Remembering and letting go: David Grossman gives form to grief in new book

“People who become mute because of a catastrophe lose their trust in almost everything,” David Grossman said recently. “Nothing is taken for granted after you experience a trauma … Language cannot express what you feel, language falls short, both in situations of great happiness and pleasure and in great sorrow and sadness.”

David Grossman

The internationally acclaimed novelist spoke by phone recently from his home in Jerusalem. He will further address the themes of his newest book, “Falling Out of Time,” at 7 p.m. Friday, May 9, at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

“Falling Out of Time” takes the form of a poem-drama-incantation on the theme of loss, specifically the the loss of a child. Set in a nameless, quasi-medieval European folktale universe inhabited by villagers, tradespeople, royalty and mythical beings, the novel carries us along on the journey of the Walking Man, who abruptly leaves his wife at the dinner table one evening as he sets out to find some sign, some presence, of his son, killed five years before. As he walks in circles around his town to an unnamed but very physical there, Walking Man exposes, in spare but richly evocative language, the still-raw feelings associated with his grief.

In August 2006, Grossman and his wife learned of their son’s death in southern Lebanon during Israel’s war with Hezbollah. Uri Grossman, a tank commander, was just shy of 21. Only days before, his father had joined fellow novelists A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz in making a public plea to the Israeli government for a cease-fire.

“Falling Out of Time” is Grossman’s attempt to give a physical form to grief through the medium he knows best. He still chooses to not speak publicly and directly about Uri’s death and his own feelings, allowing his work to say to each reader what that reader needs it to say.

And while he guards the many “private stories” readers all over the world have sent him in response, as carefully as he does his own, he said he feels the book “allows people to look at what has happened to them in a way that does not kill them.

“The whole question in the book is how to remember what has happened and one you loved, without dying of it, and how to forget without killing. How to be able to let go not because you are a coward, not because you are afraid to be in contact with what has happened or cannot bear any more the longings, but in a way that will allow you to continue to be and at the same time, to remember.”

Grossman acknowledges that “Falling Out of Time” might be seen as an act of defiance through the power of language. “You create new combinations of words, you juxtapose a word next to a word, next to another word [in ways] never before seen … You suddenly find a metaphor that touches a nuance of life, human relationships, the human mind, in such a profound way … When you create new combinations of words, suddenly you enlarge the human experience, you open the little gap between the places that started to congeal, that became scarred, and because of that, you allow new content to surface and flow.”

After their loss, Grossman and his wife received heartfelt letters of condolence from writers and friends, yet many people spoke only in banalities. “When you are wounded, the last thing you want is a cliché,” Grossman said. “You want things that are specially tuned to what you feel and what you are. From this feeling of being suffocated within the clichés came both the book and the story: My people start walking because otherwise they would explode.”

As the Walking Man travels, he collects a group of followers who are also bereaved parents: the Duke, a woman wrapped in fishing nets, a midwife and her cobbler husband, a teacher of mathematics, and the intrusive and cliché-spouting Town Chronicler, whose sententiousness gradually strips away to reveal his own unbearable loss.

And then there is the Centaur — half man, half writing desk — and an achingly etched avatar of the author himself. Shouting at the Town Chronicler who torments him by intruding into and recording the devastation of his life, the Centaur screams, “Well then, write this, please, in big letters, giant ones: I must re-create it in the form of a story! …The sonofabitch thing that happened to me and my boy. Yes — mix it into a story is what I need to do, have to do.”

Among Grossman’s other widely praised novels, his last one, “To the End of the Land,” tells the story of a mother who sets out on a hike through the Galilee as a physical charm to ward off what she feels is her son’s impending death in the army.

But the Walking Man is “not a passive victim of the situation,” Grossman said. “He is able to move, to generate some motion, and then he starts to talk. This liberates him, he understands it through his body.

“The imperative question is whether you allow the catastrophe to define you totally. Writing this book was a way of reminding myself that I have other ways of self-definition.”

“An Evening with David Grossman,” 7 p.m. May 9 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. $25-$35.

“Falling Out of Time” by David Grossman (208 pages, Knopf, $15.95