Monthly Archives: September 2021

David Grossman, More Than I Love My Life

I have to preface my words with an admission. I am a huge David Grossman fan. I love his writing style, I love his choice of material, his themes, the flow of his stories. I love the fact that his literary journey in many ways covers the history of the modern state of Israel. I love that I can read the arc of his work and see into him as an Israeli and as a Jew. I love that I often see flickers of myself in his prose. And I love the tenderness that always floats beneath the surface of his work. I will also confess that I read Grossman in English, although if I applied myself I could probably manage the Hebrew … on some level I’m worried that I would miss the music if I laboured through the original and that seems too tragic to bear.

I knew that Grossman was working on this book because I had the great pleasure of spending a few hours with the glorious Deborah Harris and Grossman called her while we were chatting. I won’t lie – it was one of the highlight’s of my life 🙂 So I was waiting with anticipation for this book which Harris described as his magnum opus – literally the most epic book he had ever written.

Given what I have shared about my adoration of Grossman’s work, I’ll start with what I thought were the stellar parts of the book. Firstly, the back story which is about Eva Panic (pronounced Punitsch). Apparently Grossman and Panic were close friends for many years and this book pays homage to her story. The story itself is devastating and I highly recommend that any readers of this book also delve into Panic’s life … I started with this article in Ha’Aretz which I thought provided a good foundation and this documentary on YouTube (you’ll have to search for all the parts as it’s broken up into segments). What struck me about Panic’s story is that it sheds light on a Holocaust experience which I think is often forgotten or perhaps neglected – that of rural villagers and communist supporters. While Panic’s own parents were taken to Auschwitz and killed there, she and her husband saved 1500 people from the Nazis. The choice that Panic faces and the repercussions of that choice are unimaginable to me; but knowing this background helped me to empathise somewhat with her as she is depicted in Grossman’s book.

Two things that Grossman always does well are characterisation of people and depiction of place. This book is no exception. Grossman paints his characters so delicately that they appear to be real. They are immeasurably flawed, painfully broken and simultaneously rich and varied. They celebrate love and wallow in loss with ferocious confidence. They are selfish and self-obsessed to the extreme and at times this is painful to read and witness. But it is real. They all need therapy – much like most people I know. Grossman’s Eva (aka Vera in the novel) is exactly the kind of person I would have liked to know. She reeks of history, languages mashed together in her heavy accent (and yes, I could sense the accent even through the translation). She is strong and coarse and bold. She is a fighter, stubborn and resistant but also passionate and while abrasive, she warms gently at startling moments. Reading about Vera I was reminded of Meir Shalev’s beautiful My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner which also took place in a Kibbutz setting and similarly featured a grandmother, although of different extraction. In truth, Vera reminded me somewhat of my maternal grandmother who was both cold and warm in a way that I think only a survivor of some tragedy can be. I leaned in to Vera but I was simultaneously repulsed by her callousness. She is clearly the spine of this book and for me it was her voice that carried the narrative – both her spoken voice and the silences behind which she hid much truth.

There were some interesting moments in this book – the scene at the airport, at Vera’s birthday party, the storm on the island. But while these stand out as particularly strong, there was much about this book that seemed to be lacking. I’m not sure whether it was the weight of the story that overburdened the narrative or whether there was something else at play. What I do know is that this isn’t Grossman’s best book. It’s good. It’s interesting. And the story is certainly worth telling. But it’s not … I don’t have the word exactly. It’s like it’s trying to be something greater than it is… There are moments when Vera is lost in the story and her telling of it and I feel as though Grossman himself was lost in the same thing. As though holding Eva was somehow too great a task – and now that I’ve watched an interview with Eva I can see that this is true. She is larger than life, despite her small stature. She is unyielding and overflowing and glorious – impossible to capture and perhaps it is this that undoes Grossman’s novel.

Undoubtedly, Grossman’s steady brilliance sets a very high standard and it’s fair to say that this book is definitely worth reading because Eva/Vera’s voice should never be forgotten and because memory so easily melts and fades and because Grossman is just such a force in the world of literature. So read it. And read beyond it.

Craig Silvey, Honeybee

I’m not sure why I was surprised. I loved Jasper Jones, thought it was raw and striking and provocative. I loved it so much that I read it twice… and when Silvey came out with Honeybee I didn’t hesitate, I bought the book immediately. And then, for some reason, it sat on my shelf and gathered dust. I’m not sure why … I can only think that the cover image reminded me of what I thought Scott Monk’s protagonist might have looked like in his book Raw which left me underwhelmed to say the least.

In any event, Silvey’s protagonist stared back at me from the top shelf and every so often I thought “perhaps I should read that” and then was distracted by something or someone and the book remained. Alone.

But yesterday, I read Damon Galgut’s magnificent The Promise. I finished the book and sat there literally feeling bereft because it was done and I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. I flicked through the pages wondering whether to start at the beginning again. It didn’t seem right. And then I felt Honeybee staring down at me and I knew that now was its time.

I suspect there is indeed a deep connection between these two books for me. Galgut’s Africa is my birthplace. It rang deep in me, a bell tolling – but more about that in another post. And Silvey’s book described my home of the last 30 odd years, where I’ve lived most of my adult life, where I arrived as a 14 or 15 year old into that crazy space in between called adolescence and while I wasn’t exactly a ‘honeybee’ in the way Silvey describes, I think we are all honeybees on some level perhaps searching for a place to belong and I certainly felt like that arriving in Australia all those years ago.

So, Honeybee. What can I say. I was hooked from the very beginning. This beautiful tender moment on an overpass, the soft play of the idea of passing over mixed into the darkness, and the simple and honest relationship that develops between these two remarkable characters. I loved them both. Equally. But differently. Sam for his youth and his sorrow and his hollow existence and his sad past and tragic mother and his disconnection and culinary brilliance. Vic for his loneliness and aloneness, his secrets and his great love. And I loved the music that appeared when the two of them were together, a sense that all was right in the world. I loved the resilience of both these men and their deep goodness, despite the challenges that they both faced. I loved the friendship that emerged between them and then between each of them and others. I won’t say more because it will destroy the magic that unfolds between neighbours and like minded souls.

Perhaps the most remarkable element of this book is the strength that each of these characters demonstrates when seeking to bring joy and resolution to the other. It’s the same sentiment that I remember from Jasper Jones. In truth, Honeybee reminded me that some people are just inherently good and that is a wonderful thing.