Guest Comment: On the Occasion of Uri Grossman’s Death
On the Occasion of Uri Grossman’s Death
‘ About five years ago I had the good fortune of hearing David Grossman, the Israeli writer, speak at an event in San Francisco. Grossman related the following anecdote: he was traveling on a bus in Israel and heard an excerpt from his novel See Under: Love being read aloud on a radio program that playing over the bus’ speakers. In this excerpt the mother of the protagonist is briefly described as having a block of wood tied to one of her feet. Grossman himself claimed he couldn’t recall what this block of wood was doing tied to her foot, so when he got home he opened a copy of the novel he had written some years earlier to find the answer. What he discovered was that this woman, his creation, was quite short and that in order to reach the pedal of her sewing machine she needed this block of wood tied to the end of her leg. Grossman ended the anecdote by recalling how pleased he was with himself as a writer and a person in that moment. He saw this minor detail in his novel as little more than a sign of a certain empathetic generosity on his part. Somehow, in a manner that was neither preachy nor sanctimonious, Grossman ended the talk by encouraging us, as writers and thinkers and above all human beings, to be aware of those who need these blocks so that we might find a way to provide them.
I’m reminded of this anecdote often when I read and teach Grossman’s work. Though this isn’t the type of thing that one can easily say when writing scholarship, or even when working with a group of undergrads, I think Grossman is simply the most empathetic writer I’ve ever read. There is an acute sensitivity in his writing, a sensitivity for characters that clearly are not stand-ins for himself, which amazes and invigorates and even overwhelms me as a reader. This empathy runs across Grossman’s work in an astounding range of genres. It is painfully evident in his 1991 novel, The Book of Intimate Grammar, where he carefully explores the tormented inner world of a similarly sensitive young adolescent who ultimately cannot survive in the aggressive and almost brutal world of 1960s Israel. In his numerous books for children, a more optimistic Grossman again and again demonstrates his profound awareness of what it means to live as a child with a limited understanding of the adult world.
And, of course, there are Grossman’s important, almost heroic, works of non-fiction, in which he unapologetically puts before his often reluctant Jewish-Israeli audience nuanced portraits of the Palestinian and Arab other that see them and demand they be seen as nothing less than fully human. The last paragraph of Grossman’s 1987 The Yellow Wind, which, not long before the outbreak of the first Palestinian Intifada, implored Israelis to address the inequities and injustices inherent in their occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in many ways sums up what I see as motivating Grossman’s writing in general:
Albert Camus said that this passage from speech to moral action has a name. “To become human.” During the last weeks, and seeing what I saw, I wondered more than once how many times during the last twenty years I had been worthy of being called human, and how many people among the millions participating in this drama are worthy of it.
And so the news comes yesterday that one of Grossman’s sons, Uri, was killed in Lebanon, just two days after Grossman, along with the Israeli writers Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, held a press conference urging the Prime Minister to reach a cease-fire agreement rather than expand Israeli military operations in Lebanon. In a long conflict with too many ironic, poignant, and purely tragic stories, this is the first one I can’t get past. Few if any in this conflict deserve what they’ve gotten, but how is one to come to terms with a father burying his son, when this father has so courageously articulated the price of this conflict, who has done so in a manner far exceeding simple progressive liberal clichés, who has turned this pursuit into a sort of devastating poetry, who has managed to remind us again and again the need to be human in this conflict that obliterates both humanity and human beings?
With everything ongoing-the weary diplomacy conducted in the absence of any trust, the inevitable talk over possible early elections in Israel, the dizzyingly complicated analysis of who gained and who lost and where things stand now, the bitter accusations of who is to blame and who must be called to account, and, finally, the isolated and not so isolated lethal shots that will be fired from both directions despite the cease fire-it will be at once tempting and convenient to merely open tomorrow’s newspaper to survey the latest bewildering developments of this nearly hundred year-old conflict. But maybe now’s the time to stop, to really stop and think about how each death on every side draws a ring around itself to include another dozen or so people, family members and life-long friends, who never fully recover from their mourning. Maybe now’s the time to realize, if you’re willing to do the horribly simple math, that for some time now every Palestinian and every Israeli has likely found him or herself, and in many cases more than once, drawn reluctantly into someone’s now obliterated circle, leaving a conflict between two nations of mourners. I don’t know what exactly thinking and feeling these things will accomplish, perhaps such an exercise is just another instance of futile idealism. All I know is yesterday the person who least needed to have that ring drawn around him to know and feel what it must be like to live in desolate space of someone’s permanent absence now finds himself on the inside, his wondrously humane empathy suddenly beside the point. ‘
This is Juan Cole. Just to let readers know that Todd Hasak-Lowy is author of the impressive recent short story collection The Task of This Translator. I am grateful to him for permission to print this meditation here.