See under Love by David Grossman
Thread poster: Evert DELOOF-SYS

Evert DELOOF-SYS  Identity Verified
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Jan 13, 2002

Still one of my all time favourites.

I couldn\'t word it better:

In a few nearly mythic books, such as Faulkner\'s \'\'Sound and the Fury,\'\' Gunter Grass\'s \'\'Tin Drum,\'\' Gabriel Garcia Marquez\'s \'\'One Hundred Years of Solitude,\'\' large visions of history get told in innovative ways. \'\'See Under: Love\'\' may be a worthy successor to this small but awesome canon.

Reviews of See Under: LOVE (the novel)

Books of The Times; Wrestling With the Beast of the Holocaust

April 4, 1989, By MICHIKO KAKUTANI

In \'\'The Yellow Wind\'\' (198icon_cool.gif, his widely debated report on the occupied West Bank, the Israeli novelist David Grossman created a sympathetic portrait of the Palestinians as a people obsessed by the past, a people who live within their memories of a vanished homeland. Now, in \'\'See Under: Love,\'\' his first novel to be published in America, Mr. Grossman looks at another people unable to escape the past - the generation of Israelis whose parents survived the Holocaust, a generation for whom history remains an almost palpable reminder of mankind\'s capacity for radical evil, its vulnerability and grief. The result is a remarkable and important novel, a novel that in taking on the daunting subject of the Holocaust also tackles the pivotal literary and philosophical issues spawned by this sad, tormented age.

If there is a God, how could He countenance the existence of an Auschwitz or a Dachau? How, in the wake of such terrible events, is one to live a \'\'normal\'\' life, enjoy the ordinary pleasures of love and work? Of what use are the tools of reason and imagination in the face of history\'s brutality? Was T. W. Adorno, in fact, correct, when he suggested that after the Holocaust, language is inadequate, poetry impossible? Though it addresses each of these questions, \'\'See Under: Love\'\' never becomes didactic or portentous; rather, these issues are shrewdly embedded in the life and work of its hero, a novelist by the name of Momik Neuman. Indeed, it is one of Mr. Grossman\'s many achievements in this novel that he makes Momik\'s banal day-to-day life in contemporary Israel utterly recognizable and real, and that he\'s able, at the same time, to plunge us -through Momik\'s own writings - into the phantasmagorical world of history, giving us a fiction as magical and as resonant as works by Garcia Marquez or Grass.

When we first meet Momik, he is an earnest 9-year-old boy, devoted to getting good grades and making his parents happy. But as hard as Momik tries, his parents and their friends remain haunted by the horrors of the war: they are afraid of the doorbell and the phone, and at night they are troubled by bad dreams. No one will tell Momik exactly what happened \'\'Over There\'\' in Europe, and Momik, who writes down all his observations in a secret notebook, vows to free his parents somehow from their fears. To him, the dread \'\'Nazi Beast\'\' is some sort of mythical creature, and armed with boyish courage, he sets about trying to exorcise the Beast in his parents\'s basement.

Conjuring up the secretive world of childhood with handfuls of tiny details, Mr. Grossman makes Momik\'s attempts to grasp the idea of the Holocaust in fairy tale terms both touching and disturbing; and he proves equally adept at delineating Momik\'s subsequent loss of innocence, his decision, as an adult, to cloak his horror of the world with chilly detachment. In fact, the next time we meet him, Momik has become a cold and bitter man, obsessed with death and afraid to love. He tells his wife it\'s dangerous to become \'\'attached to any one place, or any one person,\'\' and he chastises his young son, Yariv, for not being strong enough to survive in such a hostile and violent world.

\'\'Love conquers nothing,\'\' he wants to tell his wife. \'\'Only in fiction do writers compulsively have love conquering in the end. But it isn\'t like that in real life. A lover coolly leaves the deathbed of his contagious sweetheart. People rarely commit suicide with their dying partners. The mighty, tyrannical stream of life keeps us apart. Carries us forward slowly and selfishly like animals. Love conquers nothing.\'\' There\'s something self-indulgent about Momik Neuman\'s willingness to sacrifice his family\'s happiness to his own historical despair, his reluctance to submit to the ebb and flow of everyday life; and his wife and mistress eventually force him to go off on his own, to sort out his obsessions in private. There, in the solitude of a lonely room, he will begin writing a series of stories, and through them, he will take a small step toward redemption, toward becoming a New Man.

The first story, given to us by Mr. Grossman in florid, looping sentences that feel like a parody of post-Joycean prose, concerns the Polish writer Bruno Schulz, who was killed by the Nazis in 1942. In Momik\'s telling, however, Bruno miraculously escapes to plot his own death and rebirth as a fish, who talks of living in world devoid of memory - a world as horrific, in its own way, as Momik\'s memory-obsessed one.

If this tale of Momik\'s seems rather mannered and forced, his second - conceived as a re-creation of his great-uncle Wasserman\'s experiences during the war - succeeds as an imaginative tour de force. In this tale, the Nazis send Wasserman, a former writer of children\'s stories, to the gas chambers, but the old man finds that for all his weariness of life, he is unable to die. He is summoned by Neigel, the camp commandant, who discovers his storytelling gifts and orders him, like Scheherazade, to tell him a story every night; in return, Wasserman asks that he be relieved of his seemingly eternal life.

The story that Wasserman proceeds to tell is half fairy tale, half modernist myth - a story about a band of friends who discover an orphan child, cursed with a strange disease that causes him to age an entire lifetime in the space of a single day. It is a story that entrances Neigel, causing him to re-evaluate his Nazi credo; and it is a story that will have lasting reverberations in Momik\'s own life.

In giving us Wasserman\'s life as it has been transformed by Momik\'s fanciful imagination, Mr. Grossman asks us to look at the elusiveness of historical truth, the difficulties of conveying the horrors of the modern world. Yet at the same time he testifies to the powers of fiction, for he has created in this volume a dazzling work of imagination that forces us not only to examine the consequences of history but also to recognize the possibility of their transcendence.

From the Sunday New York Times Book Review


April 16, 1989, By EDMUND WHITE

(Edmund White is the author of the novels \'\'A Boy\'s Own Story\'\' and \'\'The Beautiful Room Is Empty)

Undoubtedly \'\'See Under: Love\'\' is one of the most disturbing novels I\'ve ever read. When I was already well into it, I\'d circle it warily before picking it up again, as though it were a thing capable of hurting me in some vicious, seductive and permanent way. I\'d take it up reluctantly, then fall instantly under its spell, for it is wickedly readable.

It crackles with sparks of artistic invention. It scrambles art and life together. It tells its multiple tales of memory and suffering and degradation and courage with a Dostoyevskian compulsiveness. I refer to Dostoyevsky advisedly, since David Grossman seems to have learned from him how to release a wild voice and let it wail, how to remove all impediments before a flood of obsessive, self-incriminating narrative that embarrasses us, maddens us - and touches us profoundly.

Best of all, worst of all, this is a book that tricks us into thinking once more about the most painful subject of modern times, one we thought we\'d exhausted or that had exhausted our capacity to suffer, to remember, to relive - the Holocaust. (I keep saying \'\'we\'\' instead of \'\'I\'\' because a novel of such epic strength commands a collective, not a personal, response). An advance comment about this book tells us it\'s not just a \'\'novel of the Holocaust,\'\' but in fact it is the supreme Holocaust novel, because it is precisely an investigation of the difficulty of imagining pure horror; talking about hell-on-earth requires a re-examination of narration itself.

It turns out that the real problem of such narration is how to make a story out of suffering, how to stretch the skein of fable over the ghastly remains - the charred bits of bone, the extracted gold fillings, the lampshades of human skin, the soap made from human fat - as well as over the nightmares of the survivors. Mr. Grossman, an Israeli in his thirties who writes in Hebrew, starts with a family of survivors in the 1950\'s in Israel, a mother and father who barely make a living selling lottery tickets but who eat supper every night with savage determination, as though they were undertaking the most painful and onerous task imaginable. They keep their son Momik ignorant of the truth about the death camps, but the child is sensitive to their screams in the night, their insatiable hunger, their fear of other people, their fierce love of him. Momik canvasses the neighbors, other adults who bear blue numbers on their arms, and slowly he constructs his own version of the Nazi Beast, which he comes to believe is living in his cellar and can be made to come out only when presented with its favorite food: a Jew.

One day the child\'s great-uncle is delivered to the house by authorities who have finally tracked down the senile old man\'s only surviving relatives. Uncle Wasserman keeps up a constant murmur, which everyone else ignores but which Momik reconstructs and records (the boy is bilingual in Hebrew and Yiddish, which his family speaks at home, though the language is frowned on by the new state). Momik discovers that his great-uncle was a famous children\'s book writer, the inventor of the serialized adventures of a youthful band called the \'\'children of the heart.\'\'

The second section of this long and ambitious novel (ambitious in its form as well as its content) is a first-person account by a young Israeli writer, the adult Momik, who visits Poland in search of traces of Bruno Schulz, the great Jewish writer who was shot by a Nazi during the war. (In fact Schulz was working for one Nazi officer and was shot by another, the first officer\'s rival and enemy.) Schulz left behind an unpublished manuscript, \'\'The Messiah,\'\' and Momik attempts to imagine what it might have been (curiously enough such a reconstruction is also the subject of Cynthia Ozick\'s brilliant and passionate novel, \'\'The Messiah of Stockholm\'\').

At the same time Momik is writing a reconstruction of the story his great-uncle was always humming to himself, the further adventures of his ecumenical band of do-gooding Jewish kids. Momik has several other projects going as well. He wants to launch a children\'s Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, but he\'s unable to find sponsors or collaborators. Then he wants to write the story of his great-uncle in the death camp and of his strange relationship with Neigel, an SS officer.

Along the way we learn about Momik\'s amorous conflicts and his frustration as a writer. His Holocaust researches have plunged him into a depression over the extinction of all individuality in the camps, the total erasure of personality.

The third section, by far the most gripping, is obviously the story that Momik has decided to write as a resolution of his conflicts. Neigel, the commander of the death camp, discovers that one of the Jewish prisoners is Anshell Wasserman, the author of the stories he read and loved as a child. Like Scheherazade, Wasserman must tell the tyrant another new episode of the \'\'children of the heart\'\' every night, but with this difference: where Scheherazade told stories to save her life, Wasserman bargains for death. Neigel must promise to shoot Wasserman after each session. More than anything else, Wasserman wants to die, but bullets just glance off his skull and even repeated gassings leave him hale and hearty.

Wasserman hopes his stories will infect Neigel with humanity. By immersing the Nazi in the intimacy of Jewish lives, Wasserman is scheming to teach him how to look at Jews as human beings. The Nazi has his own reasons to listen to the story; he is copying out each episode in letters to his estranged wife and presenting the adventures as his own fabrications. Neigel hopes to convince his wife that despite his profession as murderer he\'s still a decent guy.

The tangled and tragic conclusion of the plot gets told in a fourth and final section, which is set up as a glossary complete with vocabulary items and cross-references (whence the title of the book). In this highly original piece of writing, the lives of Mr. Grossman\'s characters are mixed in with the destinies of Wasserman\'s children\'s book heroes - and Momik\'s ambition to write an Encyclopedia of the Holocaust is at least partially realized.

Without a doubt Wasserman is the novel\'s greatest achievement, the proof that even the camps could not erase all individuality. In the camp we hear him as a voice by turns humble and complaining - the Yiddish voice of suffering - and then angry and proud, the denunciatory voice of an Old Testament prophet. We see him as a fabulist who, like Bruno Schulz, is caught in the cross fire of rival Nazi officers. We discover the old man\'s tenderness for his wife (whom Neigel has already killed). We overhear the strangely complicitous conversations between victim and executioner. We soar with Wasserman during his homely but exhilarating night flights of imagination.

The usual thing to say about the Holocaust is that it defies fictional treatment because no narrative can equal this event\'s horror and any invention trivializes it. How appropriate, then, that this book should be both an examination of the art of storytelling and of the Holocaust. We start with Momik as a child putting together a story based on hints about what went on \'\'Over There.\'\' Then we watch the adult Momik invoking the spirit of perhaps the greatest modern Jewish writer after Kafka, Bruno Schulz. The most traditional narrative occurs in the death camp itself - could this be Momik\'s reconstruction of the lost \'\'Messiah\'\' of Schulz? This surrender to straightforward storytelling breaks down completely in the final section, the glossary. In coming to grips with the Holocaust, then, Mr. Grossman gives us a compendium of narrative strategies - as if to say that no one approach is sufficient. These varying tones of voice are clearly rendered in Betsy Rosenberg\'s highly idiomatic translation from the Hebrew.

In a few nearly mythic books, such as Faulkner\'s \'\'Sound and the Fury,\'\' Gunter Grass\'s \'\'Tin Drum,\'\' Gabriel Garcia Marquez\'s \'\'One Hundred Years of Solitude,\'\' large visions of history get told in innovative ways. \'\'See Under: Love\'\' may be a worthy successor to this small but awesome canon.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company


Roomy, could you move this topic to the appropriate subsection of this forum?

Manty thanks,


[ This Message was edited by: on 2002-01-13 15:01 ]


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