The Long Walk to Despair: David Grossman's New Book Elevates Grief

Unlike 'To the End of the Land,' which depicts, finally, an anguished hope, Grossman’s latest novel reads like an elegy.

“Falling Out of Time,” by David Grossman (translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen). Alfred A. Knopf, 208 pages, $24.95

In August 2006, shortly before a cease-fire in the Second Lebanon War, David Grossman’s son, Uri, was killed when his armored vehicle was hit by a Hezbollah anti-tank missile. Only two days earlier, Grossman and fellow Israeli novelists and peace activists A. B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz had held a press conference at which they urged their government to accept an immediate armistice in order to work toward a negotiated peace. “We had a right to go to war,” Grossman said, “but things got complicated.”

That’s easy to imagine. Much harder to imagine is how complicated things must have become in Grossman’s heart and mind when he received the news of his son’s death. As he put it in his Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture, delivered in New York in 2007, “The consciousness of the disaster that befell me upon the death of my son ... now permeates every minute of my life. The power of memory is indeed great and heavy, and at times has a paralyzing effect. Nevertheless, the act of writing creates for me a ‘space’ of sorts, an emotional expanse that I have never known before, where death is more than the absolute, unambiguous opposite of life.”

News of his son’s death came when the writer was three years into crafting his deservedly acclaimed novel “To the End of the Land.” That story focuses on Ora, a woman who tries to keep her soldier son alive by engaging in frenetic and superstitious thinking. She determines that a walk – a very long walk – will keep her away from home when the army “notifiers,” the bearers of bad news, arrive. If Ora is not “present” to hear of her son’s death, she will, she believes, magically prevent it. In his afterword, Grossman admitted that in the months after learning of his loss, he rewrote “The End of the Land,” now with his own grief implicit in every line. The rewriting, he said, served him initially as a kind of escape, even perhaps a fantastical denial of Uri’s death, parallel to Ora’s walk.

Grossman’s slender new novel, “Falling Out of Time” (published three years ago in Hebrew, and his ninth available in English translation), also involves a walk. Unlike “To the End of the Land,” however, which depicts, finally, an anguished hope, Grossman’s latest book reads like an elegy, one that permits the reader, the writer and the walkers “a ‘space’ of sorts” to experience the freedom of despair. Absence and presence, memories painful and lovely, indeed death and life themselves, comingle in a walk that builds to something resembling a mystical dance, sometimes swift, surprising and unsettling, but just as often slow, spiritually satisfying and ultimately liberating.

The walk begins when a man, unnamed, announces to his wife that he is leaving on a journey, to go “there,” in search of his dead son:

I have to go.

Where?

To him.

Where?

To him, there.

To the place where it happened?’

No, no. There.

What do you mean, there?

I don’t know.

You’re scaring me.

Just to see him once more.

But what could you see now? What is left to see?

I might be able to see him there. Maybe even talk to him?

Talk?!

The man, referred to throughout as the “Walking Man,” marches slowly around his town in ever-widening circles. One after another, he meets villagers who have also lost their children, and who join him on his dream-like journey. The Net Mender and the Midwife, an Elderly Math Teacher and the Duke, and the Town Chronicler, “hired” to investigate the grief so evident in the neighborhood, follow the Walking Man. And they are observed by a writer nicknamed “Centaur” (whose reflections appear most like Grossman’s own).

The walkers evolve into a community of the bereaved, and they ask piercing questions: What is death? Who are we? Can we get “there” from “here?” And, indeed, is there a “there” there? If at times the group appears lost and confused, it is because its quest is within. But Grossman’s walkers console one another, taking comfort in the metaphysical and existential involvement in death, in an absence that seems paradoxically to “age with the years” and yet also happens “outside time.”

When words flow again

The early silence between the Walking Man and the Wife Who Stayed Home, the absence of speech among the mourners in motion, seem soothing; but Grossman gives us to understand that words, spoken and written, are necessary. And when words flow again, the process is not without an understandable ambivalence. The Centaur, who regains the ability to put pen to paper, declares:

Yet still it breaks my heart,

my son,

to think

that I have –

that one could –

that I have found

the words….

I understand, almost

the meaning of

the sounds: the boy

is dead.

The operative word, which will no doubt blindside readers, is the understated, heartrending “almost.”

The fiercely imaginative “Falling Out of Time” ought to have something of a familiar feel to those who follow the writer’s work. Grossman’s debut novel, “The Smile of the Lamb” (Hebrew publication 1983) – the first English-translated Israeli novel I know of to be set in the West Bank – features a young soldier who befriends, but is soon held hostage by, an elderly, virtually blind Palestinian teller of strange, circuitous tales. Though beguilingly languid, the tales are relentlessly compelling, even haunting. Grossman’s second novel, “See Under: Love” (1986), is a brave and brilliant experiment in creative reimagination. It begins with an Israeli child growing up saturated in memories of the Holocaust, and before it ends with a weird and fanciful set of encyclopedia entries about the heroes of children’s books, it rescues the Polish writer Bruno Schulz, himself a master stylist (“The Street of Crocodiles”), from death by turning him into a salmon.

“Falling Out of Time” resembles a prose poem or a play more than it does a novel, as it returns repeatedly to questions about the nature and meaning of loss. Like a religious incantation, this extraordinary work helps persuade us that “death is more than the … opposite of life,” and that “the power of memory,” though “great and heavy,” need not always have “a paralyzing effect.”

Grossman told an interviewer for The Paris Review in 2007 that he occasionally likes to write an “entertaining” book – “The Zigzag Kid” (1994), for example. But Grossman takes literature seriously, and when he writes “a certain kind of book,” such as “Falling Out of Time,” he is “dealing with explosives,” the kind that can change a reader’s life,” and the author’s, too. To write these books, Grossman said he needs “to go to the place within me that is cracked, that is fragile, that is not taken for granted. I come out of these books devastated.” He doesn’t complain, however, because, as he puts it, “this is how books should be written.” Indeed.

Gerald Sorin is a professor of American and Jewish studies at the State University of New York, New Paltz. His most recent book, “Howard Fast: Life and Literature in the Left Lane” (Indiana University Press), won a National Jewish Book Award.