Make them go away

Neal Ascherson

  • To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen
    Cape, 577 pp, £18.99, September 2010, ISBN 978 0 224 08999 9

Some novels are met by such a hurricane of hostile criticism that they sink out of sight. Only word of mouth, the contrary opinion running from reader to reader, can occasionally bring them to the surface again. To the End of the Land has the opposite problem. It arrived on a foaming wave of praise which, when they actually get down to its pages, will leave many readers puzzled. Normally an author can deflect blurb hyperbole with a wince. But this fanfare has been on a Hollywood Bowl scale that does Grossman, who has proved himself in the past to be a wise and talented writer, no favours at all.

‘To read it is to have yourself taken apart, undone, touched at the place of your own essence; it is to be turned back, as if after a long absence, into a human being.’ So wrote Nicole Krauss. Paul Auster ranked the book with Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina: ‘wrenching, beautiful, unforgettable’. Grossman’s American publisher called it ‘one of the very greatest novels I shall have the privilege of publishing … When critics look back at the 21st century and list its 20 best novels, it will be on it.’ Several reviewers and interviewers have grabbed at the Tolstoy comparison: the vast scale, the humanity, the panorama of families in a land incessantly at war. Perhaps, they venture, this is the War and Peace of our own times.

Well, it’s not. A modern work of that Tolstoyan sweep did arrive in our times, but it was written by a different Grossman: Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s immense masterpiece, finished back in 1959 and first published in 1980. A comparison between the two books, Vasily’s and David’s, does not do the later one much good. As an outpouring of feeling, and as a series of sombre representations of the condition of modern Israel, To the End of the Land is often impressive, sometimes touching. As a novel it simply does not come off. This is Grossman’s ninth book of fiction to appear in translation, and he usually writes with clarity and economy. But this time, driven by personal and political anguish, he has opened the sluices. Everything pours in, often without much quality control, and the tortuous narrative techniques he uses create baffling complexity rather than a dramatic effect. The reviewers have also opened their critical sluices. But that particular flood seems to have more to do with the book’s context and content than with its quality. And the context – inseparable from the story itself, as Grossman has insisted – is formed by tragedy, national and personal.

Grossman is a well-known Israeli novelist and prose writer, whose books have been translated into some 30 languages. Born in 1954 in a working-class family, he served as a conscript in military intelligence after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Work as a radio and print journalist followed, and the first of his fictions. As the years passed he grew increasingly hostile to government policies towards Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and towards Israel’s Arab neighbours. But he has combined his moral outrage with an intense, often deeply emotional patriotism: ‘You can be very critical of Israel and yet still be an integral part of it,’ he has said. He is still an army reservist, even though he is now a prominent opposition activist who only last year was attacked and beaten up by the police during a demonstration against Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem.

He began this novel in May 2003. One of his two sons was already in the army, doing the three-year military service compulsory in Israel, while his younger son, Uri, was awaiting his call-up papers. Against this background of fears for his country and for his children, Grossman set out to write a grand political fiction, a story about recent history and the agonies of war; the beloved landscape itself; the women of Israel; the ambiguities of living with Israeli Arabs; the moral predicaments of decent people struggling not to be submerged by the sense of permanent threat which justifies horrifying means by their ends and the sacrifice of Israel’s young men and women for a militarist ideology which could never deliver peace. Most of the novel’s characters are middle-aged. But two young men appear and reappear in it, half-brothers whose lives are followed in intimate, fond detail from childhood up to their entry into the Israel Defence Forces.

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