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Books That Have Read Me

The works that shaped my imagination

David Meir Grossman
October 23, 2008

An unforgettable scene in Fellini’s film Roma depicts the discovery of an ancient catacomb filled with breathtaking murals. But when the murals are exposed to the spotlights of the researchers and camera crew, they fade and quickly vanish.

* * *

Explaining the process of inspiration, for me, is like trying to explain what occurs in a dream. In both cases we must resort to using words to describe an experience that by nature resists definition. In both cases we can rationally analyze the events and consider, for example, the themes and characters that may have influenced the dreamer and the needs that led him to conjure up these particular influences rather than others in his dream. But we will always feel that the essence of the dream, its secret, the unique glimmer of contact between the dreamer and the dream, remains an impenetrable riddle.

I remember what I experienced when I felt I was under the rays of a vast and inspiring literary power—when I read Kafka’s Metamorphosis, for example, or Yaakov Shabtai’s Past Continuous, or Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers. I have no doubt that some part of me, perhaps my innermost core, seemed to be in the realm of a dream. There was a similar intrinsic logic, and a direct dialogue conducted with the deepest and most veiled contents of my soul, almost without the mediation of consciousness.

When I talk, then, of this or the other author and how he or she touched my life and influenced my writing, I know that it is merely the story I tell myself today, in a waking state, under the spotlights, filtered through the natural sifting process of memory.

* * *

When I was eight years old, my father suggested that I read Sholem Aleichem’s Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor’s Son. Father himself had been a child in the Galician shtetl of Dynow, just a few miles from Lemberg, otherwise known as Lvov. Like Mottel, he had lost his father at a young age and lived with his brothers and sisters and hardworking widowed mother.

Father, who immigrated to Palestine in 1936, did not talk much about his childhood. Only rarely was the curtain drawn to reveal a strange, enchanting, intangible world, almost like a shadow theater. Then I could see my father as a little boy, sitting in the cheder opposite a stern teacher who used to fix broken china during class, binding the pieces together with wire. I could see Father at the age of four, walking home from the cheder in the dark, lighting his way with a candle stuck inside half a radish—nature’s candlestick. I could see the doctor bringing a precious remedy for my grandfather’s ailment as he lay on his deathbed: a paper-thin slice of watermelon. And I could see my father looking out the window.

Father handed me Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor’s Son (in Y.D. Berkowitz’s Hebrew translation), and I read the title of the first chapter while he held the book in his hands—“Today’s a Holiday—Weeping Is Forbidden!”—and then the following words: “I bet no one was so delighted with the warm sunny days following Passover as I, Mottel, the son of Peissi the Cantor, and as the neighbor’s calf, ‘Menie’ (as I, Mottel, have named him).”

I did not understand a word of what I read, and yet there was something there. I took the book from my father’s hands and climbed up onto the windowsill, my favorite reading place. Outside was Beit Mazmil, where the residents were trying to accustom themselves to the neighborhood’s newly ordained Hebrew name, Kiryat Yovel. It was a cluster of apartment buildings whose occupants had made their way from seventy exiles and who argued in seventy languages. The dwellers of the tin-shack neighborhood, whom we called asbestonim, looked on enviously at those who were lucky enough to get a tiny apartment in one of the buildings. There were young couples who confronted life with determined optimism, and Holocaust survivors who walked the streets like shadows and whom we children feared.

“Together we basked in the first warm sunrays of the first mild after-Passover days; together we breathed in the fragrance of the first tender blades of grass that burst through the newly bared earth; and together we crept out of dark narrow prisons to greet the first sunny spring morning. I, son of Peissi the Cantor, emerged from a cold damp cellar which always smells of sour dough and medicines. And Menie, the neighbor’s calf, was released from an even worse odor—a small filthy stall, dark and muddy, with crooked battered walls which let in snow in winter and rain in summer.”

“Do you like it?” my father asked. “Read, read, it’s just how things were with us.” And perhaps because of the expression on his face at that moment, I had a sudden illumination: I realized that for the first time, he was inviting me over there, giving me the keys to the tunnel that would lead from my childhood to his.

* * *

It was a peculiar tunnel. One end was in Jerusalem, in the young State of Israel, which believed that its strength depended partly on its ability to forget so that it could cobble together a new identity for itself. And the other end was in the land of Over There.

From the moment I stepped into that land I could not leave. I was eight, and within a few months I had devoured all of Sholem Aleichem’s writings that existed in Hebrew at the time—the children’s stories, the writings for adults, and the plays. When I reread the works before writing this piece, I was amazed to discover how little I could have understood as a child, and how powerfully the things beyond the visible text must have worked on me. Because what could an eight- or nine-year-old have understood about Rachel’s tormented love for Stempenyu? Or the political views that Sholem Aleichem gave to a detached and wayward Jewish character like Menachem Mendel, or to his complete opposite, Tevye the Milkman? What did I know about the life of yeshiva students who ate at the table of a different homeowner each day of the week? About the hostility between the “landlord” class and the workers, or about the conflict between the Zionists and the Bundists?

I did not know, I did not understand, but something inside me would not allow me to let go of the inscrutable stories, written in a Hebrew I had never encountered before. I read like someone entering a completely foreign world that was, at the same time, a promised land. In some sense, I felt that I was coming home. And it all worked its magic on me in a muddled way: the words with the biblical ring, the characters, the customs, the ways of life, and the fact that the page numbers were marked with letters rather than numbers, as in Bialik and Rawnitzky’s Book of Legends. Even the smell of the pages was dense and so different from the scent of the other books I read—translations of The Famous Five and The Secret Seven, The Paul Street Boys and Kajtus´ the Wizard, the works of Erich Kestner and Jules Verne, and Israeli books like Shraga Gafni’s adventure stories, Eliezer Smoli’s Frontiersmen of Israel, the adventures of the secret agent named Oz Yaoz, books by Nachum Gutman, and anything else I could get my hands on.

Parenthetically I will add that I belong to a generation that was accustomed to reading texts in which they did not understand every single word. In the early 1960s we read books in archaic and poetic Hebrew; we read translations from the 1920s and ’30s that did not employ our daily language at all. The incomprehensibility imposed on us was certainly a barrier to fluid reading, but in hindsight I think that part of my reading experience in that period came from this very same incomprehensibility: the mystery and the exoticism of words with an odd ring, and the pleasure of inferring one thing from another. I note this because most children’s books today (and children’s magazines even more so) are written at the readers’ eye level and ear level, if not lower, usually preferring the simplest—and sometimes the most simplistic—words possible, often favoring slang. Of course this has many advantages and perhaps results in a broader readership, yet I miss the reading experience of my own childhood, when in the course of reading, the child would fill in linguistic gaps and unwittingly acquire a large and rich vocabulary, learning to view language as an entity with a life of its own.

* * *

**pagebreak next=”I met moneylenders and usurers, and robbers who attack you in the woods at night.”**Inside the six volumes of Sholem Aleichem—a collection of small red books published by Dvir—I discovered the most imaginative world I had ever found in any book. It was a world that was neither heroic nor grand, ostensibly containing nothing that could draw the heart of a child. But it spoke to me, and must have given voice to a longing, a real hunger, that I had not even imagined before. I read about cunning matchmakers, tailors, and water-drawers; about tutors (melamdim) and pupils (dardakim) in the cheder; about priests and laundresses and snuff-takers and smugglers. I read about sheepskin mantles and peasant overcoats. I met moneylenders and usurers, and robbers who attack you in the woods at night. There were places called Kasrilevke and Yehupitz, and people called Hersh Leib, Shneyer, Menachem Mendel, Ivan Pichkur, and Father Alexei. Strangest of all was that Jews lived together with goyim. What did this mean? Why did they want to live with these dangerous goyim? Why did Tevye’s daughter Chavaleh marry a goy? And why did the goyim throw Tevye out of his home, and how was it possible so simply, with the wave of an arm, to uproot a man from his home and his life and tell him, “Go”?

Incidentally, I did not fully comprehend the meaning of the word goy, and the term “Christian” was also a little vague. I am fairly certain that until the age of nine I was positive—perhaps like many children—that “Christian” (in Hebrew, notzri) was a type of Egyptian (in Hebrew, mitzri). Either way, they were both “the enemy.”

* * *

Everything in the stories amazed and daunted and attracted me: the sense of a tenuous existence; the suffering embedded in the everyday; the constant fear of pogroms or “hunts”; the fluent dialogue with God, almost like small talk; and the absolute authority of dreams and their meanings. There was also the constant presence of the dead, a series of “patriarchs” and “matriarchs” with whom people conversed on a daily basis even if they had been dead for years. And the experience of total dependence on despots, the fatalism, the physical weakness, the compassion—even toward those who hate you—and the irony, and again and again the peculiar intimacy with calamity, the calamity that always hovered over everyone’s head so that its imminence was never in doubt.

It is worth noting that I did not know any other children who read Sholem Aleichem. When I excitedly told my best friend in the neighborhood about my new experience, he gave me a sideways look and his lips began to curl into a smirk. I quickly changed the subject, but the incident forced me to make increased efforts in such pursuits as suicidal leaps from trees and climbing up tall cranes, all to clear my briefly sullied name. Very quickly, with a child’s instinct—a survivor’s instinct—I realized that the shtetl must remain my secret world, to be shared with no one.

* * *

Between the ages of eight and ten I was a double agent from “here” to Over There and back again. I conducted an intensive life in both realities, experiencing with great enthusiasm all that life in Israel of the early 1960s had to offer—a spirited existence that was both miserable and miraculous. Like most children in the neighborhood, I worked tirelessly to expose Arab spies (half the country was busy with that) and spent days in physical training so that I could either make it onto the Israeli team that would defeat the evil Germans or get into the paratroopers. But whenever possible I dived back into my Jewish shtetl, which was becoming more and more tangible, comprehensible, and relevant to me, animating within me some Jewish note—that was at the same time very diasporic—giving it a voice and sensations, and a clear existence in my world.

* * *

The odd thing was that all that time I was convinced that the world of Sholem Aleichem—the world of the Eastern European shtetl—continued to exist alongside my own. Not that I dwelled much on the question of its existence or lack thereof in reality: its literary form was so bold and vital that it never even occurred to me to ponder its subsistence outside the pages of the six volumes. But in the recesses of my mind it was clear to me that this world did indeed live on somewhere out there, with its various laws and institutions, its special language, and its mystery. It was a world always accompanied by a sad yet smiling melody, a lamentation resigned to the loss—but the loss of what? That I did not know.

And then when I was about nine and a half, in the midst of a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, one of those clumsy, hackneyed, repetitive rituals that are so helpless in the face of the thing itself, in the face of that unfathomable number, six million . . .

It struck me all at once. Suddenly. The six million, the murdered, the victims, the “Holocaust martyrs,” all those terms were in fact my people. They were Mottel and Tevye and Shimele Soroker and Chavaleh and Stempenyu and Lily and Shimek. On the burning asphalt of the Beit Hakerem school, the shtetl was suddenly taken from me.

It was the first time I truly understood the meaning of the Holocaust. And it is no exaggeration to say that this comprehension shook my entire world. I remember my distress during the following days, a distress characteristic of the children of real survivors, because I imagined that I now bore some responsibility to remember all those people; it was a responsibility I did not want.

Every child has his first experience of death. The characters in Sholem Aleichem’s stories were the first people to die in my life. I could not read about them any longer, yet I could not stop reading. For a while I read in a way I never had: with care and gravity, I read all six volumes again, for the last time (I was very careful not to laugh in the places that always made me laugh), and the reading was both my contact with the intolerable pain and my only way to heal it. Each encounter with the text brought home to me again the enormity of the loss, but somehow also made it a little more tolerable. Today I know that at ten I discovered that books are the place in the world where both the thing and the loss of it can coexist.

* * *

The first part of See Under: Love tells of a boy named Momik who tries to understand the Diaspora in Israeli terms. Large parts of the book are an attempt to write about a Jewish existence in an Israeli idiom. But it also attempts the opposite: to describe Israel in a “diasporic” language. That is the book’s internal music, its counterpoint.

See Under: Love is a novel about a story that was lost, torn to shreds. There are several such lost stories in the book, which have to be told again and again because that is the only way to assemble the traces of identity and fuse the fragments of a crumbled world. Many characters in the book are looking for a story they have lost, usually a childhood tale, and they need it very badly so that they can retell it, as adults, and be reborn through it. It is not innocence that drives their desire to tell children’s stories, for they have virtually no innocence left. Rather, this is their way to preserve their humanity, and perhaps a modicum of nobility—to believe in the possibility of childhood in this world, and to hold it up against the sheer cynicism. To tell the whole story again through the eyes of a child.

* * *

**pagebreak next=”The arbitrariness of an external force that violently invades the life of one person, one soul, preoccupies me in almost all my books.”**The arbitrariness of an external force that violently invades the life of one person, one soul, preoccupies me in almost all my books. In See Under: Love it was Nazism; in The Smile of the Lamb and The Yellow Wind it was a military occupation that views itself as enlightened, while its victims are subjected to the tyranny of a power they perceive as supreme; in The Book of Intimate Grammar I tried to describe the way one’s soul—that multifarious glimmer of life—is forced to adapt to the impersonal dimensions of matter, to the unequivocal quality of flesh.

From one book to the next I found that if I could be more precise in describing the relationship between the individual soul and this external arbitrariness, if I struggled a little harder with the depth of descriptions, the subtlety of sensations, the nuances of “being there,” I could conquer another millimeter of the void between myself and what had always seemed unalterable. Not that I found a better way to live in peace with the contradictions between body and mind; not that I truly understood how a man can erase himself to such a degree that he becomes part of a destructive machine; and not that if I were to describe the injustices of the Occupation it would be over. But my inner stance vis-à-vis the unalterable shifted slightly: I could give my own private names and definitions to states that had seemed frozen, eternal, monolithic, decreed from above or from below. I was no longer a victim of the things that had theretofore paralyzed me with fear and despair.

This feeling brings me to another precious source of inspiration and awe—the writing of Bruno Schulz. I first heard about The Street of Crocodiles (originally titled Cinnamon Shops) from a stranger who phoned me one day after reading The Smile of the Lamb to tell me, warmly but firmly, that I was of course deeply influenced by Bruno Schulz. As I said, I did not know Schulz’s work at the time, and I was happy to learn how much he had influenced me. In fact, I have frequently been informed by my erudite critics about certain writers who have influenced me, and after reading them for the first time, I have discovered that the critics were correct.

Bruno Schulz, a Polish Jewish writer who lived in the town of Drohobycz, also in Galicia, was a modest art teacher who turned his small domestic life into a tremendous mythology, and today he is considered one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Bruno Schulz believed and hoped that our daily life was but a series of legendary episodes, fragments of ancient carved images, crumbs of shattered mythologies. He likened human language to a primeval snake that was long ago cut into a thousand pieces—these pieces are the words that have ostensibly lost their primeval vitality and now function solely as a means of communication, yet still, always, they continue “to search for one another in the dark.”

On every page written by Bruno Schulz one can feel this restless search, the longing for a different, primordial wholeness. His stories are full of the moments of first contact, when words suddenly “find one another in the dark.” That is when an electric spark of sorts occurs in the reader’s consciousness, awakening the sense that a word he or she has heard and read a thousand times can now momentarily reveal its private name.

Only two collections of Schulz’s short stories have been published, as well as a few other shorter works. He wrote a novel titled The Messiah, which was lost, and no one knows for certain what it contained. I once met a man who told me that Schulz had shown him the first few lines of the novel: Morning rises above a town. A certain light. Towers. That was all he saw.

Although Schulz did not write much, life bursts forth from every page he did produce, overflowing, becoming worthy of its name, a colossal effort that occurs simultaneously on all levels of consciousness and unconsciousness, illusion and nostalgia and nightmare. I read the book over the course of one day and night in a total frenzy of the senses, and my feeling—which now slightly embarrasses me—will be familiar to anyone who has been in love: it was the knowledge that this other person or thing was meant only for me.

I read the entire book (Cinnamon Shops & Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, published in Hebrew by Schocken) without knowing a thing about Bruno Schulz, and when I reached the end, I read Yoram Bronowski’s afterword, where I learned the story of Schulz’s death. In the Drohobycz ghetto, Schulz had a protector and employer in the form of an S.S. officer named Landau, who had Schulz paint murals in his home and stable. The officer had a rival, another S.S. officer named Günter, who lost a card game to Landau. Günter met Bruno Schulz on a street corner and shot him dead to hurt his employer. When the two officers later met, the murderer said: “I killed your Jew.” To which the other responded: “Very well. Now I will kill your Jew.”

* * *

After reading this account, I felt that I did not wish to live in a world in which such monstrosities of language could be uttered. But this time, unlike my paralysis at age ten—after realizing the connection between the horrors of the Holocaust and the characters of Sholem Aleichem—I had a way to express what I felt. I wanted to write a book that would tell readers about Bruno Schulz. It would be a book that would tremble on the shelf. The vitality it contained would be tantamount to the blink of an eye in one person’s life—not “life” in quotation marks, life that is nothing more than a languishing moment in time, but the sort of life Schulz gives us in his writing. A life of the living.

I know that many readers of See Under: Love found it difficult to get through the chapter on Bruno Schulz. But for me, that is the core of the book, the reason I wrote it, the reason I write. When people tell me they were unable to read it, I am regretful over the missed encounter, which is why the meetings I have had with those who were willing to delve into that chapter with me are so precious. The book has since been translated into several languages, and nothing makes me happier than the fact that in each language in which the book has appeared, new editions of Bruno Schulz’s writings have soon followed, and more and more people have become acquainted with this wonderful writer.

* * *

When I was invited to write about my sources of inspiration, I was asked which books I would like to discuss and what should be included in the bibliography for students. I began to think about which books and writers have influenced me and shaped my writing, and there have been so many: the stories of A. B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz’s Hill of Evil Counsel, Kafka’s works, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Heinrich Böll, Virginia Woolf, and many others. Of course I was tempted to lecture about Joyce and Camus, of whom I am particularly fond, and to frustrate some of the distinguished scholars with quotations from a Greenlandic epic they have never heard of.

But when Bialik wrote his poem “My Song,” he did not speak of his literary sources of inspiration. That was not the poem in which he described the bookshelves he stood facing as a boy, and later left behind. “Do you know whence I derived my song?” he asks. And he replies by recalling the dry, empty voice of a cricket that lived in his father’s house, and his mother’s deep sigh when she was widowed.

A cricket, a sigh.

And so I will not speak of authors or books that inspired me, but of an almost physical sensation that may not be a source of inspiration in the traditional sense, yet I feel it is a distinct root of my need to write. I find it difficult to reduce this sensation to a verbal definition. Bruno Schulz talks of suffocation within “the fortressed walls of tedium that close in on us”; perhaps it is that suffocation. Perhaps it is a type of claustrophobia that arises within the words of others. To understand it, I wrote a whole book, The Book of Intimate Grammar, which is the story of a young man who cannot accept the burden of all the conventions and routines that surround him, or the verbal clichés, or even the restrictive, unequivocal, physical dictates of his own body.

* * *

**pagebreak next=”Aron Kleinfeld lives in what is essentially a society of refugees.”**The book takes place in 1960s Jerusalem. Aron Kleinfeld lives in what is essentially a society of refugees, filled with people who have recently escaped a catastrophe and are trying with their last remaining strength to create a new life, a new language. With sometimes grotesque fervor, they grasp onto objects, food, anything with tangible volume. They create a solid, corporeal, unequivocal world, and it is naturally a world that is extremely belligerent and arbitrary, recklessly invading the privacy of its individuals.

To me, it is a book about the birth of an artist from within those “fortressed walls of tedium.” Aron, who is twelve when the story begins, a bright and imaginative child with abundant happiness, feels this invasion increasingly stifling him. It is all around him, shoving rude fingers into his mind and body. Even the physiological process of maturation that he faces seems to be a part of it. (Incidentally, the Hebrew words for “muscle”—shrir—and “arbitrariness”—shrirut—come from the same root.)

Alienation and, ultimately, hostility emerge between Aron and his own flesh and body—between himself and the part of his being that has an external, objective, yet extremely internal existence. Aron sees his friends begin to mature and change, as if collectively obeying an invisible order, and he is incapable of joining them. There is something in the unity of the process, in its inevitability, that deters him because he finds it lacking in freedom, almost humiliating.

Aron’s case is of course an extreme one, but I imagine we all remember the feelings of our adolescence, when we entered a tunnel that would stretch out for a number of years without knowing what fate had in store for us, how we would emerge at the other end, woven into which body, woven into which soul. As the years go by, we come to know the thing that Aron feared most, unknowingly of course, and which probably made him refuse to accept this constitution of the flesh: the knowledge of how easy it is for the mind to surrender to the corporeal dimension and gradually become a mechanism much like that of the body—with clogged arteries, cramped muscles, rigid joints, and automatic reflexes.

Faced with the bureaucracy of the body imposed on him, Aron feels that the primary means through which he can express his freedom, his uniqueness, and even his sexuality is language. And since language is also a kind of body, with a dual existence, both inside and out, Aron is tormented every time there is a grating contact between that “inside” and that “outside”: when people around him use language like old saws, when they belittle something that in Aron’s soul has a different, purer, more loyal existence. From that particular moment he realizes instinctively that he can no longer use words as others do—indiscriminately, indifferently, inarticulately.

* * *

It is also relevant to note that the story occurs shortly before the Six-Day War, when everyone Aron meets talks in the same blunt, military style, born of fear and arrogance. They all prophesize in the same tone, and this depresses Aron to no end, both because of the crudeness that characterizes the uniform, slogan-ridden discourse and because of his sense that they all belong to a secret, hermetic system of symbols from which he himself is removed, and that he will never have the requisite crudeness or obtuseness to become a part of it.

Deep within himself, beneath his heart, Aron establishes a hospital for sick words, where he employs complex rituals to heal and purify the words he gathers from the day-to-day. Only when the purification process is complete does he feel entitled to use the words. They have passed through his body and soul. They are his. Of course this process condemns Aron to utter solitude, trapped in his inner world, in his own private language, creating his beloved and his best friend inside himself, unable to maintain normal relationships with them in what is termed “reality.” The book ends when Aron shuts himself up inside an old refrigerator and hopes that with the help of the childlike, artistic spark he used to have, he will be able to pull off his most difficult Houdini trick and break out of the refrigerator into the world. But will he in fact be able to?

I have my own answer to this question, but before I reach it I would like to shift from the private, personal language to the more general kind, which served as a sort of “inspiration in reverse” for three of my books: the novel The Smile of the Lamb and two works of nonfiction, The Yellow Wind and Sleeping on a Wire. Each of these books, in its own way, tries to describe contemporary political reality in a language that is not the public, general, nationalized idiom.

* * *

To our great misfortune, we in Israel have been living for almost a century in a state of violent conflict, which has an enormous influence on all realms of life, including, of course, on language. When a country or a society finds itself—no matter for what reasons—in a prolonged state of incongruity between its founding values and its political circumstances, a rift can emerge between the society and its identity, between the society and its “inner voice.” The more complex and contradictory the situation becomes and the more the society has to compromise in order to contain all its disparities, the more it creates a different system for itself, an ad hoc system of norms, of “emergency values,” keeping double books of its identity.

I am not saying anything new here. Those who live in such a reality, as we do in Israel, will find it easy to understand how fears consolidate ideals around themselves, how needs become values, and how a subjective world-view and a self-image that is wholly unsuited to reality can materialize. A special kind of language then begins to emerge, one that is usually a manipulation on the part of those who wish to prolong the distorted situation. It is a language of words intended not to describe reality but to obfuscate it, to allay it. It depicts a reality that does not exist, an imaginary state constructed by wishful thinking, while large and complex elements of the actual reality remain wordless, in the hope that they will somehow fade away and vanish. In such conditions one of our most dubious talents arises: the talent for passivity, for self-erasure, for reducing the inner surface of our soul lest it get hurt. In other words, the talent for being a victim.

Let us go back eleven years, to the spring of 1987.

For two decades, as a result of the Six-Day War, Israel has controlled more than two million Palestinians. By all opinions this is a grave state of affairs, yet it turns out that most Israelis, as well as most Palestinians, have taught themselves how to live in these warped circumstances and that many of them believe the situation will never change. As time goes by, there is an increasing perception of a “status quo,” along with more and more arguments that justify and even sanctify this very status quo. The press provides scarcely any news of what is going on in the Territories, only brief reports of violent incidents phrased in fixed formulas that are little more than slogans and do not catch one’s eye for very long.

At this time I was working as a newscaster on the Kol Israel radio news. I was given dozens, if not hundreds, of items to read that sounded something like this: “A local youth was killed during disturbances in the Territories.” Notice the shrewdness of the sentence: “disturbances”—as if there were some order or normative state in the Territories that was briefly disturbed; “in the Territories”—we would never expressly say “the Occupied Territories”; “youth”—this youth might have been a three-year-old boy, and of course he never had a name; “local”—so as not to say “Palestinian,” which would imply someone with a clear national identity; and above all, note the verb “was killed”—no one killed him. It would have been almost intolerable to admit that our hands spilled this blood, and so he “was killed.” (Sometimes the passive voice is the last refuge of the patriot.)

Because we lost the capacity to use the right words to describe reality, we woke up one day, in December 1987, to a reality that is difficult to describe. Israel had deceived itself so efficiently that the Israel Defense Forces did not even have contingency plans to deal with the mass protests. At the beginning of the intifada the security apparatus dispatched urgent envoys to the world’s most dubious markets to purchase rubber bullets, gravel-spraying vehicles, and other necessities. Yet any country that occupies and oppresses another people must be prepared for such large-scale demonstrations. Israel was not prepared, because it did not know it was an occupier, it did not think it was an oppressor, and it did not tell itself that there was a people out there.

* * *

Nine months before the intifada broke out, I wrote The Yellow Wind. The book presented nothing new in the way of facts, which had been exposed ad nauseam. But in order to truly understand what I was seeing and feeling, I had to articulate the facts with new words. And from the moment I started writing, from the day I went to the Dheisheh refugee camp and encountered a reality that until that time I had lacked the words to describe, I felt something I had not felt for years, certainly not in the political context: that consciousness, in any situation, is always free to choose to face reality in a different, new way. That writing about reality is the simplest way to not be a victim.

In this sense, writing the nonfiction books made me feel that I was reclaiming parts of myself that the prolonged conflict had expropriated or turned into “closed military zones.” Furthermore, I came to grasp the high price we were paying for willingly giving up on parts of our soul—a price no less painful than giving up land. I knew that we were not killing only the Palestinians, and I asked why we were continuing to accept not just the murder, but the suicide too.

* * *

The name of the novel Be My Knife is a paraphrase of a line Franz Kafka wrote to Milena: “Love is to me that you are the knife which I turn within myself.” The Book of Intimate Grammar could not have been written without See Under: Love, which preceded it; Be My Knife could not have been written without The Book of Intimate Grammar; and Be My Knife, in turn, was probably the basis for the book that followed it. It is clear to me now that this is a very long path, which must be followed slowly, and that I must recognize that an entire lifetime will not suffice to map out even the first bend in the path.

In The Book of Intimate Grammar, I articulated several complicated ideas that I needed to understand, in sentences that today cover the pages in front of me like a verdict. But they are precisely what enabled me to find the strength to step out of Aron Kleinfeld’s loneliness, to escape from the refrigerator at the end of that book and start walking—this time in a different literary situation, with a different, more mature literary character—toward a different person. This would no longer be the imaginary creation of my protagonist, but a man who lives in reality and a woman of flesh and blood. I had to believe that it is possible for a different person to occur within myself, to believe without fear that a person can dwell inside the body and soul and language of another. And to discover that one can find a partner to share the deepest and most silent anxieties, and keys to unlock the most despicable self-laid traps.

Be My Knife is also the story of a journey to find the right language. A journey in which the woman is a tour guide of sorts who leads the man to his real language, which she carves out of him in a difficult battle until, near the end of the book, they create their own language. The book tries to be the only place where there can be a meaning for this private language—the language of their love.

Excerpted from Writing in the Dark by David Grossman (translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen), published last month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright© 2008 by David Grossman. Translation copyright © 2008 by Jessica Cohen. All rights reserved.

David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.