In the Ice-Box
Janette Turner Hospital
- The Book of Intimate Grammar by David Grossman, translated by Betsy Rosenberg
Cape, 343 pp, £14.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 224 03285 2
If language speaks us, as Lacan claimed, and as Aron – the young protagonist of The Book of Intimate Grammar – senses intuitively, then our thoughts are trapped in hand-me-down forms and even the act of investigating and naming the self is both arbitrary and suspect. A lost language would mean a misplaced self; and indeed, Aron has caught a fleeting and provocative glimpse of a shadow father behind the father he knows, a lithe and animated Papa who is telling a joke in the Polish forbidden by Mama, and who is attached like a vibrant ghost to the sad overweight present-day Papa, the one who protests forlornly: ‘But there are some things I can only say in Polish.’ And if Papa-as-he-used-to-be has been lost in translation, in what voice can Aron’s disturbing ideas about himself, and about the family and the society around him, speak themselves? Clearly he will need to concoct a whole new grammar, private and subversive. But then who will understand his secret syntax?
Such are the dilemmas that torment Aron. They first press down on him at the tender age of 11½, in English class, in the Israel of the mid-Sixties, and become an obsession through the next three years that lead to his bar mitzvah, and then on to the Six-Day War of the nation state within whose syntactical history his life is parcelled and parsed.
The nation, like Aron, is in a state of suspended animation. The War of Independence has already passed into myth, a time as hazily glorious in exploit as Aron’s daredevil childhood. But history speaks Aron and Israel even more inexorably than language does. They are trapped in it. It crushes and paralyses them. Aron does his best to hold the future at bay; he baulks at the barrier of puberty, turning in on himself, but he can keep neither future nor past from throwing shadows across his days: ‘Aron ... wanted to ask his mother and father what they did in the days before the War of Independence, when Yaeli’s mother was out on night raids and fighting Arabs face to face. Gideon told [Yaeli’s mother] he really envied her and her generation for living in that glorious time, and she ruffled his hair and said, Don’t talk nonsense, she hoped to God his generation would never know anything like that glory.’
But it is precisely such ominous glory that skulks around the next corner, waiting for them, and portents (despite his willed indifference to the outer world) keep flitting into Aron’s consciousness and into the novel. His sister goes off into the Army; classes are cancelled to dig trenches; a school friend makes a comment about Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (which finally locates Aron’s stasis more or less precisely in time, Eshkol having been prime minister from 1963 to 1969; the Six-Day War of June 1967 is clearly about to erupt by the novel’s end). Only by living rigorously in the present continuous can Aron shut out his heritage of accumulated horror and solve his problems with language and history.
Last year in English class they learned the present continuous. Aron was thrilled: I em go-eeng, I em sleep-eeng; You don’t have that eeng tense in Hebrew. Gideon didn’t understand why he was so excited. Well, Gideon was like that, dead set against anything non-Israeli, non-Zionist, especially anything English, because the British loused up our country under the Mandate, and if we had one drop of pride we wouldn’t be learning their stupid language. Aron wanted to point out that the Hebrew language has just as many exceptions to the rule, but he held his tongue and revelled in ‘I am jum-peeng ...’ Jumping far, far out in space, halfway to infinity, and soon he was utterly absorbed and utterly alone; jum-peeng; it was like being in a glass bubble, and someone watching from the outside might think Aron ees only jum-peeng, but inside the bubble, there was so much happening, every second lasted an hour, and the secrets of time were revealed to him ... and inside you feel private, intimate ... and again he asks himself what it will be like when his bar mitzvah comes around in a year and a half ... and he vows that even when he’s big ... he will always remember the boy he used to be, and engrave him deep in his memory, because otherwise certain things might vanish in the course of growing up, it’s hard to say what, there’s a quality that makes all adults seem similar ... it’s this thing they have in common that makes them belong, that makes them law-abiding citizens, and when Aron grows up to be like them, he will still whisper, at least once a day, I em go-eeng; I em play-eeng; I em Aron-eeng ...
Aroning. This is his new secret skill, a totemic activity to ward off the adult world. For three years he gives himself over to Aroning, spiralling inwards, ‘safe in a bubble of the present continuous’. From this vantage point, he notes the numerous private syntax systems that flourish around him, within the family, in his apartment building, at school, noting the rules of interaction and translating them to himself, protecting himself with incantations, ‘because there is a narrow path through the visible realm that Aron alone could tread.’
There are the intricate rules governing social contact between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, for example, on which Mama in particular is an expert; and there is the exhausting grammar of large family gatherings: ‘for the first time he understood with his brain how intricately conversations are woven and how many invisible threads there are in the corners of a smile.’ Not that he is alone in observing the coded grid of rules. A neighbour, observing the dynamics of Aron’s immediate family, notes: ‘What we have here is a tiny tribe with strict, even pitiless laws ... a violent and repressed civilisation.’
It occurs to Aron that all sign systems are arbitrary, that they are nothing more than forms of magic, and that for safety one simply has to know the rules of grammar of any given discourse, though this is a daunting prospect: to know every rule one might ever need to know. He dabbles in a counter-magic of his own: saying words backwards; burying dangerous or vulnerable thoughts beneath recitations of soccer scores; conversing with other voices via the medium of an onionskin in his pocket. He is fashioning his own private grammar out of ‘the alchemy of despair, the only philosophy he really knew’ and he begins with the grammar closest in (to paraphrase Adrienne Rich on geography), that of the body – because beyond and above all other cages, Aron is trapped in his body, a pre-pubescent one which refuses to grow.
Aron’s parents, especially his mother, would tell Aron’s story far more simply. Until the age of ten, he was a live wire, an inventive daredevil, ringleader of his group, ham actor: in short, a natural leader, the apple of everyone’s eye, golden bearer of all the family’s hopes for the future. His bar mitzvah, planned for years in loving and daydreaming detail, will be on a scale never to be forgotten by the community.
Then, quite suddenly, at about the same time as all his friends were entering pubescent growth, and Zionist youth groups and summer work camps on kibbutzim, Aron went into a bad phase and failed to emerge from it. Physically, he was a slow developer, and he coped with the handicap badly. It must be admitted that everyone coped with this badly, especially Aron’s mother, such being the delicate ecology of family life. For three years, he did not grow by so much as a centimetre. For his bar mitzvah, his voice had still not broken. His underarms, his chin, and other more private places, were as innocent of hair as the skin of a baby. Could this possibly be explained by anything but perversity? An effort could surely have been made; but no, Aron stayed at home and moped when he should have been taking an interest in girls; he slept for days when he should have been off at summer work camps with the youth groups. It was a very bad phase, especially with his sister away in the Army, the country gearing up for war, tension in the air all around, and Aron oblivious, locked into his room and himself. Still, all adolescents and pre-adolescents went through phases, and all phases came to an end once the sufferer pulled himself together. Aron, however, seemed incapable of pulling himself together and was headed for disaster.
Since the condition of Aroning (the knack of finding the air thick with allegorical import and coded message) is infectious, the reader can easily see doomed Aron as Israel in little, a bouc émissaire sacrificed to history, a doppelgänger for the nation like the never-fully-formed twin whose entry in Ripley’s Believe It or Not haunts the protagonist:
And suddenly Aron feels a whirlpool of pain sucking him irresistibly down. It takes every last bit of strength to escape it, and he sits leaning hard against the wall, perspiring, his eyes opened wide. What’s happening to him?... Get up. Stand straight. Hands in the air. Breathe deep. Press your cheek against the refrigerator. Hush now. Calm down. What were we thinking about? When? Never mind when, what were we thinking about, oh yes, about that kid in Ripley’s Believe It or Not: 300 incredible cases, who also suffered from a terrible stomach ache, almost died of it, and when the doctors operated they found the undeveloped foetus of his twin inside.
History manifests itself in the body in multiple ways: as pain, as malformation, as stunted growth. In this novel, as in his earlier See Under: Love, David Grossman reveals himself as a compassionate epidemiologist for those who experience history as inexorably degenerative disease, for lives which might be said to suffer from history as claustrophobia.
For Grossman in both novels, as for Grass in The Tin Drum, the precocious child as centre of consciousness is a powerful narrative device, because the child is willing to acknowledge and attend to the many subvocal voices and non-verbal messages he picks up. Structurally, this novel is as precisely and tightly wound as a steel spring. A series of concentric circles close in on Aron (and on the reader) like a tourniquet, although one of those spiralling circles does continue to offer a sort of lunatic hope: the recurring lives of Aron’s grandmother, who keeps returning from wars, from nursing homes, from hospitals for the terminally ill, irreverent as ever.
Grandma is already, at the novel’s opening, a bit senile and incontinent, her Polish and her disgraceful nightclub past forbidden the light of day by Aron’s mother. She is bundled off to a nursing home against her vociferous protests, but escapes and turns up on the doorstep for another stretch of family living. She has lost speech and memory, but still exudes warmth and the spirit of indomitable vivacity to Aron and his sister Yochi, and they love her. Aron slips away from his own bar mitzvah to visit her:
Aron stayed in the room a little longer to look at Grandma. Compassionately he stroked her porcelain face, which was hardly wrinkled because fools never grow old, and for a moment she opened her foggy eyes, trying to recognise him or tell him something, maybe she didn’t remember where words came from anymore. Maybe she was scurrying around inside, crying and searching for the way out ... On a sudden impulse, stupidly, he touched her mouth, offering a hint that this was where words come out, and her soft, surprisingly supple lips wound around his finger. For a moment she sucked with the fierceness of a baby, and he drew his hand back in alarm ... In walked Mama and stood by the door, sensing something ... ‘You leave Grandma alone, you hear? You hear?’ she whispered furiously. ‘You let us take care of her. Go do what a kid your age should do, you hear?’
But what should a kid of Aron’s age, at Aron’s particular time and place in history, do, if not struggle to decode the myriad conflicting messages he receives?
Some of the messages which seem at first to offer hope soon fall apart, quite literally. There is, for example, Edna Bloom’s apartment in Aron’s building. When the novel opens, he and his best friends, Gideon and Zacky, are illicitly inside it. Aron is transfixed by its purity, its tranquillity, its objects of beauty. It’s a place he secretly returns to, having stolen a key, over and over again in its owner’s absence. He feels safe in her space. But Edna Bloom decides to let more space, more purity, into her apartment by knocking down a wall. Aron’s father is engaged to do the task, swinging a sledgehammer into lathing and plaster. On the way to uncaging herself from claustrophobic rooms, Edna is unprepared for the trauma of the process, the sense of herself and her past being bludgeoned open. She, like Aron, enters some trance-like spiral of despair, paying for another wall and another and another to be knocked down. Aron’s mother stares aghast at the rubble: ‘a mighty struggle was in progress here between the forces of chaos and order, civilisation and insanity’. Bankrupted by the destruction of her own apartment, Edna Bloom is taken away.
This is a much darker book than See Under: Love, with much less hope for the future. The circle of despair completes itself; all the coded writing is on the wall in the very first chapter. Aron is mesmerised in Edna Bloom’s soon-to-be-annihilated apartment by his first view of a framed reproduction of Guernica and by her almost empty refrigerator, ‘beautiful, unspoiled’, into which he gazes ‘eager to learn more, the secret of her ascetic code’. At the novel’s end he has learned Edna’s white secret, moving from Guernica to the Six-Day War, from her refrigerator to an abandoned refrigerator in a rubbish dump. He is planning his final and toughest Houdini act, locking himself away from the war and the world.
He folded himself into the lower shelf with his legs dangling out and looked up at the spangled sky ... There in the darkness, beyond the ring of light, he felt the whole nation waiting for the first shot, the great jump-off. Who would win and who would lose? How many would die? ...
Then he set his cardboard toolbox down beside him: through the crack in the sole of his shoe he pulled out the nail file and the rusty razor blade, from under his belt he fished the nail ... And all the while a child’s voice inside him asked, Is this it? is this it? ... It occurred to him that if he did succeed, and of course he would, this would be his greatest Houdini performance, now of all times without an audience, but he didn’t need an audience: he was performing for himself alone. And if he did succeed, and of course he would, if he did get out of here, and of course he would, no one would know.
He locks himself into the refrigerator. Like the country, he will either self-destruct or reincarnate himself through one more miraculous escape. The question is left open, the prospect stark.