on 1 November 2010
Israeli writing is not well-enough known in the English-speaking world. Amos Oz is undoubtedly the most famous living Israeli author, but Israel has had many other world-class writers to its credit: in fiction, S.Y. Agnon, A.B. Yehoshua and Yaacov Shabtai; in drama, such diverse playwrights as Hanoch Levin and Yehoshua Sobol; in poetry, Yehuda Amichai is merely the most well-known figure. Israel's short and angry history has yielded writers with very different responses to, and indeed perceptions of, the same situation. Of living writers, the Israeli novelist David Grossman is rapidly taking over from Amos Oz the position of Most Respected Figure Among Western Liberals, partly because of his eloquent and passionate criticism of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Grossman's non-fiction is very, very good; his contribution to the Canongate Myth Series was a short but brilliant book, Lion's Honey, a commentary on the Samson story, reviewing Israeli history in the light of one of the most famous Jewish myths: the story of an immensely strong man who couldn't control himself. As a novelist, Grossman recently scored a massive critical success (at least in all the papers I've read) with To The End Of The Land, which I'm still in the process of reading but which so far is starting to look like his finest work, being simultaneously lacerating, deeply perceptive and unputdownable. But his first big splash in the English-speaking world was this, his second novel.
I get the impression that when it first appeared, See Under: Love was widely read as a 'Holocaust novel', something like Schindler's List or Sophie's Choice, but of a rather more difficult and challenging kind. It's true that a large part of it is set during the Nazis' attempted extermination of the Jews, and that a major character is the (real) Polish Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, who was (in real life) killed by an SS officer not as part of an extermination programme but because of a sordid rivalry the officer had with a colleague. But this novel is not a simple or pious act of remembrance on Grossman's part. What it represented, when it was first published, was the first major attempt by an Israeli writer to come to some kind of imaginative terms with the Holocaust, which had been a subject that most Israelis had not wanted to address. It's well-documented that Israel experiences a kind of national shame about the Holocaust, and that Holocaust survivors who moved to Palestine (and, after 1948, Israel) found that there was a general unwillingness among people who hadn't been victims of the Nazis to listen to the stories and experiences of those who had. It needs to be remembered that Jewish immigration into Palestine had been going on for a long time before the Nazis started trying to wipe out European Jewry, and that many if not most of the Jews who founded the state of Israel had actually been born there. Native-born Israeli Jews could sometimes feel a sense of superiority over what they regarded as their less enterprising and less realistic co-religionists who'd remained in Europe to be victims of the Nazis. The result of this was that the Holocaust became a topic that was simply not explored in Israeli public discourse; it became a dark and terrible shadow that could be appealed to if you wanted to stoke a sense of defiance and to remind one's listeners that Jews in general and Israel in particular had enemies everywhere, but the nuanced and complex nature of what actually went on in the ghettoes and the camps was not something that anyone, with the possible exception of the survivors, wanted to talk about.
It was into this situation that Grossman projected his second novel. As befitting a book about an experience that's by nature fragmentary and hard to reconcile, the book itself is a kind of mosaic. The opening bit, which is probably the hardest for Western readers to comprehend, is arguably the most crucial part of the book. Momik, a young boy in 50s Israel, is growing up in a family of Holocaust survivors, but neither his parents nor anyone else will tell him anything about what happened 'over there'. From passing references to the 'Nazi beast', Momik eventually concludes that his family is being menaced by some kind of hideous monster, and he goes to drastic lengths to secure their safety. From then, the book goes back in time and recounts the experiences of Momik's grandfather, a writer of adventure stories who was placed in a camp by the Nazis.
If my account of what actually happens in the novel is a bit skimpy it's because I first read it about 20 years ago and I've only read parts of it since then, so my memory of events later on is spotty; I'll reread the book when I can and post a more detailed review. But I do remember my first and lasting impression of the book, which is that it blew me away; it's a big, dense, intelligent, extraordinary read, the book that first awakened my fascination with Israel, one of the great novels of the last quarter of the 20th century. I have read nearly everything else Grossman has published in English and I've even made some effort to pick up enough Hebrew to read him in the original - although that's some way off, as he is a masterly writer. I'm only about a quarter of the way through his new novel, which so far is shaping up to be even better than this one. He is a major writer. I'll be quite surprised if, at some point during the next decade or so, he doesn't become a candidate for the Nobel.