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Israeli author David Grossman talks about the importance of childhood, the role of the writer, and his ...
2020-12-02 09:00:00

I’m Not an Escapist
An Interview with David Grossman

I’m Not an Escapist
Read in 8 minutes

Łukasz Saturczak: In his autobiographical book A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz thus writes about his parents who arrived in pre-war Palestine from Vilnius and Galicia: “Europe for them was a forbidden promised land, a yearned-for landscape […] words like ‘cottage’, ‘meadow’ or ‘goose girl’ excited and seduced me all through my childhood. They had the sensual aroma of a genuine, cozy world, far from the dusty tin roofs, the urban wasteland of scrap iron and thistles, the parched hillsides of our Jerusalem suffocating under the weight of white-hot summer.” Was the European landscape mythologized in a similar way in your family?

David Grossman: The myth of Europe as such was not felt at all; yet memories of their little homeland, that is Dynów, were cherished – the village, the river, the aroma of freshly-baked bread.

I chose this fragment because, even though you and Oz belong to different generations, your family histories are similar: one parent hailing from Galicia, then emigration to Palestine before World War II, the Shoah, participation in building the new country of Israel from its inception. Was your work mainly influenced by growing up among “the parched hillsides of our Jerusalem” or was it also shaped by the tales of your ancestors – as in the case of the author of Where the Jackals Howl?

When I was a kid, my father did not tell me much. It changed when I was eight and started asking him about many different things. He responded by telling me stories about Polish shtetls. Until 10, I was convinced that Jewish life in Europe went on exactly like ours, in my Israel. It was a shock to take part in ceremonies commemorating the victims of the Shoah – I suddenly realized that the life of European Jews no longer looked like the stories my father told me. He also gave me books by Sholem Aleichem, which I voraciously devoured. I think that because of this passion I led a double life. On the one hand, I was an ordinary Israeli boy, keen on football, and waiting for his army draft card. On the other hand, being immersed in the stories of my father and of Aleichem was equally important to me; I became a part of them, in my imagination I actually lived in these tales.

Your father left for Palestine with his mother, as a boy, in 1936, thus narrowly escaping the hell of Nazism. Did your childhood in Palestine differ significantly from that of your peers who were growing up in homes where the memory of the Holocaust was still alive?

I could feel I was different. First of all, I was one of few kids in my class who had grandparents. Even so, the Shoah was a generational experience and the feeling, the awareness of having survived was eminently present, had an impact on everyone, even if your family did not go through this experience. We all grew up in the shadow of the Shoah. I also remember that people kept talking about a country ‘over there’; they reminisced about this mysterious ‘somewhere’, but without any specifics – the adults in particular did not talk about it with children. Every day you saw numbers tattooed on people’s forearms, but nobody explained to us the origin of the tattoos. My aunt who survived Treblinka had such a number, and as a kid I believed that if I enunciated these numbers in the right order, she would suddenly open up and become a cheerful person, very different from who she was on a daily basis.

Was substituting this ‘over there’ for Poland and Dynów the narrative you heard in your home as well?

There were two narratives: there was the country ‘over there’, and there was this particular place my father told me about, his little homeland Dynów, which I visited with my brother and sister the first time we were in Poland. I think I even found our family house, but I am not entirely sure of this. I was afraid of this visit, because in the Israeli narrative, the ‘over there’ is often a dark, gloomy place, but it turned out to be full of life, rich with nature.

I am trying to find the roots of your writerly sensibility. A happy home, a complete family, family memories free of the gloom of World War II. On the other hand, however, even as a kid you witnessed war in Israel, as your childhood (the turn of the 1950s and 1960s) was the time of the biggest Israeli-Arab conflicts: the Suez crisis, the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War... In such a world, you started writing children’s books.

I started writing books for children only after I understood – thanks to having my own kids – how a child’s mind works. Writing these books opened a passageway between myself at the time of writing and myself as a child. I also believe that children, before they learn to speak and write, have an awareness of the story read to them. It is because words read aloud sound different than everyday conversations. Because we use different words and structures, children start differentiating between fiction and reality. They understand what humour, surrealism, fictional characters are. When I was writing fairy tales, I also wanted the parents to become someone else, someone they want their children to see. I wanted them to become children.

Is this how you saw yourself, too?

At first, I did not realize it could work like this. But after several years of extensively writing and reading to children, I saw that I was becoming a child, too.

As you were talking about children’s books – about humour, surrealism, language – I had the impression that you were also talking about your novels. Is moving between writing for adults and writing for children a smooth process?

I started my career writing books for an adult audience – much heavier, more demanding. When I write for a younger audience, I want to provide readers with a sense of security. All the more so because we mainly read books before going to sleep, and night is a difficult time for a child – there are dreams, nightmares, and parents cannot show up, wake the child and provide comfort. Shadows on the wall or sleeves look like monsters, and the child is scared. Night is a special time in yet another respect – when the child stays alone in their room, hearing their parents’ voices behind the wall, he or she can imagine what the house was like before the child arrived. I want my book to be like a goodnight kiss on the cheek.

Once again, I have the impression that you could say the same about your books for adults. Your novel Falling Out of Time talks about dealing with the loss of a child, To the End of the Land tells the story of a woman who runs away from conflict as far as she can, and one of the protagonists of See Under: Love is a writer who experiences being locked up in a gas chamber, which we interpret as a way of facing trauma. Naturally, your entire work is then about dealing with loss, coming to terms with death, living with a never-ending conflict. Is writing a form of therapy?

When I started writing, I found a place where I felt at home as a writer. This place is inextricably linked with loss and suffering. I am not a believer and I don’t know what happens after we die, but I do believe one can simultaneously live in the sphere of loss and nothingness and in the sphere of vitality and fullness. Art, including literature, is about existing in these two realms at the same time. You are right saying that books can provide a sense of security even when they describe brutality and horror. The very act of writing about these things has the power to save us, to prevent us from fixating on our sense of loss, to make us move forward.

Is it difficult for you to navigate between fairy tale and reality? An escape from reality is a constant motif in your writing; in one story you refer to Bruno Schulz, yet you live in a country where assassinations and wars are commonplace, almost a part of everyday life, where reality knocks at your door – and knocks hard.

I am not an escapist and I want to be a part of what is happening in Israel. I fully support dialogue with Palestinians, I would like the occupation to end and peace to reign. My novels aren’t escapist, either; they’re just rooted in human history, even if sometimes they seem a little otherworldly. I am interested in people – those who have lived in a state of war for two or three generations, how war impacts their soul, how the soul shrinks. My writing is not an escape, it is an attempt at understanding.

What is more important for you, an Israeli writer living in a country torn by permanent conflict: the story itself or the lesson that it teaches? Do you want to tell the story for the story’s sake or do you perhaps want to be, to a certain degree, a moralist?

It’s a good question! I think writers should above all focus on writing a good story. They should not be concerned with anything else. I am not saying we should not be involved in social and political life, yet we should do so not as writers, but as people concerned about their country and its fate. Writers do not have greater rights to talk about reality, neither do they have a greater insight into it than a taxi driver or a carpenter. What can they do best then? They know how to use language, they can spot linguistic manipulation more easily and rectify it. Writers also have this feature that allows them to look at a given situation from the perspective of another – for instance, our enemy. It is important.

Writers often protect their books from being used as commentaries on contemporary reality. Authors are happy to discuss social and political issues, to manifest their views; they write journalism, while insisting at the same time that their fiction should not be read as journalism because they consider such readings of literature reductive and shallow. What do you think? Are books above our life here and now? Are they more important?

I don’t think literature is better than journalism. I don’t shun journalistic work myself. I still prefer writing fiction because it gives me a lot of freedom.

Let’s finish our conversation by going back to where we began. Your father left Dynów in 1936; exactly 10 years later my grandparents left the same town. Today, you are sitting in your flat in Jerusalem, I am in Warsaw, and we’re having this conversation over the phone. Do you ever think in such moments about an alternative life, about ‘what if’?

Oh! Do you also come from the same place?

I was born in Przemyśl.

But it’s very close [to Dynów]. I’m so glad to hear about it. As for you question – I think writing is about constantly inventing alternative realities and characters who also belong to the past.

Until our next meeting, then, and I promise to find your family house before your next visit to Poland.

It’s a deal. My father is 93 and has a very agile mind. I’m going to send him regards from his fellow countryman, he will be glad.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

David Grossman was a guest of Big Book Festival.

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