The OF Blog: David Grossman, Falling Out of Time

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

David Grossman, Falling Out of Time

Some of the most powerful writing can be born out of suffering and deep personal grief and anguish.  In 2006, Israeli writer/poet David Grossman learned that his son had died while fighting in the Second Lebanon War.  In response, he wrote a book, Falling Out of Time, that combines elements of drama and poetry to tell of a father's grief and his journey to discover his fallen son yet once more.

Falling Out of Time possesses a central narrative, that of the grieving father's search for something, anything, that will bring at least some semblance of his dead son to life again, and through the media of poetry and drama, lines, beautiful as they may be, that otherwise might be lost in a more traditional series of meditative poems gain a greater poignancy in this more unified verse-prose-drama.  Below is a scene taken from early in the story, as the father and mother realize that their son's death may have driven a stake through their own relationship:

I can remember
you without
his noneness – your innocent,
hopeful smile – and I can remember
myself without his noneness.  But not
him.  Strange:  him
without his noneness, I can no longer
remember.  And as time goes by
it starts to seem as though
even when he was,
there were signs
of his noneness.
Sometimes, you know,
I miss
that ravaged,
Sometimes I believe her
more than I believe
She is the reason I take
my life
in your hands and ask
you a question
I myself
do not understand:
Will you go with me?
There –
to him?
That night I thought:
Now we will separate:  We cannot live
together any longer.  When I tell you
you will embrace
the no, embrace
the empty space
of him.  (pp. 20-21 iPad iBooks e-edition, translated by Jessica Cohen)
Grossman's distillation of grief into such short, sharp lines benefits greatly from the recasting of the Man's grief into dramatic poetry.  There are no wasted lines, nothing but raw, visceral emotion behind his confession of his loss of his son to "noneness."  Equally, the Woman's realization that their son's death has driven a wedge between them is said succinctly and yet with great emotion behind those few words.

And yet Falling Out of Time is much more than the separations caused by death.  As the father/Man sets out to discover answers, he becomes in his walking a symbol of the peripatetic traveler, that stock character of so many classical tales.  But wanderers are not always alone and his particular case, he finds gathered around them other grief-driven pilgrims to places to which they do not comprehend.  One such companion is a centaur who has tried to capture his grief in words and has found those words to fail:

CENTAUR:  You're back.  Finally.  I was beginning to think you'd never...that I'd scared you off.  Look, I was thinking:  You and I, we're an odd couple, aren't we?  Think about it:  I've been unable to write for years, haven't produced even one word, and you – it turns out – can write, or rather transcribe, as much as you feel like.  Whole notebooks, scrolls!  But only what other people tell you, apparently.  Only quotes, right?  Other people's chewed-up cud.  All you do is jot it down with a pen stroke here, a scribble there...Am I right?  Not even a single word that's really yours?  Yeah?  Not even one letter?  That's what I thought.  What can I say, we're quite a pair.  Write this down then, please.  Quickly, before it gets away: 
And inside my head there's a constant war comma the waspskeep humming colon what good would it do if you wrotequestion mark what would you addto the world if you imagined questionmark and if you reallymust comma then just writefacts comma whatelse is there to sayquestion mark write themdown and shut upforever colon atsuch and such time comma inthis and that place comma my soncomma my old child comma agedeleven and a halfperiod the boyis gone period (pp. 67-68 iBooks e-edition)
In this passage, Grossman expands the grief, makes it more universal without ever reducing its intimate, personal pain.  And as the wandering man/father continues his journey, he comes upon a profound realization, one that does not lessen his sorrow but it does at least provide an understanding he did not realize he was seeking among the other understandings he has partially grasped by story's end.

Falling Out of Time moves the reader because Grossman's dialogues within the poetic stanzas feels both realistic and something more profound than the banalities we often utter when expressing our (sometimes half-hearted) words of condolence.  The imagery evoked is simple, but its directness cuts away at our protective layers that shield us from strong emotion, leaving the reader bare and receptive for the raw power of the dramatic poetry.  The result is one of those narrative poems that show that even today, long after many have presumed the poem to have lost its power to move souls, that poetry can tell a story even more effectively than prose and that in its imagery and expressions, meanings can be found that do not require anything more than empathy for them to work their wonders upon our hearts and souls.

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