David Grossman's slim book broadens the scope of his moving inquiries into the grieving process
In August 2006, the Israeli novelist David Grossman's son, Uri, was killed in southern Lebanon, his tank hit by a rocket. The news came when Grossman was three years into his extraordinary novel To the End of the Land, about Ora, a woman who deploys frantic magical thinking to try and keep her son alive. Ora decides that if she goes for a long walk in Galilee with her son's father, if she is not present to hear "notifiers" tell her of his death, she will prevent it. The superstition is a painful acknowledgement of how out of control an ordinary Israeli might feel. And, Grossman admits, in his afterword, that the writing initially served, for him, a superstitious purpose equivalent to Ora's walk. After his son's death, he rewrote the novel and grief (though never formally introduced) informs every line.
Now, Grossman offers a slender companion piece, Falling Out of Time. It also involves a walk – in each book walking/ thinking/ reading converge. But while To the End of the Land describes tormented hope, Falling Out of Time permits itself the freedom of despair. It has a necessary feel: a book that needed to be written. It reads like a postscript but that, after all, is what an elegy is.
One of the attractive things about Grossman is that he is always earthed – as a writer, he has one foot in the kitchen (at one point, a grieving father is sorry not to be able to offer his dead son a "bowl of tomato soup"). And this poetic drama begins with a wife serving soup to her husband. Her arms are "tender", the soup warm but husband and wife feel chilled.
For five years
You fell mute,
For you the quiet
and I felt it clutch
at my throat. One after
the other, the words
died, and we were
like a house
where the lights
go slowly out,
until a sombre silence
The husband (referred to as "Man") feels compelled to walk, his restlessness in contrast to his wife who stays at home. Grossman writes especially well about the sense after someone has died that they must be somewhere – over "there" – it feels like a destination. Although, towards the end, one of the characters is boldly rethinking it: "Maybe there has always been here all this time?"
This is allied to the idea that death and birth are closer than we think. Grossman tussles with the way in which a person we have lost lives – and does not live – in our memory. He complains about memory's inadequacies. He introduces the encouraging, although less persuasive, idea that remembering is a kind of conception.
The book comes closest to being a play: it needs to be read aloud (radio would work well). A town crier, hired by a duke, investigates grief in a village, making of his findings a proclamation. The cast is wide with bereavement in common: a maths teacher, a midwife, a cobbler – each has lost a child. Grossman's community is consoling – there is solace in numbers. At times, the feeling is of listening to a Greek – or an Israeli – chorus. At other times, the atmosphere is more Brechtian, the dialogue full of raw questions. What is death? What is it to die? Who are you when you get "there"? But it is the most simple, foolish questions that ambush the reader and are most heartbreaking:
In August he died, and when that month was over, I wondered
How can I move
While he remains
As the book's title – and this question – suggest, time plays strange tricks. At one moment, Grossman observes that grief "ages with the years". At another, he registers that death happens "outside time", that it stops the clock – as if death were experienced by the living – as in Grossman's hands, in a way, it is.
Throughout, there is an ambivalent relationship with language, a danger that it will prove false balm. There is an integrity about the early silence between the grieving couple, an affinity between death and silence, the absence of words seems neighbourly. And when words pour out again and knit grief into a story, it is a not uncomplicated triumph.
A writer, nicknamed the Centaur, declares:
Yet still it breaks my heart,
that I have –
that one could –
that I have found
The lights in the house are back on. But it remains hard to come to terms with death through words, a string of syllables.
I understand, almost
the meaning of
the sounds: the boy
That modest "almost" is moving.
In one of the most beautiful passages in To the End of the Land, Ora follows a path on which there are "Dry leaves from last spring, crumbled and perforated, translucent, only their spines remain." She and her son's father talk about this crackling underfoot as the sound of their country – Israel's path. A similar sound is to be heard in Falling Out of Time only that, this time, the path is changed because the dead walk it:
"Leaves! But dry ones, right? Crumbling. Dead. Did you get that – and someone keeps stepping on them, over and over again."