KLASSEN ON BOOKS - JULY 2017 (Reviews)


John Klassen

David Grossman

Grossman (1954-) is an Israeli author.. He has written a number of fiction and non-fiction books, and has garnered a long list of literary prizes, the most recent being the International Man Booker for his novel: A Horse Walks into a Bar.

A Horse Walks into a Bar

The jacket blurb provides a good summary of the novel: "In a little dive in a small Israeli city, Dov Greenstein, a comedian a bit past his prime, is doing a night of stand-up. In the audience is a district court justice, Avishai Lazar, whom Dov knew as a boy, along with a few others who remember Dov as an awkward, scrawny kid who walked on his hands to confound the neighbourhood bullies. Gradually, as it teeters between hilarity and hysteria, Dov's patter becomes a kind of memoir, taking us back into the terrors of his childhood: we meet his beautiful flower of a mother, a Holocaust survivor in need of constant monitoring, and his punishing father, a striver who had little understanding of his creative son. Finally, recalling his week at a military camp for youth--where Lazar witnessed what would become the central event of Dov's childhood--Dov describes the indescribable while Lazar wrestles with his own part in the comedian's story of loss and survival."

What the summary leaves out is that Dov calls Lazar, after decades of no contact, to ask that Lazar attend the stand-up performance. Lazar is reluctant and then embarrassed when he realises that he had blocked Dov from his memory despite their past friendship as school boys. Lazar agrees to go to the show but asks, "Why do you need me there?" Dov responds, "I want you to look at me. I want you to see me, really see me, and then afterward tell me. Tell you what? What you saw."

Another important character in the story is a very small, handicapped woman in the audience whom Dov does not at first recognise as from his neighbourhood who knew him as a boy. Dov calls her Pitz, short for “Pitzel”, a Yiddish word for a very small person, often a baby or toddler. Her real name is Eurycleia, the name of the family nurse who recognised Odysseus, by a scar on his leg, when he returned in disguise to kill the suitors. Grossman' choice of name is not coincidence. His Eurycleia also guards a truth, the truth of what she knows of Dov as a boy who was kind-hearted, sympathetic, and generous towards a handicapped, abused little girl. This is not how Dov sees, or portrays, himself and Pitz often interjects to contradict the stream of Dov's self-disparaging monologue. She is like Lear's Fool: knowledgeable, perceptive and ready to speak to her truth. This Eurycleia sees the scars on Dov's psyche, but she also sees past them to another person whom she insists on recognising through the increasingly tortured monologue punctuated by slapstick and Dov's extreme facial and physical mobility.

Writing in the Guardian Bookmarks (June 16, 2107) the writer Andrew O'Hagan (on another subject) talked about "people bent out of shape--by their pasts, by their ambitions or by their illusions." This is what we see in the novel. Grossman describes it through Lazar's thoughts: "The radiance of personality...The inner glow. Or the inner darkness. The secret, the tremble of singularity. Everything that lies beyond the words that describe a person, beyond the things that happened to him and the things that went wrong and became warped in him."

In exploring the "tremble of singularity" through the layers of Dov's life, Grossman indivualizes the universal experiences of love, loss, family, growth from childhood to maturity, blasted lives, relationships in family and with friends, and the rippling, generational effects of the past, particularly of past horrors. In so doing, he makes Dov real and speaks to any reader. At the same time Grossman reinforces the realisation that however close one might come to the 'singularity' it is impossible to really know another person and even, perhaps, oneself.

Grossman is good on the mentality of crowds and how they can be manipulated. Watching the reaction of the audience to Dov's early monologue, Lazar thinks, "'This man is not handsome or exciting or attractive but he's figured out how to touch people in exactly the places that turn them into a rabble, into riffraff." At another point, Lazar sees how Dov, "works himself up into a frenzy, and by doing so works them up, too. He inflames himself and ignites them, too. I can't quite understand how it works, but it does. Even I can feel the vibrations in the air, in my body, and I tell myself that maybe it's just hard to remain indifferent when faced with a man so throughly fused with the primal element."

Other themes weave through the novel: how memory is fallible and how it can completely forget or distort points of life; the side effects of one's own experiences and of the actions of others that can shape life; how the constant actions and reactions of life can be like a chess game.

In his very fine novel, To the End of the Land, Grossman tells the story of Ora, who leaves her home in Jerusalem to walk across Israel to Galilee, in order to avoid the "notifiers" from the army who might arrive at any moment to inform her of the death of her son. I was intrigued to see Grossman return to the concept in this novel a few times. When Dov recounts a traumatic experience from his childhood he notes, "It's like nothing can really start until I actually know. Isn't that so?" It is holding at-bay the fact, or even the possibility, of unwelcome knowledge that will turn life onto a very different track, fracture memories and form and manipulate those that will henceforth structure life.

About half-way through the performance, Lazar recalls what it was that Dov had asked him to try to see: "the thing that comes out of a person against his will. The thing that only one person in the world might have." Lazar's conclusion is reached towards the end of the night.

Early in the novel, when Dov is trying to convince Lazar to come to his show, he admits that he is not as excited as he used to be about stand-up; before, it had been "like tight-rope walking for me. At any minute you could crash and burn in front of the whole audience." The tight-rope is a perfect metaphor for this novel. Can Dov hold the interest of his audience as he moves from stand-up (with some pretty fair jokes) to a lacerating examination of his life? And, can Grossman keep the attention of the reader through 200 pages? You have to read the book for the answer on the first tight-rope. On the second, my answer is a resounding yes. This is a complex, layered, gripping novel that works because of Grossman's talent as a writer, and as a keen observer of life.

Tags: John Klassen