metaphor of a “suit of armour, without a knight, without a person within.” Contrasting with this, lies the vitality and dynamism of its individuals whom Grossman strives to “keep alive,” most evidently in the form of the novel’s central figure Ora, who upon predicting the imminent delivery of the announcement, flees across the terrain of the land in search of her her former lover Avram, the secret father of her deceased son.
When discussing a work so poignant for its very author, the host could not but allude to the very announcement Grossman himself had to presence, drawing gasps from several in the audience previously unaware of this. Grossman said he had begun the novel three years and three months prior to the final days of the second Lebanese war, and upon the fulfilment of Shiva, returned to writing it. The experience led him to reaffirm his attachment to writing, an act granting him “a way of being in this life,” and strengthening his characteristic commitment to the themes of the “neighbourship between life and death…the need to document it…and how they are intertwined.” Seconding the host’s assertion that the novel was a secular prayer, he claimed that more and more people were becoming detached from ideology and finding refuge in literature. Asked of the role Ora plays as Jewish figure, he hinted at her mediating between two layers, one that of the Hamatzav, or the “situation” of constant bleeding for hundreds of years, which though having broken her family, she continues to infuse with warmth and significance. When nearing the end of the literary discussion, and unsurprisingly in France, the host could not help but enquire about the sexuality prevailing throughout the novel, and whether it at all reflected the author’s own autobiographical experiences. Quipping that all his fiction does inevitably become autobiographical , Grossman more morosely put it as representing the high voltage nature of Israeli society, and its inherent wholeness, vitality, sensuality, emotions, youthfulness and fear of death.
Having implicitly addressed the themes of war and peace throughout the analysis of To the End of the Land, Grossman was asked to provide a commentary on the social protests in Israel, of which he has emerged as a prominent supporter. Describing it as an “intriguing, exciting phenomenon,” he believed awareness of the developments in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria had been critical in prompting Israelis from all walks of life to camp in the nation’s streets. Marvelling at how after 44 years of deep-seated polarisation within society, the protests had emerged as a unifying force, rekindling a sense of solidarity, mutual responsibility and equality for so long absent, he accepted that for now it was best to put aside the politics and allow the country to “recover.” Nonetheless, he was hopeful that the demands for equality and dignity would lead to political results, and not necessarily ones concerned with the internal socio-economic imbalances. Queried whether the left was capable of playing a part in this all, he said its vast unpopularity, summed up by its nickname “leftovers,” had deterred the protesters from directly associating themselves with it. But neither had the right, Grossman argued, provided any vision or positive policy for the past years, thus allowing a vacuum of real leadership to emerge of late. The nature of Israeli politics, for so long revolving around security, would now evolve, he hoped, “these ideas [those of the protests] those that will allow societies to live.” Our role, he concluded, ever so important at this stage, is to “insist there is an alternative…that we are not doomed to reality… that life is not one catastrophe to another.”
And then he scuttled off, only to quickly re-emerge at the Cité’s entrance to sign his books for the outgoing audience. Leaflets printed by a Jewish-Muslim association in Strasbourg, in support of the upcoming bid for Palestinian statehood at the General Assembly, made their way around, its political message however feeling somewhat eerily out of sync with the nuanced and measured potency of Grossman’s own calls for peace. As I remarked to him, in gratitude for his signing of my newly purchased copy ofVoir ci-dessous: Amour, the English title of which I cannot seem to trace anywhere, it appears as if only figures such as himself are capable of so poignantly understanding the complexities of Israel.
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