David Grossman is a funny man. It takes me by surprise. (Insert joke about how being Jewish is inherently funny). Perhaps this is because the first words I read from him were about grief, in his PEN/Arthur Miller Freedom To Write speech given in the spring of 2007 and reprinted in the New York Times Magazine. Those words so moved me that they have, in the manner of all writers who I have loved, become a part of me, something I can refer to almost without thinking. Many times a day, as I sit at my writing desk, I touch on sorrow and loss like one touching electricity with bare hands, yet it does not kill me. I do not understand how this miracle has come to pass.* He said this the year after the death of his son, Uri, in the war between Israel and Lebanon, just before he was to have finished his army service. Now he is here in Seattle to talk about the novel he began as his second son was entering the army and finished after Uri's death, To the End of the Land.
In the novel, Ora's son Ofer, who is coming to the end of his army service, decides to return to service along with his fellow soldiers. Aghast, Ora fears Ofer's death in the upcoming battles, and decides that if she is not home to receive news of his death, he cannot die. That if she goes on this journey, 'to the end of the land,' this will keep him safe. She drags with her an old friend, Avram, who came back from his own battles years before, broken and scarred, to join her on this journey. Along the way, she begins telling the story of Ofer's life, as if by describing the details of all his years on earth she can make them real to her. It is impossible not to draw a parallel between this story and David Grossman's own life, impossible to think that by writing about Ofer he thought to keep Uri safe, and when he could not, to at least bring him back to life in words. But none of that is spoken of, now, as though by writing this novel Grossman at last pulled tight a veil over his own personal grief.
I can't help but think of Joan Didion's Blue Nights, although it is a memoir, and To the End of the Land is fiction. But both are about conjuring up a lost child, a grown daughter or son brought back to life through memories as fragile as the seafoam that washes up onto the beach and dries into white lace that can be blown away on the wind. Both are about memory and reality, although Didion's California and New York are a distant planet from Grossman's war-scarred Israel. What they share (leaving aside their sharply critical political writings that have no bearing here) is the grief of losing a child, and that understanding about writing as a way to, if not eradicate grief, then to fix it in some permanent place around which life continues to move. I write, and I feel how the correct and precise use of words acts like a medicine. It purifies the air I breathe...*
Grossman, David. Writing in the Dark. Picador, 2008. p67, p65.