I was unfamiliar with the work of the Israeli writer David Grossman, but I encountered his work in the New York Times Magazine, my eye caught by a full-page photograph of the author, blue eyes, blue shirt, blue background, looking through wire-framed glasses down at something the rest of us cannot see. (Some memory, perhaps, or his own sorrow). The essay, translated from the Hebrew, is adapted from a lecture he gave at PEN's World Voices Festival a few weeks ago. As always, it is a few sentences excerpted from the article, running in large font across the top of the page, that draw me in: Many times every day, he says, as I sit at my desk, I touch on grief and loss like one touching electricity with his bare hands, and yet I do not die. I cannot grasp how this miracle works.
I have - so far - escaped the loss of a parent, the loss of a spouse or child (the latter because I have no spouse or child to lose). I live in anticipation that the day will come, and for now I have no concept of what that might do to me or how I could live through it. I have watched others move through their lives after loss, wounded and numb, and I have wept for them, and for the knowledge that one day I will weep for myself. And now I weep for David Grossman as I read his words and look upon the face of his second-eldest son, Uri, who was killed last year in the war between Israel and Lebanon. (In a snapshot, wearing his army uniform, he looks younger than I am, his eyes like his father's, behind similar wire-framed glasses; if he had lived perhaps thirty years from now he might have looked much like his father does now).
The writer experiences grief by writing (what Kingsolver described, borrowing from Adrienne Rich, as "diving through the wreck"), much as the artist does through art. I am reminded of an Agatha Christie novel, where the murdered man's lover remember how he, early in the novel, angrily tells her that if he were dead, the first thing she would do, "with the tears streaming down [her] face, would be to start modelling some damned mourning woman or some figure of grief..." (and which, in the end, she does). I write, Grossman tells us, and feel how the correct and precise use of words is sometimes like a remedy to an illness. Like a contraption for purifying the air...
At one point in my life I had disappointed everyone in my life, including myself, and I felt paralyzed by fear. I have never quite moved on from that failure; it is still with me, even though I do not often think of that time, or the people I associate with those days. But I remember writing to one of the people that I had let down, and telling them I regretted the choices I had made (or did not make), but that if I kept looking back, I would forget how to move on, and to live. And now I look at these words said by this man who lives daily with the death of his son and the turmoil of his country, how the power of memory is indeed enormous and heavy, and at times has a paralyzing quality to it...[but] when we write, we feel the world move; it is flexible, crammed with possibilities...Wherever human existence permeates, there is no freezing and no paralysis...
I felt a sense of electricity when I read these words, not in the sense that Grossman experiences grief and loss, but in the sense that I have come one step closer in understanding the million reasons why literature matters.
Grossman, David. "Writing in the Dark." The New York Times Magazine, May 13, 2007. pp 28-31.
Christie, Agatha. The Hollow. Berkeley Books, New York, 1984. p 40.