[20 August 2014]
“In August he died, and when that month was over, I wondered
How can I move
While he remains
—Falling Out of Time
David Grossman’s Falling Out of Time is a work of heartbreaking genius. Initially it’s affecting on an artistic level, because his talent and way with words are rather remarkable and secondly, after you’ve done some research on him, it’s heartbreaking because you realize that the book was written as an elegy to his son Uri, who was killed by a missile in Lebanon in 2006. The last words in the book make mention of the years it took him to write it, as if suggesting that there is some hope at the end of the road, or perhaps making an empty promise to parents who might one day find themselves in his painful situation.
An exercise in trying to understand and dissect grief, Falling Out of Time is a unique work of fiction in myriad ways. Woven like a colorful tapestry of many characters, all of whom share the misfortune of having lost a child, the book is structured like an epic poem which, despite its short length, feels fully realized. The characters that appear in the book range from a woman who “stays at home” while her husband leaves to try and find their deceased son, to a strange writer who calls himself a centaur (“half desk, half man”), a Duke who serves as the Scheherazade in the tale and most peculiar of all is a Town Chronicler, who is both narrator and participant in the story being told.
More than a “story”, Falling Out of Time feels like a stream of consciousness account, that doesn’t follow conventions about narrative or character interaction. The Town Chronicler, for example, goes from being a narrator, to revealing his own problems without any warning, it’s as if the pain of the characters is so impossible to control and keep at bay that the writer lost authority over who he’d give a voice to next, all of them wanting nothing but to express their own suffering. Grossman’s words at times seem to be indulging in the pain they carry (“What could be more titillating that someone else’s hell?”), and it’s quite hard not to think he’s always talking about himself, especially when one of the characters explains, “that’s how it is with me, that’s how I’m built. I can’t understand anything until I write it”.
Sometimes, Grossman seems to try to be in denial about his own doubts. As he leads his characters to a place referred to as “there” (is it Heaven? Hell?), he wonders “but what is ‘there’? There’s no such place. ‘There’ doesn’t exist”. Writers rarely let their confusion be expressed with as much clarity, one would think, until a couple of paragraphs later, someone else adds “maybe ‘there’ has always been here all this time?” Grossman’s lack of background about these characters’ beliefs makes for a fascinating exercise in discovering that non-denominational empathy can exist, a key aspect when one thinks that the book about the death of an Israeli soldier can help his enemies learn how to deal with their own pain.
While not necessarily a political book (although how could it not be, given that it was a war victim that inspired it?) Grossman points out how death is democratic by reminding us that everyone, regardless of their social status, political beliefs or sexual orientation, shares the pain of death “the duke, for example—who would have believed it—walking shoulder to shoulder with the net-mender” says the Chronicler at one point.
But beyond the socio-political connotations, Falling Out of Time is revelatory because of how Grossman’s words hit us when we least expect them to (also revealing a great translation work by Jessica Cohen)...
Damn it, I realize now:
that pronoun is also
lost, it died
with you, leaving me
with only he and you
and us, and no one
will ever again
in your voice.
It’s passages like these in which you feel as if you had been punched right in the gut, whether you are grieving or not. Falling Out of Time isn’t necessarily a tough read, it’s a rather short book in fact, but what’s true is that it’s almost impossible not to read key lines and sentences again and again, wondering first how Grossman was able to express so much with such few elements, and also wondering how you didn’t see what was coming, how his moments of perfect prose catch us off guard. Perhaps, Grossman’s word experiments were meant to represent the suddenness of death, and also in a way, the hope that we’ll encounter similar moments in the future.