David Grossman on Israel and Myth

PEN America 8 features a conversation about re-writing myth called “In the Beginning,” with David Grossman, Milton Hatoum, Anne Provoost, and Jeanette Winterson, moderated by Colum McCann. Early on, Grossman (pictured left, in a portrait by Beowulf Sheehan) tells a wonderful story:
Many years ago, when I put my eldest son to bed, I told him, “This is the longest night of the year.” It was the 21st of December. At first light the next day he burst into our room, covered with sweat, and shouted, “Dad, Mom, it’s over! This night is over!” He was like Adam, the first man on Earth, wandering through an endless night, not knowing if the sun would rise again—and how relieved he must have been when the sun rose. The year after that, he told his younger brother, “This is going to be the longest night of the year”—and he said it with an air of indifference. He had found shelter in science and empirical experience. I could not help thinking of him as exiled from the primal, the more loaded feelings one has without this buffering shell, this armor of science and knowledge.

I am sure that my child will eventually look, as we are all looking, for this primal night, when we wandered alone. We look for it in legends, in stories, in myths.
Grossman told this story in April 2006. A few months later, the younger son in the story was killed in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, three days after Grossman—along with Amoz Oz and A.B. Yehosua—held a press conference calling for a cease-fire. Uri Grossman was in a tank struck by a Hezbollah missile.

Grossman spoke of his son’s death in his Freedom to Write Lecture, delivered one year after the conversation quoted above (both events were part of the World Voices festival). I thought of it again while reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s cover story in the current Atlantic Monthly, which divulges that Grossman has finished a novel “about an Israeli soldier, a tank commander, who goes to a big military operation,” and whose “mother has a kind of premonition that he’s going to be killed.” She refuses to “be at home when the army comes to announce the death of her son,” so she “starts a walk across Israel… and she tells the story of her son’s life.” Grossman started writing the novel just before Uri began his military service. According to Goldberg, the novel will be published in Israel this spring, and Goldberg believes it “could have a seismic effect on Israelis, who have, in their 60th year of independence, grown tired of losing their sons to war.”

(Also at The Atlantic, Goldberg interviews Barack Obama, who says that he can “remember reading The Yellow Wind [Grossman’s “exposé of the occupation and its demoralizing effects on Palestinians, and on the Israelis who enforced it”] when it came out,” and that his “intellectual formation was through Jewish scholars and writers, even though I didn’t know it at the time. Whether it was theologians or Philip Roth who helped shape my sensibility, or some of the more popular writers like Leon Uris.”)

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