‘Almost in every book I write there is an individual facing an outer arbitrariness,” David Grossman told me one cold morning shortly before the weather turned to rain.
His point was reinforced by the chaos behind him: It was a Monday, and outside, on New York City’s Lexington Avenue, a series of harried workers rushed past. Facing away from the window in a nearly abandoned cafe, Grossman, light-haired and dark-eyed, dressed in a dark sweater layered over a light-gray pinstriped shirt, was composed. His expression conveyed constant, quiet observation.
“Let it be the arbitrariness of the Shoah, like in ‘See Under: Love,’” he continued, “the arbitrariness of the body, like in ‘The Book of Intimate Grammar,’ the arbitrariness of the soul, like in ‘Be My Knife,’ arbitrariness of jealousy in ‘Her Body Knows,’ arbitrariness of loss and death, like in ‘Falling Out of Time,’ the arbitrariness of fate, like Dov’s in the horse book.”
He paused to take a breath.
By “the horse book,” Grossman meant “A Horse Walks Into a Bar,” his most recent novel, which he was in New York to promote. He gives all his books formulaic nicknames, he explained: “The Book of Intimate Grammar” is “the grammar book,” “Be My Knife” is “the knife book.”
Calling “A Horse Walks Into a Bar” “the horse book” might mislead; in the novel, there’s nary a hoofed beast in sight. The story gallops through an evening in a dusty Israeli bar, where Dov, a dusty, aging comedian, performs a stand-up set of occasionally frightening intimacy. Narrated by Avishai, a retired judge who is Dov’s childhood friend, the tale veers between Dov’s frenzied onstage antics and the tragedy that ended Avishai’s attachment to him.
Interspersing contemporary action with vivid flashbacks is a familiar tactic for Grossman, who employed it to great effect in his best-known novel, “To the End of the Land,” published in 2010.
On the surface, little else connects that book with “A Horse Walks Into a Bar.” The earlier novel, which has been adapted to the stage and will be performed at Lincoln Center in July, is a lyrical, pained exploration of parental love. It follows a middle-aged mother, Ora, as she embarks on a hike to Jerusalem from the Galilee. Her youngest son, Ofer, is an Israeli soldier. Making it impossible for the military to find Ora and report his death, she thinks, might save his life.
“A Horse Walks Into a Bar,” which won this year’s Man Booker International Prize, is, by contrast, a brisk exploration of the interpersonal dynamics between two people entirely uncomfortable with sentiment. Their discomfort is exacerbated by the stand-up framework, which by Grossman’s own admission is an unconventional literary choice.
“I think what attracted me was the contradiction between the detachment and cynicism of the stand-up comedy and the tenderness and intimacy of the story being told,” he said. “And the whole book is moving between these two poles of tension, between intimacy and foreignness.”
As Grossman tells it, he became a writer because of Sholem Aleichem.
Born in Jerusalem in 1954, he was introduced to the author’s work by his father, a Polish Jew who immigrated to British Mandate Palestine at age 9. (Grossman’s mother, Micaella Grossman,was born there.) Yitzhak Grossman introduced his son to Sholem Aleichem at a young age, but Grossman already understood something essential about the author’s significance.
“I felt: this is the code for my father,” he told The Guardian’s Rachel Cooke in 2010. “And I was sure that the shtetl continued to exist parallel to my life in Israel. Only when I was 9, and we were marking Holocaust Day at school, did it occur to me that this was not the case.”
At 9, Grossman also applied to participate in an Israeli radio competition testing knowledge of Sholem Aleichem’s work. He progressed through a series of auditions until the station’s general director, deciding it would be bad for morale to have a child take the prize, sabotaged him. Still, during the final competition Grossman sat in the audience and was asked to correct the contestants when they got answers wrong.
That experience failed to sour Grossman on radio; after doing intelligence work during his mandatory service — which lasted through the Yom Kippur War, although he never saw action — he went into the medium professionally. By 1988 he was an anchor on Kol Yisrael, Israel’s public radio service. That year, he disobeyed instructions to kill a story about the Palestinian leadership, which, having declared its own state, had for the first time in history acknowledged Israel’s right to exist. In something of a public scandal, he was fired.
Grossman turned his energy exclusively to writing. He had previously published three novels, as well as “The Yellow Wind,” a nonfiction account of seven weeks spent investigating life in the West Bank around the 20th anniversary of its occupation. In it, Grossman wrote: “The history of the world proves that the situation we are preserving here cannot last long. And if it does last, it will exact a deadly penalty.”
Looking back, it’s possible to imagine that the 1987 Israeli publication of “The Yellow Wind,” followed by Grossman’s dismissal from Kol Yisrael, presaged his eventual position as one of Israel’s great literary voices for peace, alongside, notably, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua. It would be equally easy to imagine that what Grossman saw in the West Bank prompted him to expose painful social and political truths about his home country.
Yet both Grossman and his collaborators tend to see his work as political only insofar as being so serves literary aims.
“Some of his work deals with the big picture and political stuff, and certainly he’s engaged in that, but I don’t think that’s what really drives him to write,” said his longtime English translator, Jessica Cohen. “I think what drives him is a curiosity about how people interact with each other, what emotions we provoke in each other.”
“My responsibility is to write a good book,” Grossman told me. “But I live in Israel, I am part of this situation. I pay my taxes, and not only taxes in the sense of money. There is a fee to be paid for living all your life under fear and threat. I try to describe the situation from as many points of view as possible. Sometimes it is critical toward Israel, because I am very critical of the occupation, I am very critical of the right wing and where it leads us.”
“And yet, what I feel towards Israel, it is multilayered. It’s never simple, the feeling that one feels towards his country. It is very clear that this is my home.”
In both “A Horse Walks Into a Bar” and “To the End of the Land,” the past, even when it’s deeply uncomfortable, is intimate. The present is foreign, partially because it has a habit of alienating Grossman’s characters from themselves.
“To the End of the Land” is constructed around the idea that the intimacy of the past can mitigate the foreignness of the present. Ora brings her long-estranged friend and former lover, Avram, along on her hike. Avram — spoiler — is Ofer’s real father, but the two have never met. While they walk, Ora tells Avram about his son, sure that doing so is key to keeping Ofer alive.
In contrast, the conflicted course of Ora and Avram’s reconciliation relies on distancing themselves, quite literally, from their own painful history. By radically changing the day-to-day matter of their lives, the duo locates new frontiers within themselves and their relationship.
The idea in that storyline — that alienation can facilitate a new kind of intimacy — steps into the spotlight in “A Horse Walks Into a Bar.”
Avishai reveals he’s at Dov’s comedy show because his old friend, calling him out of the blue, had asked him to come, neither for support nor for a sentimental reunion, but to complete a specific task.
“‘I want you to look at me,’ he spurted,’” Avishai recalls. “‘I want you to see me, really see me, and then afterward tell me.’”
“Tell you what?” Avishai asks.
“‘What you saw,’” Dov says.
Avishai agrees. As they interact — one man on stage, the other in the audience — each undergoes a painful psychological distancing from himself. Dov initially wins over the audience; then, revealing a degree of anguish that begins to repel them, he darts from joy to fury, from camaraderie to mockery. Sensing the audience’s growing discomfort, he hits himself in the face.
“It was an awful blow, that slap,” Avishai thinks. “An outburst of unexpected violence, a leakage of murky information that belonged somewhere completely different.”
Yet as Dov’s routine draws him back into his own past, Avishai succumbs to his own kind of violence. He occasionally directs that violence toward Dov, but more often takes aim at himself. He overeats, torments himself with memories of his recently deceased wife, and slowly opens himself to a devastating awareness of his own role in the tragedy that has dominated Dov’s life.
By the end of the book the two men reach an exhausted mutual understanding. The novel is what Avishai writes in response to Dov’s request: a critical but ultimately empathetic evaluation of both his old friend and himself. It’s not accidental that Avishai includes an examination of himself in his assessment of Dov. In order to show Dov what he sees, he has to show him how he sees.
“I think if you acknowledge the fact that you consist of so many contradictions you become a more dialogical person,” Grossman told me, “because inside you there is a constant dialogue. So maybe you are more able to have a dialogue outwardly.
“I think this is something you learn very thoroughly when you become a writer. We are populated by so many other options that sometimes never get to be expressed, because we are afraid of them. And it’s quite devastating, to feel all the time in contact with all other options that often are contradictory to each other.
“But if you allow yourself, if you understand the pleasure, there is a sweetness in surrendering to more and more options of yourself.”
Between “To the End of the Land,” published in 2008, and “A Horse Walks Into a Bar,” Grossman wrote a book called “Falling Out Of Time.” It’s part novel, part play and part poem. In it, alienation doesn’t lead to intimacy. It leads to devastation, dotted with dubious moments of revelation.
That’s not a flaw in Grossman’s scheme. Instead, it’s an accounting with one of the most extreme experiences of separation a human can undergo: that of a parent recovering from the death of a child.
The subject is an intimate one for Grossman, whose youngest son, Uri Grossman, was killed in 2006, in the last days of the Second Lebanon War. Three days before a rocket hit Uri’s tank, killing him and the rest of the tank’s crew, Grossman had given a press conference with Oz and Yehoshua advocating a cease-fire.
“I won’t say anything now about the war you were killed in,” Grossman said in a eulogy for his son. “We, our family, have already lost in this war. The State of Israel will have its own reckoning.”
Grossman had begun to write “To the End of the Land” three years earlier, when his eldest son, Yonatan Grossman, was nearing the end of his military service and Uri Grossman was approaching the beginning of his. At Uri’s shiva, Oz and Yehoshua asked Grossman how the book was progressing.
“I told them, ‘I do not think I will be able to save the book,’” he told me. “And Amos, clever Amos, said, ‘The book will save you.’
“The need to write and the need to create — the responsibility for the characters — it’s strange, I know it sounds so strange. They are only imaginary, yet they were so alive for me by then,” he said. “The need to fill them with a voice, and with anecdotes, with humor, and with sexuality and love and everything, it brought me back to life.”
Then, in “Falling Out of Time,” Grossman considered the alternative.
“To the End of the Land” is a premonition of parental grief. “Falling Out of Time,” a chronicle of its worst depths, examines the bleakness of a society populated by parents who have lost their children. Set in an unspecified town at an unspecified time, its nameless characters publicly grapple with the private loss of their children.
One man, setting out to reach his son “there,” a place assumed to be the afterlife, begins walking a wide circuit around the town. Over time he’s joined by many of the town’s other mourners; one day, they run into a wall that none of them have seen before. They fall to their knees in front of it, and chant their children’s names.
“Catastrophe can give you a surname, yes, but you can still insist on your private name,” Grossman told me. The variety of monikers by which his characters are known — in “A Horse Walks Into a Bar,” Dov is also Dovaleh and Dovi — in some ways demonstrates the many things they can be. The nameless parents of “Falling Out of Time,” in contrast, can be nothing aside from what they are, defined entirely by their grief.
The inhabitants of Grossman’s Israel are tormented and baffled by the fact of their bodies, engaging in complex physical rituals to protect themselves from their vulnerabilities. Ora treats her own body as a map for Ofer’s, believing she can save his life by obeying a set of obscure physical commands. Dov hits himself in the face. A cobbler in “Falling Out of Time” caps his teeth with sharp, painful metal caps, one to commemorate each of his daughter’s “tiny-tiny fingers I used to kiss.”
Like its inhabitants, as it tries to cope with the confounding realities of the physical world in which it has found itself, Grossman’s Israel approaches paralysis.
Knowing they’ll grow up to be soldiers, Israel’s children grow up too early, developing both brutality and fear with too much intensity.
Its army, far from a paragon of disciplined patriotism and self-sacrifice, betrays those under its command, from stranded intelligence officers in the Yom Kippur War to children at a military summer camp. When asked to account for those betrayals, it denies them.
Its Jewish inhabitants delicately avoid thinking about the realities of their Arab neighbors. Near the beginning of “To the End of the Land,” Grossman writes, “Ora had completely cut herself off from the ‘situation’ — I’ve paid my price, she asserted with a narrow, distancing smile.” When Dov, in “A Horse Walks Into a Bar,” expresses a manic sympathy with Palestinians, he does so in violation of his contract for the evening, which specifies that he cannot discuss politics.
Speaking with the author Nicole Krauss at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y in February, Grossman observed that in “A Horse Walks Into a Bar,” the only joke left incomplete is that which begins “A horse walks into a bar.” What’s left, lacking the expected comic resolution, is the sense of a situation that is magnificently inexplicable, and cannot possibly end well for the horse.
Grossman told me he stays in Israel and writes about Israel “to remind people there that there is still an option to live other lives, because the problem is that more and more people who live in this situation, they start to believe that this is the only reality that awaits us. Once they say that, they have lost. They have really lost Israel, even. It cannot be that the only meaning of life in Israel is having to live in wars, and to become tougher and and more sophisticated warriors.”
It made me wonder about that horse. Was it doomed to be forever stranded in the bar, or had Grossman liberated it from the inevitability of a punchline? If the joke were told fully, every other possible ending for its subject would be foreclosed. But, left in a bemusing environment to fend for itself, the horse could still remember the field.
“My position vis-à-vis this monolithic arbitrariness is change,” Grossman said. “I am not standing where arbitrariness wants to fix me.
“The moment one has more room to maneuver — and the whole idea of imagination is room to maneuver — you are able to find in your own self this little cell of liberty that allows you not to collaborate with the arbitrariness of the situation. Once you remember that, you stop being a victim. You are formulating your own circumstances. You have your place.”
Correction: The headline of this article originally named David Grossman as the winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize. He in fact won the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.