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David Grossman on the Books That Shaped Him

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman and Jessica Cohen (translator)

A Horse Walks into a Bar
by David Grossman and Jessica Cohen (translator)


David Grossman, renowned Israeli author and winner of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, shares the books that have shaped his writing, from Sholem Aleichem to James Joyce and Elsa Morante

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman and Jessica Cohen (translator)

A Horse Walks into a Bar
by David Grossman and Jessica Cohen (translator)

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Before we discuss the books that shaped you and your writing, we should take a few minutes to talk about your latest book, Horse Walks into a Bar (translated by Jessica Cohen), which is in the running for this year’s Man Booker International Prize. [It has since been announced the winner.] 

At its centre (although not as narrator) is a quite repugnant stand-up comedian, Dov Greenstein—a self-confessed “bottom-feeder”, a tortured jester and “whore for laughs” who seems to respect no limits. Can you tell us a bit about this character and the inspiration behind him?

Before I talk about my stand-up comedian, whom I find more desperate to be loved, than repugnant, I want to confess that if tomorrow you would ask which books have shaped me, I might give you a totally different short list.

Doveleh is a stand-up comedian in a night club in a small city in the north of Israel. He starts his performance with the usual tango between comedian and audience. He flirts with them and then insults them, he makes them laugh at him and then him at them… he uses everything he can to make his audience a united, tight group and suddenly he leaps out, and bites them.

At a certain point in the performance something happens between him and a woman siting in the room. She knew him as a child and she is stunned by his rudeness and aggression and when he asks her why she looks so shocked, she says “but you were a good boy….”—and these simple, naive childlike words crack him open and a story erupts with a volcanic power from within, and he is forced to tell the story even though the audience is not particularly interested. So he has to constantly bribe them by feeding them jokes, and under this camouflage he tells them his most intimate story.

You asked about the character of Dov—I can say he is totally unpredictable, exposed and funny—it is sheer pleasure for a writer to try to chase such a vivid character. You asked about the inspiration—I just looked into myself and found him. I cannot say it made me very happy that someone like Doveleh is inside me, but over the time I was writing him, we became quite good friends.

What can you tell us about the role of Avishai Lazar, the novel’s narrator? We, the readers, identify with him much more comfortably.

Avishai is an ex-judge and was Doveleh’s best friend when they were fourteen. They’ve had no contact for the past 43 years when one night Doveleh calls him and almost begs him to come and watch his stand-up performance. Avishai does not want to go, he hates stand-up, he is mourning his beloved wife, and yet he feels in Doveleh’s request the urgency of a last wish.

So he goes and he sits there and hates the show and he hates himself for being there, but gradually he realizes the story that bursts out of Doveleh is very relevant to him. Over the course of the performance Avishai understands that by listening to the story of their childhood and of his act of betrayal of Doveleh, he gets a rare chance to repair a terrible pain that he inflicted on his childhood friend.

This is something that we can find in literature and less in life. The second chance—the ability to appeal to the higher court. Literature allows us to tell an old story in a new way. When I was writing this story I thought that each of us has his official “visiting card”—the story that we know how to tell about ourselves to strangers, new acquaintances; about family, parents, about how we were misunderstood in our childhood…and we sharpen and perfect this story until it becomes a “narrative” and quite often we are then entrapped. We do not allow ourselves to realize that this narrative should be dramatically updated or that we can set ourselves free from its grasp.

By the way, this also happens to societies and nations who become entrapped by their legislated stories, and they educate generation after generation on these narratives that—had they only been altered and updated—could perhaps have carried this nation to a better situation.

What are the main questions you wanted to explore in this parable? (At least, “parable” is a word that most critics have pinned to this book—is it a label you are happy with?)

For me it is a story about a person who lives in parallel to the life he could have had. I think we all know people who are living in parallel to their real and authentic life because of a trauma they experience, expectations of parents or teachers, the need to please other people, the obedience to the general zeitgeist. You can feel that the neglected or abandoned authentic life sends pulses of pain and insult and even grief—because someone has been murdered in this process.

My novel is the story of the abandonment of this self—and of the unique opportunity for Doveleh and Avishai to reunite each with his own authentic self. It is also a story of the need we have for someone to look at us with a “good eye”—someone who will be a sympathetic witness to our life. Such a look can redeem us from the narrowness of an indifferent or even uglifying gaze.

Let’s talk about your first writer, Sholem Aleichem. He is pretty much the leader of the Yiddish revival, isn’t he?

Sholem Aleichem was born in 1855 in Ukraine and he is among the three founding fathers of Yiddish literature of the 19th century. He is undoubtedly the greatest Jewish humourist. He is unique in his ability to document and enliven the lives of millions of Jews who lived in the little towns and villages in Eastern Europe, the shtetls. He is most well-known for writing the story on which Fiddler on the Roof was based, but he has many other characters that are vivid and unique, but also symbols for certain prototypes of Jewish society at that time.

When I was eight years old my father entered my room one day, and I remember that he had an untypical smile—a little embarrassed and exposed—and he gave me a small red covered book and said, “Read it, this is how it used to be over there.” I don’t know how, but I felt that he had given me a gift that would reveal something about his childhood, in a small Galician town. My father rarely spoke about his childhood, and he gave me Sholem Aleichem to speak for him, to tell me his own story. The book was called Motl, Peysi the Cantor’s Son. I inhaled it, driven by deep curiosity and passion to know my father as a child. And really he gave me the key not only for his own childhood but to a whole reality that I knew nothing about.

“I remember the shock—every child has their first dead and for me it was the characters of Sholem Aleichem”

I was a first generation Israeli, the Israeli of the early 1960s—young, daring, militant, facing the future, and very reluctant to look back at the Jewish diaspora of Sholem Aleichem. But for me the book was an open channel to be simultaneously in Israel and with the diaspora. I read all six volumes of stories by Sholem Aleichem—as a child today would read Harry Potter. I discovered a whole reality, codes, a language, professions. What did I know about people that drew water from wells? About matchmakers? About non-Jews that surrounded the shtetl? Of the air of mystery and danger that enveloped the Jews there?

Since I was the only child in my class who knew about Sholem Aleichem, it became an intimate secret for me since I realised quickly that reading Sholem Aleichem was not cool enough. Then one day on Holocaust Memorial Day, we were ordered to come in black trousers and white shirts and stand upright and listen to the clichés of the schoolmaster that meant very little to us—the number six million is not understandable for a child. It takes one Anna Frank to bring up the horror.

Suddenly, on the boiling asphalt of the school yard, I understood that the victims are all people I know very well from the stories of Sholem Aleichem. I remember the shock. I was sure that shtetl life existed in parallel to my life—every child has their first dead and for me it was the characters of Sholem Aleichem.

Which work of his in particular would you direct new readers to? 

The story Menachem Mendel is a fascinating one. Menachem Mendel is a young Jewish man who leaves his wife and children behind in the shtetl and he goes to the big city to make big money—he is a person of great dreams and no talent for reality. He is so naïve, and maybe even stupid and definitely a fantasist. Whatever he tries, someone cheats him; but he keeps writing letters to his wife filled with dreams and illusions, and we see the catastrophe coming. She, the wife, is down to earth, sober, the expert of reality, feeding, dressing, caring for the children. She is warning him again and again of his drunkenness for fast enrichment.

To me the stories of Sholem Aleichem are always about the Jew who suffers first and foremost from the fact that he has no home, who does not find a place for himself—always a foreigner. This is the real tragedy of Jews—as a collective and as individuals—that we never really felt at home in the world, though Israel is meant to be that home. It is so heart-breaking to think that after 70 years of sovereignty we still do not have this solidity of existence that we so need.

Like you, he wrote for children and adults. Did his style alter or simply transfer seamlessly whether aimed at adults or children? (As with someone like, for example, Roald Dahl.) How do you make the switch yourself? What—if any—do you find the main differences to be?

When I write for children I write as me but from a different place in myself. I try to look for the channel from me today to the child I was, to the childhood of my children.

I will tell you a story: when my eldest son Yonatan was three years old, I put him to bed one night and I mentioned that this night—the 21st of December—is the longest night of the year. I covered him, kissed him good night, and went to do my things. At five in the morning he burst into our bedroom, agitated, crying that the night is over, and only then did I understand what it is to be a child and not to know that the sun will rise again. For him the night was eternal….the sun rising is such a triumph! Since then, when I write for children, I want to be in this fragile point, not knowing if the sun is rising tomorrow—that everything can surprise you.

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I always ask parents to read stories every night to children before bedtime, and when I write my stories I think of this family moment when parents and child are together and the child cuddles with the father or mother who reads the story and sometimes these stories can give place and legitimacy to things that do not exists in that family—a certain language, humour, imagination. Even babies can recognise the “voice of the story” transferring them to another sphere that is different from their everydayness. When my father read to me, suddenly I was able to grasp a sparkle of my authoritative father as a child. For a child the night can be frightening: darkness, shadows, things look different, and they are alone while everyone else is active. Maybe the child gets a glimpse of life before he came into the world. Nights are also dreams and nightmares and the child cannot understand why the parent does not come in to protect him. I want the story to be a kiss on the cheek of the child before he goes off for the journey of the night.

Tell us the story of Bruno Schultz, your next writer.

Bruno Schultz was a Jewish, Polish writer, who lived in Drohobych, a small town in Galicia. He was a modest artist, regarded today as one of the greatest 20th-century writers. He said that our everyday life and our art consist of fragments of old legends, artefacts of ancient cults, crumbs of mythology. He described the small life of his modest family as a rudiment of such mythology. He compared human language to a huge primal snake which was cut into thousands of pieces (the words) that have lost their ancient vitality, that today have the function of communication only, but still always continue “to look for each other in the dark”.

Every writer knows the magical moments of putting two words together, when suddenly there is a spark, and you know that these words were neighbours in Schultz’s ancient snake. His novel, The Messiah, is unfinished and lost, but he wrote several stories where, on reading them, life explodes; in every paragraph there is a simultaneous occurrence of all layers of consciousness and sub-consciousness, of dream and nightmare, of fantasy.

My first time reading Schultz’s work was “Cinnamon Shops” (collected in The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories). I was captivated. I felt like I was in a dream, in total madness. I felt like everyone in love feels: that these words were meant only for me… Only later did I realise he was beloved by others who discovered him years before.

In the epilogue to the book, I learned about the story of his death. In the ghetto, he was enslaved by a Nazi named Landau, who made him draw murals at his home; another Nazi officer, named Gunther, after losing a card game to Landau, shot Schultz, just to hurt Landau. When they met later, he told Landau: “I’ve killed your Jew,” and Landau answered: “so now I’ll kill your Jew”. True? Imagined? I believe it is made up, but this tale has a power that has lasted for years. After I read it I walked for hours as if in a fog not wanting to live in a world that allows such monstrosities as these sentences.

Schultz has had an extensive and colourful literary afterlife, cropping up in the work of writers, from Cynthia Ozick (The Messiah of Stockholm) to, most recently, Jonathan Safran Foer (Tree of Codes). Can you tell us about your own “tribute” to Schultz, See Under Love?

This time, unlike the paralysis of a ten-year-old reading Sholem Aleichem, I had already started to write and wanted to write about Bruno Schultz: a book that would shiver on the shelf, that would have the vitality of one second of human life, the vitality that Bruno Schultz teaches us in his writing.

“After I read it I walked for hours as if in a fog not wanting to live in a world that allows such monstrosities as these sentences”

What had such an impact on me is the clash between the vitality of the multi-layered, energetic writing of Bruno Schultz versus the sterile equations of the Nazis—you kill my Jew, I kill your Jew—as if human beings can be replaced by each other. Writing about him, giving him a second life, was the only possible way to stand in front of the paralysis that human evil cast on me. In my books often characters face some kind of arbitrariness: of Nazis, of our body on our soul, military occupation, and above all—the arbitrariness of death. I found out that whenever I wrote about arbitrariness, I stopped being the passive and paralysed victim—I am not in the place where I was before I wrote about it.

Next we have James Joyce’s, “The Dead”, the last—and longest—story in Dubliners (1914). It’s surely one of the finest short stories ever written. How old were you when you first read it? What was the context of your discovery and why did it impress you so much?

I was a young soldier on an abandoned mountain in Sinai, in 1973. It was 41 degrees Celsius, and I was reading about a holiday evening dinner, with duck on the table and snow outside. It was so far away from me, an Irish home, all so foreign and unfamiliar. I was fascinated by it. It is the perfect story—you can almost touch the characters, and yet it is told from a remote point of view, from a distance but not without affection.

Anyone who writes knows how difficult it is to find the perfect distance. The ending of the story is heart-breaking: the scene when Gabriel, so full of love and passion, is convinced that he and his wife Gretta will make love later that night. And as she starts speaking about the young man she loved he realises he never really knew his wife and how stupid and shallow he was in her eyes…. How little do we know about the people we are so close to? There is always this air of mystery; something will remain enigmatic. And now, years after my first reading of this book, I can see that behind every human story is another and yet another…this is the human archaeology. A good story that radiates layer upon layer, and each acts on us without our knowledge.

Your next story is Thomas Mann’s novella Mario and the Magician (1929). How does this one work on you?

The story is about a family vacation. The narrator, his wife and two young children—all German—travel to the town of Torre di Venere, a little town in Italy, in the 1920s. It begins with joy and enthusiasm and quickly deteriorates when the family meets the phenomena of Italian nationalism and Fascism.

At the centre of the story is a hypnotists’s performance that ends in an unexpected and tragic way. The main character is the strange and arrogant hypnotist, Cipolla, an expert in taking over people’s will power and subjugating their minds to him. The subtext of the story is (of course) Fascism and the wish of people to give up their free will and deposit it into hands of authority, let it be the Duce, or Cipolla.

The politics here are, of course, much more forceful. It feels very much like a book for our own splenetic times.

The mechanism of turning towards fanaticism and Fascism is the same in 1926 as in 2017. The more confusing and violent the world becomes, people are more eager to find shelter in superficiality and to identify with and even assimilate into an imagined strong and “Fatherly” personality.

Cipolla the hypnotist is a fine construction. Can you tell us a bit about him, his power and his purpose? (Imagine him and Dov Greenstein sharing the stage…)

Cipolla wouldn’t allow anyone to share the stage with him. He is a hunchback, a repulsive, ugly person in appearance and mannerism, in his vanity, in the deep contempt in which he holds the audience. But I think his power comes from the feeling that there is a struggle inside himself… his personality is a permanent inner battle. This is what attracts us as spectators, as readers, to such a show: that we are allowed to peep into the hell of another human being—it is, of course, an irresistible temptation.

And now let’s have your finale—your fifth book, La Storia (1974) by Elsa Morante (History: A Novel). When did you first encounter this book? What struck you about it?

Morante creates the story of the mother, Ida, and the child Useppe (a nickname for Giuseppe) born during the Second World War, the outcome of a rape by a German soldier. Useppe is the sweetest child ever described in a book. He keeps his joy of life amidst the atrocities around him. You see the unbearable contradiction between the nature of war and the fragility of a family. Morante opposes the anonymity of war—the war of masses, states, armies, troops—to the individual, to the uniqueness of Ida, Useppe and Bella their dog.

“The great power of literature—as opposed to the power of mass media—is that if 1,000 people read the same book, the book reads each of them differently”

This is what literature is about—a commitment to the individual. There is the terrible sentence by Stalin, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” Literature tries to redeem the tragic life of the individual from the anonymous statistic of Stalin. The great power of literature—as opposed to the power of mass media where ten million watch a reality programme and are almost glued together with kitsch and self-righteous sentimentality—is that if 1,000 people read the same book, the book reads each of them differently.

Formally, it’s a very interesting work, with constant “interruptions” from the not-so detached narrator, and the blurring of the lines between fact and fiction. (That much is clear simply from the title’s English translation, History: A Novel). Can you tell us a bit about what you think Morante was doing, and how it works on the reader?

La Storia is special in its mixture of imagination and facts and the orders of the German army and history books and the pamphlets of anarchists and the sweetness of the child who is feeling, in a primal way, when there is danger or evil. The not-so-detached story teller is the voice of a woman. Maybe it is Morante herself, who bestows goodness and a benevolent motherly hand, who leads us through the atrocities, with a sober voice and a lamenting reality.

All this has just reminded me of the time I met the mayor of Rome and I told him that next to the sculpture of Romulus and Remus they should make one of Ida and Useppe.

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

June 13, 2017

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David Grossman

David Grossman

David Grossman is one of Israel's most renowned authors, whose books—fiction and nonfiction, for adults and children— have been translated into more than 30 languages. His most recent novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar, has been shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize

David Grossman

David Grossman

David Grossman is one of Israel's most renowned authors, whose books—fiction and nonfiction, for adults and children— have been translated into more than 30 languages. His most recent novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar, has been shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize