Early in To the End of the Land, the new, epic novel by acclaimed Israeli writer David Grossman (The Yellow Wind, See Under: Love, The Book of Intimate Grammar), an anxious and fearful Ora scans her absent son Ofer’s room, taking stock of his possessions. These include several books by postmodernist novelist Paul Auster. One cannot help but wonder whether Grossman chose to identify the books’ author as a nod to the literary tastes of his son Uri, who was performing his military service while his father labored on this magnificent and haunting novel. Uri would be killed in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and Auster, a friend of Grossman’s, would dedicate his novel Man in the Dark (2008) to the bereaved family and the memory of their recently departed member. Grossman himself dedicated To the End of the Land, first published in Hebrew in 2008 and now translated into fluid and elegant English by Jessica Cohen, to his wife, his two surviving children, and the late Uri.
Following a prologue set during the Six-Day War in 1967, the story begins in earnest in 2000. Ofer has just finished his three-year military service, but voluntarily re-enlists in the Israeli army for a 28-day tour of duty following the outbreak of hostilities with the Palestinians. (In reality, a Palestinian intifada did erupt in 2000.) A distressed Ora embarks on a quixotic journey meant to ward off the dreadful news of Ofer’s death, which she anticipates at any moment. “She will be the first notification-refusenik.”
But Ora’s ambition is greater than that; she intends to keep Ofer alive. Unfortunately, she “rationed all her oaths and talismans to last exactly three years,” meaning that she must now devise a new means of protecting her son. Jerusalemite Ora goes to Tel Aviv, rousts Ofer’s father Avram, who has been mired in a deep funk ever since his capture and torture at the hands of the Egyptian army in the Yom Kippur War (1973), and alternately cajoles and bullies him into joining her mission. The traumatized Avram could never bring himself to meet Ofer, who was raised along with his half-brother Adam by Ora and her now-estranged husband Ilan. But a buoyant notion crystallizes in Ora’s mind; by talking about Ofer, she will shield him from harm and simultaneously coax Avram out of his shell.
During the extraordinary odyssey that follows, Grossman subtly and understatedly locates the story of Ora’s family within the Arab-Israeli tragedy in whose roiling midst it is trapped. We are treated to a multivalent exchange between Ora and a wise and wisecracking Israeli Arab taxi driver; Ora and an initially recalcitrant Avram hiking aimlessly but determinedly through the scenic Galilee, coming upon the ruins of Arab villages destroyed during the war over Israel’s founding in 1948, as well as monuments to Israeli soldiers who have fallen in subsequent wars; and the revelation of what exactly befell Avram all those years ago in Egypt. And throughout their journey, Ora tells Avram about Ofer: his wondrous first steps as a baby; his tender relationship with his brother Adam; her husband Ilan’s love for both Adam and Ofer; her feeling left out by her three men when they were all together; and her distinctly maternal wish, during Ofer’s three-year military service in the Occupied Territories, that he not get hurt and also not hurt anyone. Ora brings her son to life in words even as he may lie dying on the battlefield, and she slowly reawakens Avram’s long-dormant Lebenslust and his suppressed paternal instincts.
To be sure, the heady swirl of emotions often proves enervating, while the focus on quotidian family matters inevitably creates boring stretches, especially when elongated by the story’s languid pace. Yet the payoff is worth it. When fully explored, as it is by Grossman in this novel, the drama of the human condition enthralls more than the most gripping action sequence.
Much of Israeli literature remains plagued by a lingering triumphalist strain born of the whitewashed and mythologized Zionist enterprise. To the End of the Land is not the first Israeli novel to depart from that rigid and jarring narrative, but it is arguably the finest. For even as Ora remains impervious to the militant and totalistic anti-Israel ideologies engulfing the Arab world and beyond, she defies Israel itself, the state that has “nationalized her life” and demands that she acquiesce in its jingoism and its greedy claim to her son.
Indeed, To the End of the Land is, above all, a bold restoration of humanity’s primacy over ideology and politics of any kind. At the same time, the novel unabashedly embraces the life-affirming splendor of the mundane. This is Ora in her kitchen, enveloped in the bosom of her family: “Listen to the soundtrack, she thinks. Believe in the soundtrack. This is the right tune: a pot bubbles, the fridge hums, a spoon clangs on a plate, the faucet flows, a stupid commercial on the radio, your voice and Ilan’s voice, your children’s chatter, their laughter—I never want this to end.”
I took a writing workshop with Diane Williams, and she had a very distinct style of editing prose. Her method was like pruning a tree: you pare the dead branches in order to let the viable parts flourish. Find the sentences that sizzle, excise them from the masses of empty phrases, rearrange them into a working narrative, and then set to work with that skeleton. At the end, if you’re lucky, the essence of the idea remains, and from this construction a better story may grow.
I had Williams’s process in mind as I read the latest volume of Paris Review Interviews, not because I found the interviews lacking. The Paris Review interview remains the gold standard of literary interviews, although the results are often as varied as the authors. Donald Barthelme listed them on his essential reading list for writers, which is now passed from one generation of students to the next, like a family heirloom.
Rather, I thought of Williams’s method because the authors often cover similar terrain that doesn’t set them apart. Each writer has developed method for getting the words down, is more inclined to solitude and reflection than most people, and derives a mixture of pleasure and pain from the act of writing. One can read that a writer wakes early and lives by a strict schedule only so many times before beginning to yawn. At the same time, hearing the echo of writers talking of their difficulties and triumphs with writing can provide the consolation and inspiration it takes to toil on, such as knowing that Orhan Pamuk “work[s] like a clerk” or that even Paul Auster feels stupid sometimes. These authors may also incite despair: how does one find the means to write like Pamuk, Maya Angelou, or David Grossman? Angelou rents a hotel room where she never sleeps, Pamuk spends ten hours a day writing in a flat, and Grossman writes in a one-bedroom apartment without a phone.
What stands out is an author’s attitude, his sarcasm, her humor, and perhaps even his disposition on the day or days he was recorded–simply put, character. Pruning to the essential parts reveals the essence of the writer’s outlook, and small, concentrated doses can have as forceful an impact as the whole. In David Grossman’s interview, he talks about the uniqueness of a person, or the luz, a word from the Talmud: “It’s the smallest bone in your backbone, which cannot be eradicated. All of your essence is preserved in it, and from that you will be recreated in resurrection.” He sometimes asks people to close their eyes and think for a minute about what constitutes their luz. He says, “I get interesting answers.”
Considering the luz, as well as Williams’s editing style–which I’m convinced is an attempt to uncover a story’s luz–I’ve culled a few quotes from the interviews in The Paris Review Interviews IV. They’re the quotes that best express the luz of these authors, at least in these interviews, at least on those days. They may not contain the entirety of each author’s character, but they’re quite revealing.
William Styron: “Let’s face it, writing is hell.”
“The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone’s neurosis, and we’d have a mighty dull literature if all the writers that came along were a bunch of happy chuckleheads.”
“I like to stay up late at night and get drunk and sleep late. I wish I could break the habit but I can’t. The afternoon is the only time I have left and I try to use it to the best advantage, with a hangover.”
Jack Kerouac on typing the manuscript for William Burrough’s Naked Lunch in Tangier: “The first two chapters. I went to bed, and I had nightmares … of great long bolognas coming out of my mouth. I had nightmares typing up that manuscript … I said, ‘Bill!’ He said, ‘Keep typing it.’ He said ‘I bought you a goddamn kerosene stove, here in North Africa, you know.’ Among the Arabs… it’s hard to get a kerosene stove. I’d light up the kerosene stove, and take some bedding and a little pot, or kef as we called it there … or maybe sometimes hashish … there, by the way, it’s legal … and I’d go toke toke toke toke and when I went to bed at night these things kept coming out of my mouth.”
“First I met Claude. And then I met Allen and then I met Burroughs. Claude came in through the fire escape… There were gunshots in the alley–Pow! Pow!–and it was raining, and my wife says, here comes Claude. And here comes this blond guy through the fire escape, all wet. I said, What’s this all about, what the hell is this? He says, They’re chasing me. Next day in walks Allen Ginsberg carrying books. Sixteen years old with ears sticking out. He says, Well, discretion is the better part of valor! I said, Aw shuttup. You little twitch. The next day here comes Burroughs wearing a seersucker suit, followed by another guy.”
“Is this my wine?”
John Ashberry: “…I try to dress in a way that is just slightly off, so the spectator, if he notices, will feel slightly bemused but not excluded, remembering his own imperfect mode of dress.”
“It’s rather hard to be a good artist and also be able to explain intelligently where your art is about. In fact, the worse your art is, the easier it is to talk about, at least I would like to think so. Ambiguity seems to be the same thing as happiness or pleasant surprise. I am assuming that, from the moment life cannot be one continual orgasm, real happiness is impossible, and pleasant surprise is promoted to the front rank of emotions.”
“I was impressed by an Ingmar Bergman movie I saw years ago–I can’t remember the name of it–in which a woman tells the story of her life, which has been full of tragic experiences. She’s telling the story in the dressing room of a theater where she is about to go on and preform a ballet. At the end of it she says, ‘But I am happy.’ Then it says, ‘The End.’”
Philip Roth: “I don’t ask writers about their work habits. I really don’t care. Joyce Carol Oates says somewhere that when writers ask each other what time they start working and when they finish and how much time they take for lunch, they’re actually trying to find out, Is he as crazy as I am? I don’t need that question answered.”
“Nathan Zuckerman is an act. It’s all the art of impersonation, isn’t it? That’s the fundamentalist novelistic gift. Zuckerman is a writer who wants to be a doctor impersonating a pornographer. I am a writer writing a book impersonating a writer who wants to be a doctor impersonating a pornographer–who then to compound the impersonation, to barb the edge, pretends he’s a well-known literary critic.”
“I am like somebody who is trying vividly to transform himself out of himself and into his vividly transforming heroes. I am very much like somebody who spends all day writing.”
V. S. Naipaul: “Actually, I hated Oxford. I hated those degrees and I hate all those ideas of universities. I was far too well prepared for it. I was far more intelligent than most of the people in my college or in my course. I am not boasting, you know well–time has proved all these things. In a way, I had prepared too much for the outer world. There was a kind of solitude and despair, really. at Oxford. I wouldn’t wish anyone to go through it.”
“These careers are so slow–I write a book, and at the end of it I am so tired. Something is wrong with my eyes; I feel I’m going blind. My fingers are so sore that I wrap them in tape. There are all these physical manifestations of a great labor. Then there is a process of just being nothing–utterly vacant. For the past nine months, really, I’ve been vacant.”
Naipaul: Do you think I’ve wasted a bit of myself talking to you?
Interviewer: Not, of course, how I’d put it.
Naipaul: You’ll cherish it?
Interviewer: You don’t like interviews.
Naipaul: I don’t like them because I think that thoughts are so precious you can talk them away. You can lose them.
Haruki Murakami: “Please think about it this way: I have a twin brother. And when I was two years old, one of us–the other one–was kidnapped. He was brought to a faraway place and we haven’t seen each other since. I think my protagonist is him. A part of myself, but not me, and we haven’t seen each other for a long time. It’s a kind of alternative form of myself. In terms of DNA we are the same, but our environment has been different, so our way of thinking would be different. Every time I write a book I put my feet in different shoes. Because sometimes I am tired of being myself. This way I can escape. It’s a fantasy. If you can’t have a fantasy, what’s the point of writing a book?”
“I want my readers to laugh sometimes. Many readers in Japan read my books on the train while commuting. The average salaryman spends two hours a day commuting and he spends those hours reading. That’s why my big books are printed in two volumes: They would be too heavy in one. Some people write me letters, complaining that they laugh when they read my books on the train! It’s very embarrassing for them. Those are the letters I like the most.”
“I’m not pretending it’s the real thing. We are living in a fake world; we are watching fake evening news. We are fighting a fake war. Our government is fake. But we find reality in this fake world. So our stories are the same; we are walking through fake scenes, but ourselves, as we walk through theses scenes, are real. The situation is real, in the sense that it’s a commitment, it’s a true relationship. That’s what I want to write about.”
Orhan Pamuk: “Early in life I realized that the community kills my imagination. I need the pain of loneliness to make my imagination work. And then I’m happy.”
David Grossman: “If I am going to write about a man joining a shoal of salmon, as in See Under: Love, I have to start by making the reality of the salmon very concrete and credible. So I joined divers, I became a salmon. I was unable to eat salmon for years–really. I felt like a cannibal when I ate salmon… Research is a way to get out of myself and be in the world.”
Grossman: There’s even a Hebrew proverb about it: Kin’at sofrim tarbeh hochmah. Jealousy of writers will produce more wisdom.
Interviewer: What does that mean?
Grossman: It means that competition is good, it forces you to be more creative.