TPR Challenge #9 - David Grossman

Truly, I didn't expect this TPR Challenge thing to bear so much fruit.  When I undertook to read the 64 interviews with some notable companion piece by the interviewee, I expected to have some disappointments.  They may still come, but so far, the whole experience has been more about surprising discoveries, new perspectives, and a greater sense of engagement with the work and the writer. 

My acute awareness of all things David Grossman sprang up only after seeing him in this collection; this post chronicles my transformation from ingenue to stalker and shows how long ago I began to think about To the End of the Land.  I read that New Yorker piece on him, and I think I fell a little bit in love with him before even reading the book.  And though my reading of it lingered and languished for over a month, I have really enjoyed walking this path with Ora and Avram, even as I was confounded and confused by them. 

In the book, Ora decides to walk the Israel Trail while her son Ofer is serving in the IDF.  His mandatory service was complete, and he was supposed to accompany Ora on this walk as a celebration of his release.  Instead, he chooses to reenlist, and she undertakes this walk in an effort to will his continued safety.  Her thinking is if I am not at home to receive the news of his death, he simply cannot die.  She takes with her Avram, a former lover and her husband Ilan's dearest friend, and as they journey together, we learn about Ora's family and Avram's relationship with it, about motherhood and brotherhood, and about the impossibilities of war.  Like Ora, Grossman was exercising his own brand of paternal protection during the writing of this book.  He wrote the bulk of it while his middle son Uri was completing his mandatory tour of duty in the IDF, and he felt that his act of writing could save his son from harm.  It did not work for Grossman; Uri was killed in battle before the book was completed.  Grossman explains in the New Yorker article that his son's death shattered them and made him fear the book could not be saved.  But Grossman's friend writer Amos Oz responded, "The book will save you."  Though it was unable to protect Uri, perhaps the book was able to protect Grossman from further damage.  Perhaps it allowed him to heal and hurt all at the same time.

As this was a library book, I didn't underline or annotate, but I actually didn't feel the urge to do so too often.  When I did, I recorded some favorite passages in a reading journal, and with a writer like Grossman, you soon appreciate the ability to just bracket out a long passage.  Because they are all long passages.  The first I wrote down is one gorgeous sentence that meanders but makes a fantastic point.  In it, Ora is discussing her Arab "friend" and driver, Sami:
Yet still, when Sami used his Arabesque Hebrew to undermine the long-winded, indignant, greedy pretenses of both Jews and Arabs, when he skewered the leaders of both peoples on a sharp Arab saying that often aroused from the depths of her memory the equivalent idiom in her father's Yiddish, she sometimes experienced a subtle latency, as if in the course of talking with him she suddenly discovered that the end, the end of the whole big story, must be good, and good it would be, if only because the clumsy, round-faced man sitting beside her was able to preserve within his fleshly thickness a flame of delicate irony, and mainly because he still managed to be himself within all this. (55)
Sami is a fascinating character, and I missed him once Ora began her walk.  In fact, one of the few critiques I can muster about this book is how the ending is so completely unresolved.  It's not that I expected a tidy homecoming; I know with certainty there could be none.  However, I hoped we would be able to see something of her return to her former life.  I wanted to know if Sami had managed to remain himself, but though she thinks of him briefly at a few moments during the walk, he is abandoned in the end with no further consideration.  I think the ending had to be so unresolved because Grossman himself was still so swathed in grief that he couldn't or wouldn't imagine for Ora a way out of that place of fear and anger and uncertainty.  He couldn't make her pain as tangible as his.

I was pleased to find two convincing birth stories here.  Ora recounts the birth of both her sons during the hike, and the details, though interesting, are of mostly externalized elements.
I yelled for Ilan, and he came in and just picked me up the way I was, and put me down on a bed in the corridor, and shouted for a nurse.  Together they pushed me, running, to the large delivery room, which by the way was where I had Adam (in the same room!), and three more pushes, he was out! (242)
Besides Ora's yell, all the action is either Ilan's, the nurse's, or passive (three more pushes).  Ora is not an active participant in this birth.  She describes it as though she were observing from a distance, as though Ofer birthed himself.  This tone is consistent with her role in much of the rest of the novel.  She is a mouthpiece, a teller of other peoples' stories, and even when she is involved in the action of the story, her part is muted, partitioned, and circumvented by the voices of the men in her life.  In the moments just before she went into labor, Ilan had been telling her a difficult story and almost raping her at the same time.  We hear Ilan's story as Ora tells it to Avram, but we read it from the omniscient narrator's point of view.  Ora is an actor in the story she is telling.  As Ilan finishes his story, we get the following narration:
His muscles relaxed.  His head plunged onto her neck, heavy as a rock.  His fingers slowly disengaged from her body and lay open in front of her face.  She did not move.  He slid out of her.  A moment went by, and then another.  He breathed heavily.  His face was up against her and he lay in an utterly helpless huddle.  A spasm when through her body. (513)
Ora is telling the story, but this is not Ora's voice.  In fact, for her supposedly incessant chatter at Avram, we rarely hear her speak.  Instead, we get the omniscient narrator's version of events, which means we can trust the facts but won't really know Ora as intimately as we perhaps should.

In the TPR interview, Grossman comments on his Be My Knife, which is apparently an epistolary novel that was originally comprised of letters between a man and a woman.  He recounts how he one day decided to remove all the woman's letters, to allow only the man's words to be read:
It was complicated because she was the engine behind the whole plot.  She creates him in a way, so it deeply upset me to take her out. (416)
Though he acknowledges her centrality to the story, he still chooses to take her out.  With Ora, she is the most present of physical beings, but her thoughts and opinions are often drowned out by all the men around her.

As usual, the interview provides a few thoughtful morsels of writing advice or truths to guide a would-be writer.  I especially liked his anecdote about tucking his son in on the solstice and explaining it would be the longest night of the year.  In the morning, his son ran in bursting with relief that the night had at last ended.
Can you imagine what landscapes he had wandered through all night?  Because he did not take it for granted that the sun would ever rise again.  When I write, I try to bring myself to this point.  I want to be betrayed, to be taken to a dangerous place that jars the basic presumptions I have about myself, my family, my country. (430)
I like his bravery here, his willingness to allow the story to take him somewhere unexpected.  I appreciate this kind of journey as a reader as well.  And though I'm not sure his To the End of the World took me to that point of betrayal, of change-making, I'm equally not sure if I will ever stop asking questions of it and probing my memory of it for answers.


  1. I've been curious about Grossman since reading the TPR interview with him as well, and you have me intrigued about To the End of the Land, especially as I remember the parts of the interview addressing the death of Grossman's son. And on a slightly different note, it's awesome that the TPR Challenge is turning out so well for you so far!

  2. Emily: Even though my post left me feeling somewhat less pleased with the book, my overall reflection on it was tremendously positive. I just don't know what to make of the marginalization of women that might or might not be rearing its head.

    I'm looking forward to the next batch of TPRs. I've got some planning to do to figure out how to proceed. I did note the Pamuk on The Wolves' list, so I'll probably save that one to tag in with you all in July.