In the beginning, there was the voice. David Grossman’s young, raspy, seductive voice narrating the early afternoon kids’ radio show Hatul Basak (Cat in the Bag) we all listened to religiously while our parents took their nap before going back to work. There was something assuring, and self-assured, about that voice. It was the voice of someone who spoke from within the consensus and had no scruples about narrating reality according to the mainstream ethos—a voice reminiscent of one’s admired counselor in the youth movement or commander at basic training. The same sense of responsible-authority resonated in His first collection of short stories, Ratz (Runner) written in an almost paralyzing precision of an old master dwelling in the body of a young man. All the elements of Grossman’s work were there already: The great attention to detail; the sense of emotional detachment; a taste for the perverse and the almost overbearing presence of an author who nominated himself to be society’s moral compass.
It is hard to describe the literary explosion that was See Under: Love (1986). The feeling was that modern Hebrew literature was redefined, its parameters and boundaries sharply redrawn. Grossman, already a darling of the literary circles, was catapulted overnight to the status of a literary icon. From here on every word that he said or published carried a special gravity, and Grossman never hesitated to use his words and serve as the voice of the secular, liberal Israeli elite, by then past its political prime and soon to lose its absolute cultural hegemony as well. The Yellow Wind (1987), a written documentary of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the occupation, is an important cultural document, incredibly powerful but at the same time rendered totally ineffectual by the new political and cultural circumstances. As Grossman, and the sinking social class whose voice he carried, lost their real power to change or shape Israel’s reality, his literary work became more escapist in some senses (see his wonderful children’s books and young-adult novels) and more perverse in others. This trend peaked in the monstrous Be My Knife (2001), a novel that verged on the psychopathic and lost him many of his avid readers (myself included.) In hindsight, one cannot but think that the frenzied, alienating, absurd writing of that terrible novel was a form of a breakdown—a collapse of the famous moral compass whose directions society no longer followed.
“Perverse” and “monstrous” are also the terms that come mind when describing the terrible twist of fate that took the life of Grossman’s beloved son Uri in the short and brutal Second Lebanon War of 2006, a war against which Grossman was the main speaker. Another terrible twist of irony was the thematic proximity between the tragedy of Uri’s death and the plot of Grossman’s epic novel To the End of the Land (2008), in which a woman is running away lest she gets the terrible tidings of her son’s death in a war. Grossman, who started writing this novel at 2003, three years before his own son’s death in the war, referred to this harrowing irony in the novel’s afterword: “I had a feeling—a wish, to be precise—that by writing this book I could perhaps shield my own son.”
Grossman’s latest novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar (2014), is monstrous in its own right, and brilliantly so. Far from serving as the voice of the consensus, Grossman lends his disintegrating words to his most marginal protagonist yet, the ultimate loser, a failed standup comedian who mentally falls apart on the stage in what seems to be his last show. The wild success of this novel, that went beyond anyone’s dreams and won the 2017 Man-Booker Prize, is yet another ironic twist of karma, as is Grossman’s recent winning the Israel Prize for a lifetime achievement in the field of literature. So far from being the voice of the Israeli collective ethos, like he was in his (and our) youth, Grossman is now the representative of a small, and not necessarily loved, political and cultural minority. Celebrated yet deeply wounded, torn between his worldwide fame and his terrible loss, Grossman is standing on the stage like the protagonist of his latest, and probably best, novel, singing the swan’s song of his defeated generation. My heart goes to him as he stands there, alone with his shattered voice, telling what may be his final tale.