Falling Out of Time by David Grossman: book review

 

In May 2012, at the International Writers’ Festival in Jerusalem, I heard David Grossman talk with spellbinding candour and tenderness about the family grief that lies behind this book. Part-narrative poem, part-Greek tragedy, part-uncanny folk-tale from the spirit-thronged world of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Falling Out of Time consists of an elegiac tapestry of voices. All belong to bereaved parents. Death has for each smashed the law that “a father should not outlive his child”. After years of mute agony “on the gallows of grief”, these lost souls - fathers and mothers alike - strive to frame the words that might lay their scandalous suffering to rest. Readers of the Bible will also remember another David, the distraught king: “Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

The short, percussive lyric lines may equally remind you of Sophocles, Rilke or Beckett (“Here I will fall/ Now I will fall - I do not fall”). Jessica Cohen translates their restless rhythms with awesome dexterity. As its eerie procession of village mourners approach the “timeless border” between life and death, Falling Out of Time seems to owe little to biography or history. Yet its personal background is unavoidable. In August 2006, in the midst of writing his epic novel of modern Israel To the End of the Land, David Grossman learned that his son Uri - a tank sergeant - had been killed in the Second Lebanon War. After a descent into frozen silence, he realised - as he said in Jerusalem - that “the only freedom that’s left for someone who has suffered such a tragedy is the freedom to describe it in their own words. Writing gave me the ability to take back the life that had been taken from me.”

Slim in dimension but as solid as sculpted rock, his work traces the glacially slow process of healing that allows those words to come. Its spectral cast includes both a “walking man” (Grossman is a noted rambler) and a “Centaur” - “half-writer, half-desk” - compelled to squeeze his anguish into words: “if I don’t write it I won’t understand”. All the bereaved must remain “here” rather than venture across the forbidden “borderland” to “there”. And here, “poetry/ is the language/ of my grief”. Falling Out of Time simplifies its language in order to universalise its feeling. Around Grossman’s region, countless parents have had to endure the premature death of children and so enter this “land of exile”. Although it grows from a private, incomparable ordeal, this noble fable speaks for all of them.

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