To the End of the Land, by David Grossman

This is a marvelous novel from 2008. Nothing happens, yet the reader is fascinated. Because life is created, a family is created, and history lurks in the context.

This is the story of Ora, her husband Ilan, her lover Avram, and her grown sons Adam and Ofer. It is the story of their youth at one level, when as two young boys, best friends, they fall in love with the same girl. Both Avram and Ilan are in the army, whereupon a weekend pass is offered, but to only one, and they agree to have Ora draw the winner from a hat. She does, and draws Ilan’s name, whereupon Avram, left on duty, is sent into battle, becomes a prisoner, and is tortured.

Caring for the discharged Avram, whom they both love, Ora and Ilan are thrown together and conceive a baby they name Adam. But it is a difficult relationship, and Ilan leaves Ora, leading to her having an affair with Avram, which produces the other son, Ofer. However, Avram’s war experiences have turned him into a recluse, and he refuses any contact with Ofer, just as he has separated himself from all human contact following his torture.

And now, on the second level years later, Ora, has persuaded Avram to join her on a long hike. She is separated again from Ilan, and when her youngest, Ofer, is sent into battle instead of being discharged, she decides that she can assure his safety if she is not home to receive a message he has been wounded or killed. She also thinks if she talks to Avram about him she will make the boy come alive to his father, which will also keep him safe.

We learn all this background during Ora’s and Avram’s long hike that comprises the bulk of the novel. It is a fascinating concept, for nothing happens on the novel’s surface except their talk about her family and their own past. With the fascination coming from both the slow revelations that deepen for the reader the complex emotional relationships among the three, and the reader’s gradual ability to get to know each of these characters.

Meanwhile, Ora’s and Avram’s long discussions are grounded in the details of their hike down half the length of their country. With them, we encounter the changing weather, the rocky obstructions, the insects and animals, the rivers crossed and the mountains climbed, and the physical toll their journey takes. It is so detailed that this reader was convinced the author must have based such detail on an actual hike. And, indeed, he did. On his fiftieth birthday, as he was writing this novel, Grossman made a similar hike half the length of Israel—just to get those precise details. And it is through the details that he not only communicates the demands of such a hike but also conveys the military tension within Israel that the two lovers are also trying to forget through discussing their family history.

This is a memory novel, a novel that explores the meaning of love within the emotional complexities of life, a novel of talk instead of action and yet a novel in which the exploration of character is the substitute for action. Its story is driven by birth and death, by fear and hope, by openness and withdrawal, by the onset of love and the threat of violence, by both a female and a male perspective, by both external movement and introspection, and by time past and time present. But, above, all, it is a story about connections, especially between Ora and Avram. As Grossman has written: “What interests me most is the nuances of what goes on between two people, or between a person and himself.”

George Packer summed up this novel in the New Yorker: “Ora mainly talks and Avram listens, her words leading seamlessly to scenes from the past. Her story, which emerges slowly and out of chronological order, encompasses both the complex fullness of one life and the broader history of Israel’s modern conflicts.” He writes that this “is not an apolitical novel; it is antipolitical—a protest against history and its endless incursions” into private lives. In sum, he cites Ora’s “awareness of the randomness of life.”

Colm Toibin has equal praise for Grossman in The New York Times Book Review: “He weaves the essence of private life into the tapestry of history with deliberate and delicate skill; he has created a panorama of breathtaking emotional force, a masterpiece of pacing, of dedicated storytelling, with characters whose lives are etched with extraordinary…and unexpected detail…about the shapes and shadows that surround love and memory, and about the sharp and desperate edges of loss and fear.”

Toibin describes Ora, the main character of this novel, as “emotional, introspective, filled with…an ability to love.” Avram is her foil in literary terms and represents the love she seeks. He is, Toibin says “impulsive, brilliant…larger than life,” Ilan, whom Tobin describes as “rational, vulnerable…oddly needy and nerdy” has meanwhile left her and represents the absence of love, and perhaps its risks. While Adam and especially Ofer are there to receive the motherly love that sustains her. On another level, the hiking trail represents both the unity of this story and the diverse complexities that color the history of Israel.

The ending also merits discussion. Like history, like Israel’s fate, it is both inconclusive and elusive. And yet the reader understands it, even as Grossman deliberately does not reveal it. It is undoubtedly why even Israeli critics have called this an anti-war novel. For it has an ending the characters do not want, and the reader does not want, but it offers a reality that the author insists upon. That his entire novel insists upon. That mankind’s pursuit of happiness is subject to the whims of others—and to the whims of history.

Even the title reverberates with the novel’s theme. The end of the land suggests, indirectly, the possible end of Israel as a result of the wars her sons are fighting, as well as, more directly, the end of the hiking trail that will bring Ora back to her home—and perhaps to news of the death of her son. Which is the end that she fears most. It is a much more evocative title than the Hebrew version, whose literal translation is “Woman Flees Tidings.”

While I could not finish David Grossman’s first novel, The Smile of the Lamb, and did not fully appreciate See Under: Love, I did enjoy the simpler Someone to Run With. And now with this masterpiece, I am committed to reading more of Grossman. (February, 2018)

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Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

When this early novel appeared in 2015—describing the life of Scout Finch and her father Atticus two decades after their appearance in the classic To Kill a Mockingbird—reviewers jumped all over the work because of its portrait of Atticus. How could this lawyer who defended a black boy in the classic novel have later become a Southern demagogue who despises black people?

But I think they misread this earlier novel. For starters, the focus is not on Atticus. It is on his daughter. And I can understand why Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, advised against publishing this work at the time. Indeed, why she suggested that Lee turn to its flashbacks of Scout and Atticus of two decades earlier. Because she saw in those flashbacks a more heartwarming version of the South, one told by a child who adored her father and saw him acting in behalf of social justice. Of course, the editor also saw that in this work Lee otherwise had the skills of a true novelist. She could draw characters and scenes. She could create dialogue and human interaction and handle flashbacks. And, most important of all, she was prepared to tackle Southern society and the relationships between black people and white.

However, this editor also saw that Lee did not have here a real novel, certainly not the literary one her skills suggested she was capable of. But given that she did have a valid subject, the racial tension in the South, her editor suggested the warmer approach. That the novel’s flashbacks set in an earlier time still acknowledged the tension between the races, but might be more acceptable if explored from the viewpoint of an innocent child in more innocent times. Because a 1960s society surrounded by racial tensions would be unwilling to confront such tension if set near their own times.

Moreover, what the author had actually produced with this earlier work was a rather ordinary story. It is about a young girl of 26, now known as Jean Louise, as she returns from New York City to her home in Maycomb, Alabama, and discovers that she is uncomfortable with the world she encounters—and keeps asking herself why. Which, alas, the reader does as well. For the author spends the first 100 of 278 pages merely creating the Atticus family atmosphere and reminiscing about Jean’s past, but never introducing new dramatic developments to make the reader curious about the girl, her discomfort, or the old Maycomb that she sees with new eyes.

And then, confronted by post-war racial tension at a town meeting, our heroine is taken aback on witnessing white supremacists baldly preaching their beliefs. Indeed, the abrupt scene reminds one of similar generalities about family relationships and generational relationships that permeated Mockingbird. This author preached to us there as well.

At its heart, then, this early work is a message novel. And it has two messages—messages that the author has placed together rather than blended together. The first concerns Jean Louise, now 26, and the process of growing up as she returns home and reabsorbs the Southern culture. But after it evokes the girl’s innocent childhood, the novel fails to develop from within her newly discovered doubts about how she was raised—doubts that arise from the second message of the novel, the injustice behind post-war racial unrest and the social tension that follows. This hits home when Jean Louise not only sees blacks being treated unfairly, but is horrified that her father Atticus and her supposed fiancée Henry seem to support the town’s white supremacists.

Lee does try for editorial balance, offering the reader the response of Southerners to Jean Louise’s distress. Through Uncle Jack, she offers that the South doesn’t like having new laws and customs imposed on them by outsiders in Washington. While through the girl’s fiancée, Henry, she explains that to be a comfortable part of your local society, and to succeed in business, you need to support the laws and customs of your community.

The author’s major false step occurs, however, when Jean Louise has a no-holds barred argument with her father, accusing him of betraying her, of teaching her racial ideals he himself does not believe in. “You’re a coward as well as a snob and a tyrant,” she says. This is the dramatic climax of the novel, but it is too blatant. First, because Jean Louise’s point of view is stated too baldly. And, second, because it does not read like a natural argument between father and daughter. There is no human interaction between them; they are merely making political points.

Moreover, author Lee apparently felt unable to end her novel with this family tension. For Uncle Jack argues that “every man’s island, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.” And, he explains, Scout grew up identifying her conscience with that of a father whom she saw as perfect, not as a human being, not one merely acting “by the letter and by the spirit of the law.” In fact, Jack argues, the South now needs people like Jean Louise, people who can see through white supremacists’ fears that sharing facilities with blacks will result in the destruction of their white culture. And he is persuasive, leading Jean Louise to a closing meeting with her father.

If this novel’s end is calculated, it mirrors Lee’s calculating way of addressing racial issues. Which re-enforces my conviction that, on reading this manuscript, her editor, while recognizing that this author was addressing an important subject, also realized that there was not in 1960 an audience ready to confront her tension-filled portrait of the South. Whereas, the flashback to Jean Louise’s youth, her positive feelings then about her father—and Atticus’ own belief in the law and in justice—could prove a fruitful source of interest to contemporary readers.

One can understand why Lee did not publish this novel after the success of Mockingbird. It in no way reaches the level of that earlier novel. Should it have been published? I think not, except as a curiosity. For it reduces rather than enhances Lee’s literary reputation.

But what it also does, of course, is make the reader aware of the complex tensions that survived in Southern society. That many of its citizens were not willing to turn against the culture they inherited, and tried—with varying success, as black people insisted on their new-found rights—to remain a part of the world they belonged to. But this response becomes more a sociological rationale than a literary one. (January, 2018)