Reviewers of David Grossman’s To the End of the Land have confused the author’s grief with his artistry—and have misread the book
For all the laudatory—indeed, reverent—reviews of To the End of the Land, David Grossman’s latest novel, one would be entirely forgiven for giving it a pass, for considering the novel to be a worthy enterprise but not one you’d rush to hunker down with anytime soon. After all, the book has thus far been treated more as an act of psychological courage rather than one shaped by the impulse to make art out of experience—as a sacred monument rather than an autonomous literary entity.
This has much to do with the fact that the book comes with its own legend of creation, one that is tragic in tone and thus all the more difficult to overlook. Because of the back light shone on Grossman’s personal life, nearly every reviewer of the novel seems to have been operating under the assumption that a clear-eyed estimate of its achievements and flaws would be considered a bad-hearted swipe at a grieving man’s testament to profound loss. And so, paradoxically, what has gotten lost in the vaporous praise with which Grossman’s latest offering has been met is the fact that the book, notwithstanding its longueurs and its irritating dream-fever of an opening section, actually is a fascinating read—for a slew of troublesome, complicated reasons that none of its reviewers has yet addressed.
Even before its publication, the circumstances that swirled around the writing of To the End of the Land became part of the discourse about it. As article after article recounted, Grossman’s younger son, Uri, was serving in the Israeli army during a large part of the writing of the novel; in 2006, before the book was finished, he was killed in combat in Southern Lebanon when his tank was hit by a rocket. In case one had not happened to learn of this sad news when it occurred, Grossman has further blurred the boundaries of life and art by providing a short italicized afterword in which he refers to the incident, providing touching details such as his having discussed the book and its characters with Uri when they talked on the phone or when he came home on leave. The novelist also reveals one of his intentions in writing the book: “At the time, I had the feeling—or rather a wish—that the book I was writing would protect him.” It’s all very heartfelt, for sure, but how to approach the book without a burden of blinding sympathy for the trying circumstances under which it was written?
As if this weren’t sufficiently extenuating, the profile of Grossman that appeared in The New Yorker shortly before the book’s publication is, in fact, called “The Unconsoled,” and it explicitly takes up the issue of his son’s death and its relation to the writing of the novel. George Packer, the author of the profile, describes Grossman as “a secular prophet” and discusses the novel in mostly hyperbolic terms: Its main character, Ora, is Grossman’s “greatest fictional creation,” just as the novel is the “most Israeli” of his novels and also the “most universal.” True, Packer refers to some dissenting Israeli opinions about the book and quotes Grossman’s friend, the writer A.B. Yehosuha, as having told Grossman that he didn’t have to worry about its reception because he was “protected.” (He later regretted having made the comment.) We come away with a sense that this book is fated to be treated with kid gloves, as a complex species of “victim art”—which is basically what has transpired, with most of the reviews sounding an awed and deferential note, such as Colm Toibin’s rhapsodic but strangely generic cover review in The New York Times Book Review.
Let us try, then, to stand the book on its own two feet, without special pleading, and see what manner of novel Grossman has actually delivered. For starters, it is patently ambitious, running to nearly 600 pages and covering much of Israel’s battle-scarred history in what amounts to a sustained interior monologue. For another, some of its plot devices—a sudden re-appearance and the occurrence of certain signal acts seem so creaky as to beggar belief. (Would two friends really be willing to let their mutual girlfriend decide which of them will continue fighting in the Yom Kippur war?) Then, too, the translation falters more than one would like (“she let out a cold, foreign shard of laughter”). But perhaps most crucially, the novel is—how to put this except bluntly?—too long, too filled with boringly florid nature descriptions and narrative meanderings in lieu of a plot. I daresay it would have been a more accomplished work—certainly a more readerly one—if had come in at two-thirds the length. I defy anyone to read the novel without having a frequent urge to either skim ahead or to put the book down, perhaps never to return to it; my secret belief is that only I and the book’s editor have read every word.
Finally, the book makes curiously little effort to persuade the reader that its central character and her concerns should be of vital interest to us. Instead, it imposes her on us as someone we should pay close attention to by means of the aforementioned opening, in which a teenaged Ora and the two boys who will come to love her are stranded in an isolation ward in what appears to be a deserted hospital on the eve of the 1967 war. I assume this section, which I found tedious, is meant to be a dramatic prelude to what will come later, introducing us to characters we don’t yet know well enough to care about but who all the same appear to be experiencing a transformative moment in their youthful lives that will connect them forever.
The story proper begins with 33 years later, with Ora’s decision to take a hike in the Galilee with Avram, a former lover and the best friend of her estranged husband, Ilan (this is the trio from the isolation ward), who was brutally tortured as an Egyptian POW during the Yom Kippur war and is now a shell of his former self. Ora is a reluctant Zionist, one who feels her country has “nationalized her life” and whose family characterizes her as being on “the delusional left” but who all the same has little patience for the theatrics of Mothers for Peace (“There was something defiant and annoying and unfair about them and the whole idea, coming to harass soldiers while they worked”) and wishes that Arabic places had “normal-sounding names.” She had originally planned to make this journey with her younger son, Ofer—there is also an older boy named Adam—in celebration of the fact that he has finished his military duty. But unbeknownst to her and much to her distress, Ofer has contracted “battle thirst” and decided to re-enlist (“she still wasn’t convinced that the male brain could tell the difference between war and games”) so that the purpose of the hike has now taken on a talismanic character, much like the novel itself. Ora commits herself to describing Ofer and the “private underground cell” of her family life to Avram (who, in fact, is Ofer’s father, although he has never seen his son) in the conviction that by keeping her son’s image alive and in front of them as they walk, he will return home safely. “She must describe him in minute detail,” Grossman writes, “especially his body. She must give a name to every eyelash and fingernail, to every passing expression, to every movement of his mouth or hands, to the shadows that fall on his face at different times of day.” What Ora fears most is the possibility that Ofer won’t survive, that she will open her door early one morning to find the “notifiers”—“These people come even at five in the morning, that’s exactly when they come, they get you sleepy, dazed, defenseless”—awaiting her with a dire message. “She is walking because she is walking. Because Ofer is there, at the end of the road.”
This, in essence, is the storyline—but what marvelous moments run alongside it! These range from keen observations about characters such as the Arab driver Sami, with whom Ora has a fraught relationship (“He’s witty and sly, a political dodger who shoots in all directions with decoys and double-edged swords”) to meticulously rendered evocations of maternal attunement: “When he was twelve, she remembers, he used to change his voice when he answered the phone and project a strained ‘Hello’ that was supposed to sound deep, and a minute later he would forget and go back to his thin squeak.” Grossman has perfect pitch when it comes to conveying the emotional tenor of things: the “basement loneliness of childhood,” someone “sensing the metallic taste of an approaching mistake” or “walking in a shamefaced defeated sort of daydream state.” He is as skilled at describing the effects of brutality—the high-voltage scenes evoking the torture Avram has been subjected to are difficult to read in their graphicness—as he is at conveying the gentle current of domestic dramas, the subtle and often mundane ebb and flow of relations between husband and wife, parents and children. “A wave of warmth spills out to him inside her,” he writes, “as Ofer, without budging at all, moves a whole hairsbreadth away from her. She feels it, and knew it would happen: he seals himself off with that same quick shift of the soul that she knows from Ilan and Adam, from all her men, who time after time have slammed their doors shut in the face of her brimming, leaving her tenderness fluttering outside, flattering, turning instantly into a caricature.” We come to believe in Ora, with all her contradictions, just as we come to believe in the tenuousness that marks the nature of reality in Israel, where ordinary life is conducted under the shadow of the Occupation and where the job of countless mothers’ sons serving in trouble spots is to sacrifice themselves for the greater good—“to stand there so the terrorist blows himself up on him and not on civilians.”
To the End of the Land is a demanding and often claustrophobic novel, requiring more than a bit of patience from the reader. Truth be told, it can be something of a drag at times, in the way novels that derive from consuming personal preoccupations can be, with the author getting fixated on something the nature of which only he understands while the reader wants to shout out: Enough already! We get it! She loves her child! (Although, again, to read it in the shadow of Grossman’s own loss seems to me to do the novel a disservice, rendering Ora a simplistic projection rather than the full-fledged fictional creation she is.) That said, once you give yourself up to it, it succeeds in casting a quite extraordinary spell, one that steals up on you. The intensity of his vision and his refusal to let up on his grip notwithstanding, Grossman has written the least sanctimonious and most unpolemical of anti-war novels—one that zooms in on the fragile nature of our connections and the ever-present possibility of loss with a focus that is both tender and unflinching: “Believe in the soundtrack,” Ora tells herself. “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.”