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United in isolation

Simon Willis is gripped by David Grossman’s original meditation on bereavement

Simon Willis | March/April 2014

ENGLISH TITLE Falling Out of Time
AUTHOR David Grossman
ORIGINAL LANGUAGE Hebrew
TRANSLATOR Jessica Cohen

David Grossman’s son Uri was killed in 2006, while serving in the Israeli army. Two days later, Israel’s war in Lebanon was over. This strange and passionate book is a meditation on bereavement, and while its roots may be autobiographical, what grew out of them is pointedly not. Grossman has found an original form. The characters speak in a mixture of poetry and prose, their parts laid out as in a play, each voice dealing with its own struggle. As one of them says, “Mourning condemns/the living/to the grimmest solitude.” And yet the characters themselves, and the place they live in, are drawn from all times and none: a couple called simply “Man” and “Woman”, a cobbler, a midwife, a duke, a centaur, a woman who mends fishing nets, an elderly maths teacher. The title suggests not just what happens to the dead, but also to those left behind, united in isolation.

The book begins with the man setting out, five years after his son’s death, on an allegorical journey. As he walks, the other characters join him, all searching for answers to the mysteries of what happened to their children and how they are to go on living without them, a question put most poignantly by the duke: “How can I move/to September/while he remains/in August?” The book is sometimes numbingly oracular; more often it’s piercingly domestic. The man remembers his boy doing homework, head in hand, and skipping pebbles. What grips is the emotional suspense that Grossman articulates: that remembering and forgetting can be as bad as each other, that finding a way to understand what happened risks cheapening it.

Jonathan Cape, out now

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