The Essential David Grossman: Six Books for Understanding Israel’s First Man Booker Prize Winner

Required reading: Grossman's fiction often returns to the themes of childhood, grief and solitude, while his non-fiction shines a spotlight on the dilemmas of life in Israel

Israeli author David Grossman poses for a photograph with his book A Horse Walks Into a Bar at the photocall for the Man Booker International Prize at St James' Church in London on June 13, 2017.
David Grossman with his book "A Horse Walks Into a Bar," the winner of the Man Booker International Prize in London, June 13, 2017. DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP

Israeli author David Grossman may have just been awarded one of the most prestigious international literary awards, the Man Booker International Prize, but he has long been a member of the pantheon of the country’s greatest writers – along with other Man Booker nominees Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua.

Grossman’s fictional works often return to the themes of childhood, grief and solitude, while his non-fiction shines a spotlight on the dilemmas of life in Israel, the ongoing dispute with the Palestinians, occupation and the loneliness that comes with being a leftist.

“I write, and I feel how the correct and precise use of words is sometimes like a remedy to an illness,” Grossman wrote in “Writing in the Dark: Essays on Literature and Politics.”

“I write and I feel how the tenderness and intimacy I maintain with language, with its different layers, its eroticism and humor and soul, give me back the person I used to be, me, before my self became nationalized and confiscated by the conflict, by governments and armies, by despair and tragedy.”

Here are six essential works by Grossman that exemplify the range of his immense talent.

“The Book of Intimate Grammar” (1994)

Aron Kleinfeld is on the cusp of puberty and Israel is heading into the Six-Day War when this book, about a lost world of childhood, opens. Sensitive and creative, Aron is a dreamer who employs various tactics – including a Houdini act in which he locks himself in a trunk – to escape his dysfunctional family, which lives in a poor Jerusalem housing project, and his friends who are quickly maturing. Trapped in the body of a child for three years, Aron develops a “book of intimate grammar,” a private language that helps him cope with his changing reality. “It was like being in a glass bubble, every second lasted an hour, and the secrets of time were revealed,” Aron confesses. The book was adapted into an award-winning film directed by Nir Bergman.

"Someone to Run With" (2003)

Also adapted into an award-winning film, this best-seller in Israel blends a mystery that begins with a lost dog in Jerusalem with young adult romance and angst. Assaf and Tamar are two teenagers who have never met, but whose lives are inextricably linked when he finds her yellow Labrador retriever wandering the streets. The dog leads him on a wild journey across the city, and into its seedy underground, to find Tamar, a runaway and singer who’s trying to save a drug-addicted friend. It’s a coming-of-age tale about overcoming fear and finding true friendship that is not as cheesy as that sounds.

"Writing in the Dark: Essays on Literature and Politics" (2008)

Grossman is just as renowned for his left-wing politics as he is for his fictional works, and this compilation of essays and speeches includes one he made about the disastrous 2006 Second Lebanon War, in which his son Uri was killed, along with ruminations on Israel’s sense of victimhood and his efforts to understand the “other.”

The collection illustrates the complicated, often critical, relationship Grossman has with Israel and its people. As he put it, “I write the life of my land, Israel. The land that is tortured, frantic, drugged by an overdose of history, excessive emotions that cannot be contained by any human capacity, extreme events and tragedies, enormous anxiety and paralyzing sobriety, too much memory, failed hopes and the circumstances of a fate unique among all nations: an existence that sometimes appears to be a story of mythical proportions, a story that is ‘larger than life’ to the point that something seems to have gone wrong with the relation it bears to life itself. A country that has become tired of the possibility of ever leading the standard, normal life of a country among countries, a nation among nations.”

"To the End of the Land" (2010)

This best-seller focuses on a subject that Israeli parents, including Grossman, know all too well: The anxiety and fear that comes with having your child in the army, particularly during times of war. The novel tells the story of Ora, a mother whose soldier son is returned to the front lines during a major offensive, and who embarks on an epic hike to avoid receiving any bad news about him. Grossman began writing this novel in May 2003, about a year and a half before his younger son, Uri, enlisted in the Israeli army. In a note at the book’s conclusion, Grossman writes, “At the time, I had the feeling — or rather, a wish — that the book I was writing would protect him. On Aug. 12, 2006, in the final hours of the Second Lebanon War, Uri was killed in Southern Lebanon.” By then, this book was mostly finished. “What changed, above all, was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written.”

"The Hug" (2013)

Grossman’s illustrated children’s book made headlines recently when Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s wife, Nechama, gave it to U.S. First Lady Melania Trump for her son, Barron, when she and the U.S. president visited Israel. In a Facebook post, Ms. Rivlin wrote: “It was important for me to give Barron, who remained at home and is only 11 years old, a souvenir from his parents’ visit to Israel.”

The book, about a mother and son, reiterates some of Grossman’s larger themes of childhood, loneliness and the force of a parent’s love. Ben, the boy, realizes that all living creatures are different from one another and feels a pang of aloneness. “Everyone is a little alone, but also together,” his mother tells him, reassuring him with a hug. This sweet story that’s not entirely just for kids is illustrated by renowned Israeli artist Michal Rovner.

"A Horse Walks Into a Bar" (2017)

The novel for which Grossman was awarded the Man Booker International Prize unfurls the life of stand-up comic Dov Greenstein over the course of one evening’s gig. Our reviewer called it “an Israeli offspring of Philip Roth’s ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ and Dostoyevsky’s ‘Notes from the Underground.’” After kicking off his set with some off-color jokes, Dov homes in on his real subject. As our review put it: “In fits and starts, he tells the story of his boyhood: the father — a barber and schmattes-man — who beat him; the Holocaust-haunted mother who still carries ‘all kinds of baggage from there’; their awkward, scrawny son who walked on his hands to confound the neighborhood bullies. No longer an actor, Dov takes shape before his audience as a man trapped in his own tragic tale. Soon Dov’s shtick is no longer a comedy routine but a kind of emotional striptease — as irreverent as what went before — in which Dov pares himself down to his essentials.”