Lovers and Strangers, by David Grossman, trans Jessica Cohen

The true lies of love

The producer would wait for more, but Grossman's silence would indicate that would be it. "And in the other novella, 'Her Body Knows,'" he'd continue, "a daughter is reconciled with her dying mother, a former yoga teacher and immature single parent. Sitting by her bed, the daughter reads a story she has written about a painful true incident: how the mother gave yoga instruction to an unusual 15-year-old boy which culminated in a sort of love affair. The daughter was about the same age as the boy, and...".

"OK," the producer would interrupt, leaning forward with a trace of excitement. "So what happens next?" "Nothing," Grossman would reply, and this imaginary meeting would soon be over.

Grossman's fiction is driven by his obsession with his characters' inner lives, which revolve around delicate, mostly invisible plot lines. Like Shaul, the protagonist in "Frenzy" who has managed to weave such an intricate web of lies that he almost believes them himself, Grossman stalks his characters into the deepest corners of their souls.

In Jessica Cohen's masterfully precise translation of his filigree prose, the first story unfolds with painstaking slowness. The revelations about Shaul's visions of his wife with another man are drawn out, layer by layer, until there is nothing left to add.

Interestingly, he comes across less like a madly jealous husband than like a man who loves and understands his wife so completely, he knows he is utterly unworthy of her love for him. So he construes his alter ego, with whom he imagines her to be secretly happy and giving, and to whom she can say: "Here I am, here is all of me for you, here I am as I truly am."

As elements of Shaul's tale begin to resonate with his sister-in-law, they are drawn closer to one another. What he has imagined is less important than the vulnerability and pain he has exposed. In Grossman's world, men and women suffer equally, together or alone, and even their lies are full of emotional honesty.

This is also the theme of the "Her Body Knows", in which an unconventional mother-and-daughter team (Nili and Rotem) open up after a lifetime of failing to communicate. Nili is a free spirit who spent her life giving to everyone except her daughter, who grew up feeling abused and practised profound self-abuse, before being rescued by a lesbian lover. Every reader will recognise this novella as a reflection of our capacity for creating barriers barriers where we could be opening up instead. The daughter's self-pity fades away, as her written words create a new bond between her dying mother and herself, ending on a note of final loss and final redemption.

Shaul's fantasy and Rotem's spin on a true story are two sides of one coin: Grossman's passion for the redeeming, unpeeling power of fiction, and his art in creating fiction with such power. This may be a challenge for my imaginary producer, but who knows: after reading the book, he may change his mind.

Elena Lappin's 'The Nose' is published by Picador

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