Review: Niva Kaspion David Grossman

Standing Up for Soul-Searching

‘I want you to look at me,’ he spurted. ‘I want you to see me, really see me, and then afterwards tell me.’

‘Tell you what?’

‘What you saw.’

In June 2017, Israeli author David Grossman and his English translator, Jessica Cohen, were awarded the Man Booker International Prize for the novel Sus Echad Nichnas Lebar, first published in Hebrew in 2014 and published in Cohen’s English translation as A Horse Walks into A Bar in 2016. Why did one of Israel’s most distinguished authors, the darling of that country’s intellectual Left, cross over to the world of stand-up comedy, shocking even his most loyal fans with his command of the vernacular, if not the outright vulgar?

Grossman’s readers should have learned to expect the unexpected. From a story written as a glossary of encyclopaedic definitions, through an epistolary love affair that turns nasty, to a poetic rendition of grief and the afterlife – and now the stand-up routine, Grossman has searched widely for the right literary frame to showcase an ineffable ‘real’. Grossman – both author and activist – yearns for a language that is dynamic, particular, and inventive, and well-defined genres can often dictate such unexpected vocabularies. Such peculiar choices – in this case the comedy bar at the Netanya industrial zone – are ideal for staging the relationship between art and life, between what is said and what is expressed silently, and between actor and spectator.

The story reveals itself in precise doses: Dovaleh G. is a 57-year old stand-up comedian who, in the grip of an illness that is ravaging his body, has chosen tonight’s performance to put himself through a kind of trial. He invites an old childhood friend, now a retired judge, to pass a verdict on his character, and delivers a performance that gradually turns into a confession, involving his loss of a parent at the age of fourteen.

This second tale that permeates the comic script is a rendition of the workings of young Dovaleh’s mind during a long drive back to a home he knows will never be the same. As the show transgresses from the comic to the tragic and, at times, to the grotesque, some in the audience grow agitated, demanding more laughs for their shekels.

Grossman appropriates the stand-up comedy format to stage Dovaleh’s story as a chorus of multiple voices; there are jokes, memories, rants, howls, and there are also, as always in Grossman, narratives to be decoded from an elaborate choreography of the body. The performer responds to the audience’s cheers and boos, and to the stern gaze of the judge, who is also the novel’s narrator, scribbling his impressions on a paper napkin from a side-table.

Dovaleh toys with the rules of the genre so that his mix of scripted monologues, improvisation, and audience participation, provokes some uneasy responses. The act includes some very funny lines as well as some unremarkable standard-issue gags. We get the familiar Frenchman, Italian and Jew boasting about sexually pleasing their wives, the lawyer facing the angel of death over billable hours, snail, parrot and koala strutting their stuff, the horse who walks into a bar, and a lengthy monologue about women’s bottoms that may get the audience laughing but has clearly seen better days. There are the audience put-downs, particularly in the onslaught of derogatory comments fired at the town of Netanya for its dubious reputation, and a range of taboo-breaking punchlines about the Holocaust, Arabs, settlers, and lefties.

The jokes are not always funny. Should they be? A few readers might join members of Dovaleh’s audience and yell: ‘What’s going on here? What is this crap?’ Perhaps they do not notice that the ‘conveyor belt on which the jokes emerge from [Dovaleh’s] mouth’ camouflages a pain so profound it is barely articulable. These jokes are as old as the showman’s trauma, dating back to the fateful day young Dovaleh is driven home from army-cadets camp to attend the funeral of one of his parents.

A mystery hangs so dense and suffocating within that military vehicle that the driver sees no other option but to test some of his jokes on Dovaleh in preparation for an upcoming contest at HQ. The driver offers Dovaleh the choice of any topic from his repertoire of ‘mothers-in-law, politics, Moroccans, lawyers, queers, animals’, and at first Dovaleh is stunned by the audacity of the proposition. His mind is busy doing ‘the most fucked-up, twisted accounting a person can make in his life’, performing the magical thinking that would from then on set him up to be a ‘scumbag with shit where his soul should be’. Then, when the thinking becomes intolerable, Dovaleh takes this ‘stay of execution’ and surrenders to the driver’s endearing, if somewhat excruciating, attempts to be funny.

I figured, what do I care? Let him go on like that all the way to Be’er Sheva, where they’ll tell me, they can’t not, that’s where the orphan thing will really start, but until we get there I have a reprieve, like I got pardoned, that’s how I felt, like I got a stay of execution for a few minutes.

Grossman is a public-intellectual, and for many Israelis the presence of this impeccably-mannered and incisive man calling for an end of Israeli occupation has become part of the nation’s cultural landscape. Entering public consciousness with a best-selling non-fiction exposé on the lives of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories Hazman Hatsahov (1987; Eng. The Yellow Wind, 1988, H. Watzman trans.), Grossman’s work has since been categorised in terms of its political engagement, with the label ‘the domestic novels’ reserved for his few ventures into the world of intimate relationships. Pale-skinned and born in 1954, Grossman is often mistaken to be, like Dovaleh and many of his fictional siblings, the son of Holocaust survivors.  That War from Over There, as his characters would call it, is carved into the author’s psyche, if not through biological lineage then certainly by a manifest and profound mental affinity, culminating in his seminal Holocaust novel Ayen Erech: ‘Ahava’ (1986; Eng. See Under: Love, 1989, B. Rosenberg, trans.).

Many readers find it difficult to immerse themselves in his last three novels without reflecting on the author’s personal tragedy. In 2006, Grossman’s son, Uri, was killed in a military operation in Lebanon, only days after the author, along with friends and fellow literary giants Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, publicly called for an urgent ceasefire.  At the time of Uri’s death, Grossman was completing a novel, Isha Borachat Me’Besorah (2008; Eng. To The End of The Land, 2010, J. Cohen trans.), which tells the story of Ora, a soldier’s mother, who escapes her home in Jerusalem in order to avoid the notification of her son’s death. Naturally, the novel was received as profoundly prophetic and biographical, but in its epic merging of the private with the political it is a compelling comment on the predicament of Israelis since the 1967 Occupation. To The End of The Land was followed by Nofel Michuts Lazman (2011; Eng. Falling Out of Time, 2014, J. Cohen trans.), a poetic inquiry into the nature of grief in the aftermath of the loss of a son.

The three novels published since Uri’s death, including A Horse Walks Into A Bar, put under the microscope the particles that make up a fatal, life-altering, ‘knock on the door’ moment. They join Grossman’s earlier texts in exploring the way in which a parallel, unscathed life-force – Dovaleh calls it a soul – insists on being kept alive. ‘Souls demand non-stop upkeep, don’t they? It never ends! Every single day, all day long, you gotta haul it in for servicing’, complains Dovaleh, adding that ‘the fucking pain-in-the-ass soul has demands up the wazoo! It’s even got its own union-rep!’.

The performer, then, lugs within him a detailed checklist of his broken soul-bits:

Heartache – one! And pangs of conscience – two! And messengers of evil – three! And nightmares and tossing and turning from fear of what’s going to happen and how it will go down – four!

Each night, he re-enacts a toxic contract with his audience; their money and exaltation for his gags. Bound by the rules of his craft, the artist’s inner torment is only allowed out as far as it can become material for the show, more often than not by twisting maliciously back against its bearer. Over years, the practice of scripting punchlines out of buried pain eats away at the showman, oozing from his ‘sunken belly with a horizontal scar, a narrow chest and frighteningly prominent ribs, the taught skin shrivelled and dotted with ulcers’, and in savage and shocking ‘leakages’ of self-aggression that burst from him like a ‘murky information that belonged somewhere completely different’. On the evening of his birthday, his ‘day of reckoning’, as he prepares for his grand finale, the artist is, almost literally, searching for his soul, for proof of this spark,  ‘the inner glow. Or inner darkness. The secret. The tremble of singularity. Everything that lies beyond the words that describe a person’.

The audience and readers experience Dovaleh’s private hell through this comedy but there is a parallel performance taking place, one that runs on a ‘private frequency’ between the judge and the performer. Powerful signals are exchanged via glances and gestures, pauses, sighs, and howls. The judge tunes in to every nuance of his old friend’s physical performance:

the audience laughs with relief – good old slapstick – and he gives them a threatening glare, but they laugh even harder. He finally deigns to smile, soaking up the laughs. That unexpected tenderness softens his face again, and the audience responds.

It is this kind of force that stirs the audience towards discomfort, anger and relief, eventually taking its hold on the judge, who notes, with some wonder, that his habitual detachment has gradually been replaced with anger, longing, and regret. The performance stirs urges and sensations that will eventually – against his professional code – determine a verdict.

I suspect he was aiming for exactly this murky sense of partnership that prickles deep in our guts and stirs up a sticky, messy pleasure both sickening and alluring– then the conductor gathers everyone’s voices into the palm of his hand with one sweep, and there is a moment of quiet, a musical pause, and I can practically feel him counting the beats to himself, one, two, three, four, and then he storms the front again.

The body, for Grossman, can alter reality with its extraordinary powers. In the words of baby Kazik who is given 24 hours in See Under: Love  to complete an entire lifecycle, the body is not just ‘a suitcase anonymously thrust into the hands of his soul’, but it could well be that ‘the suitcase was the important thing and the soul was subordinate to it’. Young Dovaleh transforms himself from the neighbourhood punching-bag into a ‘lunatic’ who no one messes with by flipping himself upside-down and walking on his hands. Ora keeps her son alive by obeying a single rule; to keep moving away from the news of his death. People’s shape, gait, and gestures are neither arbitrary nor trivial for an author who has said he must know his characters in an intimate, almost erotic sense, so he could better intuit the way they each fit into their private universe. Grossman’s titles alone – Baguf Ani Mevina (2002; Eng. Her Body Knows, 2005, J. Cohen trans.), Sefer Hadikduk Hapnimi (1991; Eng. The Book of Intimate Grammar, 1994, B. Rosenberg tans.), and Shetehi li Hasakin (1998; Eng. Be My Knife, 2001, V. Almog & M. Gurantz trans.) – convey his interest in the body as ‘the place words cannot reach’.

So, how can we possibly create a portrait, ‘only in words’, of,  say, the person we love, Ora asks. This is a question that is echoed by a multitude of Grossman characters. Grief, love, fear – these are all sensations that exist in what Walter Benjamin calls the ‘embryonic’ realm, beyond the reach of human languages, and to never stop wishing for that void between being and saying to vanish is part of the human condition. Grossman invites his readers to observe the translation of the physical substance into language through intimately following his many storytellers who draft and redraft, edit, reflect upon, annotate their self-doubt, and tentatively put forward their best version so it can be realised – be made real – in language.

Grossman helps language escape its inherent limitations by exploiting its structural, semantic, and cultural features. There is a sophisticated wonder and playfulness to Grossman’s dismemberment and reassembly of language, which is often achieved with the aid of some brilliantly imaginative child-character. The author devises new grammatical tenses, for example, by applying the English present continuous to Hebrew verbs to capture a child’s sense of his changing body (The Book of Intimate Grammar). He observes how euphemisms materialise in the literal mind of young Momik, who formulates a plan to lure and destroy a ‘Nazi Beast’ (See Under: Love). He turns nouns, often from the natural world, into verbs, to project Ora’s inner turmoil onto the landscape of the Galilee (To the End of the Land), and carefully picks words to provide her with a vivid soundtrack. Biblical phrases are coupled with contemporary slang, military jargon alongside lines from Kafka and Sholem Aleichem, Yiddish fraternises with Arabic – all in a carnival of Israeli-ness that celebrates language at the same time as it exposes its shortcomings.

Cohen’s wizardry in this and in other Grossman translations must be credited, for her texts elegantly carry the author’s literary thumbprint. If language is, like our baby Kazik’s body, a suitcase containing the essence to which it alludes, then Cohen demonstrates that with careful attention, one can substitute the casing whilst conserving the essence.

Linguistic virtuosity is but one example of Dovaleh’s genius. Another, is his reworking of the Pierrot character.  A number of masks do fall off by the end of the show, but Grossman reaches beyond the banal binaries of private/sad, public/happy to concentrate on the moment of shock that sends the inner self into such terror of its outer exposure. Comedy can salvage as well as destroy its practician, and the novel both rejoices in, and warns against, the hypnotic effect of a performance on both performer and spectators.

In this ‘peculiar contract’ between the artist and his audience, and, by implication, his readers, we find the author’s familiar social critique coded into the novel: There is a quintessential angry, unsympathetic mob, for whom this human tragedy is a total waste of time and money. There is a conscientious objector, the unassuming hero, Pitz, a ‘stubborn, odd little woman, a self-appointed warrior battling for the soul of a boy she knew decades ago and of whom almost no trace remains’. But perhaps most interesting is the conspicuous bystander for, in a sense, this entire show is a dialogue between those who suffer, and those who are too entrenched in their own positions to act. The judge’s early notes epitomise this aloof, cynical detachment, as he muses: ‘I can’t deny that he does have his moments on stage, too. When he hit himself, there was something there, I’m not sure what, some sort of alluring abyss that opened up’.

‘For fuck’s sake, Netanya South! I say funeral and you laugh? That’s your instinct around here?’ The audience responds with more laughter, but he doesn’t smile. He circles the stage, talking to himself and gesticulating. ‘What is the matter with these people? What kind of a person laughs at something like that?

Admittedly, not all spectators are ready to acquit Dovaleh, and some readers, too, are disturbed by Grossman’s tests. I was surprised, during a recent trip to Israel, by some erudite Grossman readers I met who confess to disliking Dovaleh and to feeling unpleasantly ambushed by the author’s turn of style. Although I do not share these sentiments, they do make me wonder whether Grossman anticipated these complaints, which the judge also levels at Dovaleh, that nothing good was going to come from a middle-aged man who uses a younger generation’s .

That’s it, no politics, no occupation, no Palestinians, no world, no reality, no two settlers walking down the Hebron Casbah. Oh, come on, Yoav, just one, just one last time . . .’

Grossman’s generic and stylistic choices may also serve his ideas on artistic freedom and political engagement. Dovaleh has a clear ‘no politics’ brief from venue-manager, Yoav. The comic, of course, ignores this brief in a gesture to the current cultural and political climate in Israel.

Israel today is a polarised society. The nationalist-conservative government seems to have an unshakable political majority, but the left-wing, of which, as mentioned before, Grossman is emblematic, is perceived as being in control of the country’s culture, academia and the press. Increasingly, bureaucrats have been withdrawing support from artists and works of art that are deemed disloyal or offensive to the state. This has caused a furore among those who are deeply opposed to such censorship, including Grossman, who vented his misgivings in a speech he boldly directed at the Israeli Minister for Culture and the Arts. But censorship appears in many forms, including ones sponsored by some well-meaning liberals who may have liked to cleanse parts of Dovaleh’s act. In light of Grossman’s lifelong political and artistic commitment to open dialogue, I speculate on whether Grossman has used the comedy genre, and Dovaleh’s crass, taboo-breaking strain in particular, to exemplify to those within and without his own camp the transformative virtues of unhindered artistic expression, even when it makes us uneasy, repulsed, or enraged.