Father Searches For Dead Son 'Out Of Time'

The latest novel by Israeli writer David Grossman is a rumination on grief — a prose play about the loss of a child. NPR's Scott Simon talks Grossman about Falling Out of Time.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

David Grossman has a new story. A man tells his wife in the kitchen one morning that he's leaving to look for their son - their son who is dead. This man, who will be called Walking Man, undertakes a journey on which the Midwife, the Net Mender, the Elderly Math Teacher and other characters join him on his search, and their own, for the children they have lost. David Grossman's story is a novel, a play and poetics. It's called "Falling Out of Time." It's translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen.

And David Grossman, the widely honored and best-selling writer whose books have been translated into more than 30 languages, joins us from Jerusalem. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID GROSSMAN: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: The man tells his wife - I'm going to read your words, if you don't mind - (Reading) A timeless border stands between us. I have forgotten we are here and he - meaning his son - and he, it's impossible, impossible.

Is this book an attempt to finish that sentence?

GROSSMAN: Yes. Well, the man who lost his child find it quite hard to express the explicit word about the death of his son. He's motivated to leave his home and to go towards over there, as he said. And over there is not a specific place in, you know, in Israel or somewhere else. But as I said, it is a journey to the language that can describe what is so hard to utter, this effect of death of his son.

SIMON: There is, among many heart-piercing speeches in here - the Duke, at one point, says: Sometimes alone in my private chamber, I take off both shoes and look at my feet and think it is him. Does it become painful because of that even to look at ourselves after a loss?

GROSSMAN: Yes. Everything reminds you of what you have lost. If you lost a person who was very dear to you, he's a signature. So to say he's imprinted in everything, in every object, in words, in memories, anecdotes. So the act of remembering - not only remembering, the act of being sometimes can be painful. And this book was an attempt to be with these feelings; also, to find them a place that will allow both to remember all the time without dying of it and to forget without killing. It's a very delicate endeavor.

SIMON: Mr. Grossman, I guess anybody has to ask, is this book distinctly personal based on the death of your son, Uri, in Lebanon in 2006?

GROSSMAN: I think everything I write is very, very personal. But, of course, I guess this book would not have been written had I not experienced this, the loss of my son, Uri. After we lost Uri, many people wrote to us or came to us to console us. And we got letters from Israel, and letters from other places in the world. And we got many letters from writers. And all of them almost wrote in the same voice. They said: We are speechless. There are no words to describe it. And it was amazing, as if someone has dictated to all of these masters of language or verbality the same formulation - we are speechless.

And I thought, it cannot be like that. You know, yes, of course, in the beginning, you are speechless when you confront something so overwhelming and terrible. But after a while - and because we are humans, we need to give names to what we feel; otherwise, we lose them. And I thought if I was doomed to be sent to this, you know, island of punishment, of grief, at least I will try to meet it with my own words and to try to give names and words to thinks that I have felt.

SIMON: Mr. Grossman, in another direction, you were a child radio actor?

GROSSMAN: Yes, I was.

SIMON: Do you think in any way your radio experience translates into the dialogue that you write as a novelist and a writer these days?

GROSSMAN: Every book that I write, the last version, the last, last version - and I write many versions usually - is the version in which I read out aloud all the text, from the beginning to the end. You get the chance to understand how your reader will hear your text in his or her inner ear. Flaubert, the French writer, he used to stand at the window of his apartment and to shout out with full lungs his text. He believed that what does not survive in shouting will not survive in whispering. There is a kind of a melody that creates the place, the macomb, we say in Hebrew, the very place in which the reader lives in the time that he is staying in the book that we are writing.

SIMON: This - I don't know if I've ever asked this question of anybody on the air, but I think it's suggested by your book. Do you have an idea that you live with, whether it turns out to be true or not, of what happens to us when we die?

GROSSMAN: No. I don't know, of course, what happens to us. And my personal feeling is that when we are gone, we are gone and there is no afterlife. I am a nonbeliever person. I cannot draw comfort from the idea of afterlife or paradise or God. And yet I know something now after having written this book that the afterlife or what happens over there, the place that my protagonists in this book are desperately trying to get to, it remains hermetic and unknown and monolithic, like a monolithic exterior of something that you cannot really penetrate. But I think that there is one way, especially for a secular person, one way in which we can scratch a little the exteriority of this envelope of the over there. And this is the way of art. This is the way of writing prose or poetry or making theater or movie or music. This is the only way where we can get as close as possible to the proximity of death and coexist life and death together and feel both of them pouring through us.

SIMON: David Grossman in Jerusalem. His new novel, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen, is "Falling Out of Time." Thanks so much for being with us.

GROSSMAN: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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