One of the best ways to understand a country is to read its literature. For that reason my reading habit is to alternate Canadian with local, in this case either Israeli or Palestinian and some UK. And that’s why I invite contributors to write about literary events in the country they happen to be in, in the spirit of the Guardian‘s Letter from (a literary version), or Numero Cinq’s What It’s Like Living Here, and to review the work of local authors. Here in Jerusalem, I’ve read (and loved) Israel author David Grossman’s novel, Someone to Run With (Picador 2000), and I’m in the midst of his 2003 collection of essays, Death as a Way of Life: Dispatches from Jerusalem (Bloomsbury, translated by Haim Watzman). When I heard that Grossman would be speaking in English, off I went.
David Grossman is famous even in Canada (he’s been on the CBC!). His recently translated novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar (trans. from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen and published in English by Jonathan Cape 2016), is on the long-list of the Man Booker International prize. He has received the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and in 2010 the Frankfurt Peace Prize. Novelist, essayist, journalist, and outspoken critic and peace activist, he is a controversial figure.
On the evening of April 2, 2017, David Grossman was in conversation with Benjamin Balint, on stage at Hirsch Theatre in Jerusalem’s Beit Shmuel. The hall, which seats 389, was two-thirds full — not a bad turnout for an author who writes in Hebrew being interviewed in English. The conversation was the last in a series sponsored by the Times of Israel.
Interviewer Balint asked a common question posed to writers: do you consider the audience as you write? Grossman graciously acknowledged the necessity of considering audience, and gradually talked us to his real point: the audience doesn’t matter as much as the pull of the story. “It is the magnetic field of the story that really counts.” And “The audience almost doesn’t exist when I write.” Yet consider them he does, asking himself such questions as: “Are you able to make the readers see that the wound you are describing is their wound also?”
He compared writing to a relationship, from which he learns and grows: “It is like a couple-hood between writer and story” — a relationship that he described as energetic and vital. As the book matures, he learns more about it and himself — “then I understand why it is my story.”
The interviewer asked Grossman about his “meticulous research” for each of his books. For Someone to Run With, he spent months with homeless youth. For To the End of the Land he walked the same 500 km trail as his protagonist: the Israel Trail.
Speaking of walking, Grossman confessed that he has to walk when he writes. Not only does he take long daily walks, but he gets up from his desk and paces a corridor when he is working.
Grossman reassured us with the familiar — each of us shapes a story of our lives, a story that we refine over the years and present to people. But at some point in our lives we may realize that the story doesn’t fit, or is no longer relevant. The adult does not need to be a victim of childhood trauma, for example. We need not collaborate with this story that we have been telling for decades. This is true for a society, for a country, he pointed out. A country need not stick to its myths. A country can create a new story for itself, and its citizens can stop collaborating with the old story. Talking about the narrator in A Horse Walks into a Bar, Grossman mentioned his fondness for the second chance, the chance to right a past wrong, the chance to do the right thing this time, or as he put it, “the sweetness of the second chance.” Applied to a country, the idea seems very optimistic.
For 25 years Grossman had the idea for the novel A Horse Walks into a Bar, but he didn’t know how to tell the story, or as he put it, “I didn’t have the melody.” And then one day the core story about a boy’s magical thinking regarding the death of a parent clicked with a narrator who needed to right a past wrong, who needed a second chance. But why tell this sensitive tale, this painful story, through a stand-up comedian? “The language of humour is a wonderful way not to be a victim.”
And at last, Grossman the peace activist was provoked to speak. The interviewer reminded him that 50 years have passed since his book about Palestinians was published (for which Grossman spent three months in the West Bank, in refugee camps, at risk to himself), just before the Intifada: The Yellow Wind (1988). Does he now think the situation is better or worse?
Grossman said that the two sides hate each other more, that Israel will do something to hurt the Palestinians even if it hurts itself. “We behave in a suicidal way.” He said “the consequences of no peace are destructive to Israel.” He argued that the occupation erodes the basic idea of democracy, by removing the idea that everyone is equal.
Grossman explained that the Jew was someone who never felt at home in the world. In Israel they thought they would be safe, sheltered, but they are not. “We are a traumatized community.” A community that needs a sweet second chance, that needs to rewrite its story.
The vigorous applause at the end, which compelled him to stand and bow, seemed to me not only for his words that night but for all the times he has spoken for peace. Applause in empathy for his son who died in the Second Lebanon War in July 2006, applause for his “meticulous research”, applause for his courage in speaking out, and yes, applause for the way he walks himself into his books.
Read an excerpt of A Horse Walks into a Bar on his publisher’s website: Jonathan Cape/Penguin.
- “The Unconsoled” by George Packer in The New Yorker (September 27, 2010).
- “Is David Grossman’s Pen Mightier than Israel’s Sword?” by Amanda Borschel-Dan Times of Israel (April 3, 2017).
- Review of A Horse Walks into a Bar by William Skidelsky in The Guardian (December 11, 2016).
- “Will the Israeli Right Finally Come to its Senses?” by David Grossman in Haaretz (August 4, 2015).
by Debra Martens