To Preserve One Life

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A Review of Writing in the Dark, by David Grossman

BY BRIAN SCHWARTZ

In the Hebrew language, I am sure, there are several different ways to say “enemy.” I have little grasp of what these words might be. I imagine that there are milder entries in the Hebrew dictionary, words that essentially mean “opponent” or “rival.” And then, I feel certain, there is at least one ancient, crusty, sand-caked, Old Testament word for Enemy, a word that must share its root with “anger” or “murder,” some bit of diction introduced to the Torah when Cain kills Abel, and which returns periodically to remind us how bloody we humans can be when we feel especially threatened or righteous.

In his book Writing in the Dark: Essays on Literature and Politics, the Israeli novelist David Grossman frequently employs the word “enemy.” But in this slim, brilliant collection, the meaning of the word is never simple, never black and white. The term first appears in the opening essay, “Books That Have Read Me,” when Grossman recalls his boyhood confusion over the difference between varieties of non-Jews. Were Christians a type of Egyptian? As a young child, Grossman remembers, he was sure of one thing: “Either way, they were both ‘the enemy.’”

By placing the enemy in quotation marks, Grossman is planting a question in our minds: How do we find the right words—whatever language we speak—to name our enemies without erasing their human distinctiveness? This question is threaded through each of the half-dozen essays in Writing in the Dark, many of which, as the full title suggests, are about literature, especially the craft of novel-writing. Grossman is deft on the subject, which will come as no surprise to readers of his mind-bending fiction. In the non-fiction pieces collected here, Grossman discusses Kafka and the Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz with great insight and affection; he brings up Sartre occasionally, as well. The novels Grossman refers to most often, though, are his own.

This may sound like a self-serving rhetorical tic, but consider what Grossman is able to achieve in the essay “The Desire to Be Gisella.” In 25 pages or so, he reveals the hidden links between being married, writing fiction, and imagining (or inventing) peace in the Middle East.

“We human beings are uneasy about what truly occurs deep inside the Other,” Grossman insists, “even if that Other is someone we love.” But, the essayist chides, imaginative acts like literary storytelling can help us become more open to the complexities of an Other—whether that Other is a spouse, a sworn enemy, or a fictional creation.

Referring to a character from his masterful experiment of a novel See Under: Love, Grossman riffs, “[W]hen I write a story and a short and stocky woman named Gisella walks around in this story, then, when I write her, I become Gisella.” This is no sentimental paean to the act of writing; instead, Grossman is trying to show us how the difficult work of imagining a character relates to the search for political tolerance in a war-torn world. “In a disaster zone, of course,” he writes a few pages later, “or in a prolonged war, the tendency of the hawkish side is to minimize and deny the human aspect of the enemy, to flatten it into a stereotype or a collection of prejudices.” In Writing in the Dark, Grossman urges us to remember the human aspect; he is not claiming that no enemy exists, but demanding that we keep the following in mind: “behind the armor is a human being. Behind our armor, and behind our enemy’s.” Even if we have learned to think of the enemy as an Old Testament-style blight, a bloody threat to our existence, it is Grossman’s crucial concern that we seek to understand the human perspective of those who oppose us.

The medium for this understanding is language. The essay “Individual Language and Mass Language” is a meditation on the Holocaust and its impact on Israeli consciousness; it’s also an inquiry into the difference between the vocabularies of mass media and literature. “I know that when I read a good book, I experience internal clarification: my sense of uniqueness as a person grows lucid,” Grossman writes. He compares the individualizing power of literature to the “seductions” of the mass media, concluding that literature is necessary if we are to meaningfully remember our own beliefs and responsibilities.

Although the book’s most recent essay was composed in September, 2007, Writing in the Dark serves as an eloquent and elegiac response to the devastating violence that has recently re-erupted in Gaza. Rabbi Natan said, “To preserve one human life is to preserve the entire world.” This Jewish idea is central to Grossman’s project as a novelist and essayist; when he sees an enemy, he holds his fire and attempts to write a book.

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Brian Schwartz teaches writing at New York University. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in print publications on both coasts, and online at the Modern Spectator.

 


Brian Schwartz teaches writing at New York University. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in print publications on both coasts, and online at Ascent and Mr. Beller's Neighborhood. More from this author →