So the first question that came to my (actually Anthony's) mind when I started reading this book was, WTF, did my grandmother ghost-write this thing?So the first question that came to my (actually Anthony's) mind when I started reading this book was, WTF, did my grandmother ghost-write this thing? There are several reasons to believe that she did: (a) she is a relatively successful writer (mainly of children's books) in Israel, (b) she recommended this book to me, bought me a copy four years ago and proceeded to ask me several times whether I'd read it yet, (c) for no particular reason, the author points out that one of the characters works in Ramat Hen, which is the neighborhood where my parents live in Ramat Gan - and who the hell has heard of that neighborhood? and (d) there is a couple in the book named Moshe and Sima, and those are her PARENTS' names! And OK, I'll admit that Moshe is a super common name in Israel, but Sima isn't, and Moshe AND Sima? Together?!
On second thought, she probably didn't write this, because there are quite a few (really mild) sex scenes here, and not once does anyone mention feeling anyone else's erection through their pants. And that is one of her trademarks. I know, ew.
So assuming that Eshkol Nevo is a real person and the actual author of this book, I'll just say that though this wasn't the deepest or best written piece of literature I've picked up in the past year, it was definitely an enjoyable read - probably a lot more enjoyable than most of the deeper and better books out there. Also, it's in divided into teeny tiny little pieces, with alternating points of view (I'm on the fence about whether I liked this or not), so it's perfect for the subway.
The story is set in the mid-90s, when both Kurt Cobain and Itzhak Rabin died. It's about two couples who share a wall in a duplex in an Israeli neighborhood called the Kastel - described in the book as a town midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The structure invites some potentially disastrous racial stereotyping - on one side we have Amir and Noa, white bourgeois university students, she's studying photography at the Bezalel art school and he's studying psychology at Tel Aviv University; and on the other side are the Kurdish Moshe and Sima, he's a bus driver, she's curvy and outspoken and takes care of the kids and cooks a lot. But it seems that Nevo makes a serious effort to consider each character as a human being and to present them all in three dimensions. The book is full of middle-school-type revelations ("You know, you can really tell a lot about a person by the kind of music they listen to"), but I thought that was kind of sweet. For Israelis, I think the book was very Israeli in that reassuring "in Israel you can define pretty much anyone in two words" kind of way, meaning that you don't have to work too hard to feel like you understand where the different characters are coming from. The one thing that drove me up the wall was that some of the passages - for no apparent reason - were written in rhyme. I really, really hope that the English translator decided to forgo that particular stylistic flourish. ...more
In the first part of this book, Momik - the young son of Holocaust survivors, born and raised in Israel - says that grownups sometimes call him "alterIn the first part of this book, Momik - the young son of Holocaust survivors, born and raised in Israel - says that grownups sometimes call him "alter kop", which in Yiddish means "old head". And he is, in a way, an old man in the body of a child. He is intelligent and painfully serious; he has no friends his own age but is drawn to the aging and deranged Holocaust survivors who populate his neighborhood in Jerusalem (which, believe me, is a creepy enough town as it is). But though wise beyond his years, his experience is still that of a child. He understands that some kind of beast - the "Nazi beast" - did something terrible that drove everyone out of a wonderful land "over there", but no one will explain just what that means. And so he takes it upon himself to find the beast and destroy it, hoping to save the people he loves.
"Alter kop" is also a pretty accurate way to describe Israel during that time, and even today. The country, though it just turned sixty this year, is steeped in thousands of years of tragedy. The Hebrew language is also a strange combination of young and old: it is rooted in the Bible and is rich in history and connotation, but was essentially frozen in time for about two thousand years (though it's since developed at an amazing pace; see for example this cute article in the New York Times). Needless to say, the Israeli literary tradition is also very young. Whereas English fiction writers have thousands and thousands of sources to learn and draw inspiration from, when "See Under: Love" was published in 1986, there were probably fewer than a hundred people who had successfully written or were writing fiction in Hebrew.
So what I think I'm trying to get at here, is that this book is about how Grossman learned to tell an incredible, impossible story with the vocabulary at his disposal, which was, essentially, the vocabulary of a child. And the first part of this book, "Momik", is written in language that a child would use (albeit a child surrounded by a bunch of depressing old diasporics). This is a novella that stands alone - in fact, it was later published in Israel as a separate book - and I think it's the culmination of Grossman's learning process. It is probably the most perfect 80 pages I have ever read. It conveys perfectly the paradox of living in Israel, even today, maintaining a beautiful balance between sturdy Israeliness (for example when a paramedic brings Momik's 'grandfather' home and everyone is panicking, he says, in a dismissive tone that anyone who's been in Israel will be familiar with, "Don't get excited, lady, nothing happened, what can happen?") and the fearful ghostliness of life in the shadow of the Holocaust.
The following three chapters seem to me to be the storyteller's (Momik? Grossman?) way of working up to that perfect story. Well, it's not exactly THAT story that he initially sets out to write - Momik grows up and becomes a writer and decides to try to tell the story of his grandfather, Anshel "Scheherazade" Wasserman, who, while in a concentration camp, wove a tale for a Nazi officer that drew him in so completely that the Nazi was eventually destroyed. That tale appears in the third chapter (which is excellent) and in the fourth and last (written in the form of an encyclopedia; I found it too abstract). In the second chapter, Momik spends most of his time floating face down in the sea, which speaks to him, in a slightly irritating stream of consciousness, all about Bruno Schulz, a Polish writer who was shot during the Holocaust. But not the real Bruno Schulz, no: a Bruno Schulz as imagined by Momik, a Schulz who escapes death and swims away with the salmon. That part, to me, read as if the writer had taken some pill to get his juices flowing, and though possibly a necessary part of the process, I kind of wished Grossman hadn't felt the need to include it in the final book. I also have quite a bit of criticism re: Grossman's portrayal of female characters (he always makes sure to emphasize that they're unattractive; none of them are very intelligent and certainly not intellectual; the book talks a lot about "art" and "creation" and the only thing he lets a woman create is a fetus).
I'm giving the book five stars, though, because (a) the first chapter really, truly, is amazing, and the third chapter - which seems to be the story he was actually shooting for - is also great, and (b) he is so incredibly ambitious that I'm willing to forgive the parts that don't work, especially since the availability of good fiction editors in Israel at the time was probably even more limited than the availability of writers.
I don't know if the English translation gets all that across, because the book is very much about language. (I read it in Hebrew, and I'm gonna brag about it, because it took me more than 6 weeks to read the damn thing.) Maybe I'll check it out sometime, but I think it'll probably be a while before I have the mental strength to pick this book up again.