David Grossman: The Language of Significance

Words With Soul: While in New York recently, David Grossman, above, spoke about the Polish writer and inspiration of his, Bruno Schulz.
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Words With Soul: While in New York recently, David Grossman, above, spoke about the Polish writer and inspiration of his, Bruno Schulz.

By Micah Kelber

Published May 21, 2009.
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When David Grossman made his way to his place on the stage for the two talks that he gave earlier this month — the first as part of the PEN World Voices Festival at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, and the second, a talk about the Polish writer and inspiration of his, Bruno Schulz, at the 92nd Street Y — he moved like a helium balloon the week after a party that has achieved neutral buoyancy and no longer needs a string to keep it attached to the earth: neither floating away to become irrelevant, but not under a table somewhere, gathering dust. He floated gently, hovering just enough here and just enough there. His steps were soft, and his words, although insistent, unfolded patiently. Both nights he wore the same cobalt sweater, probably not expecting such cold, gray skies in early May, or hoping against them.

Despite his yearly appearances in New York, his presence here feels special, something worth celebrating, almost magical. There is a familial chatter and excited hum around the room before he enters, but it’s a warm one — the kind that comes from close friends who stick around and gather together the night after the party. It’s a profoundly caring crowd, the kind that would mourn if he ever stopped writing, but also the kind that would ask, “Would you ever consider running for office?”

It’s a fair question, because he has written so much about politics, and his perspective is always one of generosity and trust. But he demurs, preferring the process and rewards of the literary life to the committees and bribes of Israeli politics. He likes his life as it is.

And still there is the sadness that is announced when he begins his talks, as he did on a recent Monday night after being introduced with delicate adoration, by stating humbly, “From this moment on, the evening is going to deteriorate.”

This overlay of sadness comes as much from the tragedy that his family has suffered —he has written about his personal tragedy in the past but declines to speak about publicly (as he declined a day earlier, when an un-prepped interviewer broached the subject and a collective breath was held by the audience) — as it does from the worldview that he has understood from his life over the years: that the writer is to reclaim words, emotions and truths that have been lost or cut away. He must resist the desire for control and the constant darkness, and find, hopefully, some kind of redemption or better world through powerful and true words.

In one of his New York talks, Grossman spoke of his inspiration, Schulz, and how electric and generating his writing is. He established his oeuvre in opposition to those legendary statements made by the Nazi who killed him and the response of Schulz’s Nazi “protector.”

The story goes that when Schulz was living in the ghetto in the 1940s, he was recognized by an S.S. officer named Landau who took him into his home and had him paint murals on his walls. A rival Nazi, (who knew that Nazis had Nazi rivals?) named Gunter saw Schulz on the street one day and murdered him just to anger his protector.

The conversation on the street between the two Nazis, according to legend, went like this:

I killed your Jew.

Very well. Now I will go and kill your Jew.

For Schulz and Grossman, words like this not only reflect the horror in the world, but also create it. They relate so little to the situation they are describing that they distance people from humanity and reality itself. It is not that Grossman despises economy of language, of course. In his conversation at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, he praised the sparse language of the Torah, which allows for the possibility of continuous interpretation. Rather, he opposes words that make no effort to capture the realities that they are trying to describe. Words that have no inspiration or soul are worse than a waste of time; they create alienation.

In Schulz’s cosmology (and presumably Grossman’s, to some extent), language appeared like a giant snake that was then cut into different parts. The pieces now exist as a way for people to communicate with each other, but at the same time, the pieces of the snake continue to “search for one another in the dark.” The proper use of language, when the right words are made to serve in a description of a situation, revives this primal connection.

“When you choose the perfect word,” Grossman said, “suddenly there is flesh, when you put two words together. It was something you felt but you didn’t know what it was. Once you gave it a name [the readers] gain something that was already theirs, but they didn’t feel it deeply.”

He described language with this kind of metaphysical reality, and the act of writing as a search for these new phrases, which are world-creating acts of protest against simplicity, narrow-mindedness and the stereotypical approach to the human being. The search for these phrases is also what makes life significant.

So much of what happens to us is dictated to us by people who are totally irrelevant to us that we would not let them into our home even to have coffee with them. And they can dictate our destiny and inflict the most terrible things against us. Most of our life is created by a kind of coincidences, things that we have no control of, and they are not relevant to us and they make our world.

And when I write gradually, everything becomes relevant to us. And when I write, and when I am in the process of writing, the world is full of relevant information. Every face that I see, every story I hear, every combination of words that I eavesdrop on the street, everything echoes something, activates something and generates something in me.”

Grossman expresses two things with this statement. It is a lament for those who were killed by those who failed to realize that every person, regardless of heritage, is valuable, an opportunity and an art that never will be created. And it is a wish that everyone adopt this attitude that significance can be ubiquitous.

Seeing, hearing, reading and being inspired by David Grossman is powerful, because he recognizes the brokenness and sadness of the world and continually tries his best to do something about them. He explained why he wrote “See Under Love”:

When I finished reading the book of Bruno Schulz, I felt like it gives me the key to writing about the Shoah. Not writing about death or destruction, but rather about life, about this thing that the Nazis exterminated in such a mechanized massive way, and I remember that with the arrogance and maybe the innocence of a very young writer. I told myself that I would like to write a book that would quiver on the shelf[,] that the vitality in it would be equal to one bit of a second of the life of the life of a human being and not just life, not life that are nothing more than passing through time, but life like the life that Bruno Schulz taught me in his writing — Life’s life.”

Grossman’s hopeful search for truth and vitality is inspiring, because despite the fact that he permits his stories an independence to the point that they are allowed “to betray” him, they ultimately don’t seem to. He says that he surrenders to the stories so that they “take me where I can’t go in my protected life,” and one could have imagined that this could be to places of despair and nihilism, if those were the ultimate truths of the stories of the world. But from one who has been there, who surrenders continually to the energy that links up the ancient and most fundamental truths of the world, we are told that there is a way out of darkness. This is why people flock to his New York lectures.

And even though we know that he is going to be all right, after his tragedy and despite his keen awareness of the brokenness of the world, his ability to show with language that there is a way out of darkness is why the room collectively gasped when we felt his sadness after being faced with the question about his son, Uri. We wanted desperately to protect that which we treasure, but we also knew that there were more words somewhere to be found.

The question missed entirely. The response could only be silence:

Tell us how your son’s death affected your writing?

I think I did not tell you that I do not speak of that publicly.

The newest edition of the PEN America journal was being passed back and forth by a couple in the audience at his Sunday lecture. It had on its cover an illustration from the graphic novel “Waltz With Bashir.” The picture was of the scene when a young Israeli soldier became the lone survivor of his troop after it attacked in South Lebanon along the coast. He then waited for nightfall and then floated in the sea, miles in the waves, back to his battalion.

It was a rough image to see bobbing in the audience.

But its relevance became apparent when Grossman said at the end of his talk:

The heart of writing for me is to try to understand another human being from within. Usually we are so protected from other human beings, even from those that we really love, there is this instinct that you have — that is self-preservation — that keeps us from totally exposing ourselves to the chaos that prevails within the other. When I write, I feel like my movement is just in the other direction. I want to be invaded by the other I write about. And I want to try to break down some of my defense mechanisms and to allow another person or many persons to occur within me, to happen within me. And this is the greatest pleasure I think of writing, when you are suddenly able to really allow yourself to give up and allow other parts of you to take place within yourself. Sometimes they can not only be contrary to you but they can defy you, they are threatening, they are dangerous, they are unpleasant, and yet there is such a pleasurable reward when you do it and when you later retreat to your old self and you see how easy it is for almost every one of us to become the other, to be the other. And I think it applies both to literature and to real life and to politics…. In writing, if you compare it to another profession, let’s say I was — how do you say — a lifeguard in a swimming pool, a normal person; he sees someone drowning, he jumps in and he tries to take him to the shore; the writer he tries to drown with him. You know he jumps in and he tries to drown.

We should be glad that Grossman’s floating takes the form of a balloon and not like that of a man in the ocean. But even if it took that form, he could rest assured that we, non-writers, would jump in and try to save him.

Contact Micah Kelber at kelber@forward.com.


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