Reading is fundamental: interview with David Grossman

We are pleased to publish the interview given by the Israeli writer David Grossman, a man of dialogue and peace who has never lost his identity, on the occasion of the literary review “Libri in Movimento [Books in Motion] in Brescia (Italy) on February 25, 2019. Interview by Cristina Muccioli.

  1. The three books we are going to talk about are some of the author’s most popular works: Qualcuno con cui correre (2000), A un cerbiatto somiglia il mio amore (2008) and Applausi a scena vuota (2014). In all the books a common concept of dynamism can be found. Reading the stories it is clear how both the plot and the characters express a strong sense of motion due to the inability to stand still. These conditions lead to a reflection about the story of Israel. It is a unique example of a country with no stable territory to be called “home”, whose population is constantly wandering around the world. This is a very unusual trend for modern countries.

Grossman: in all of my books this tendency to an extreme dynamism can be seen from both the characters and the language that I chose to use in the descriptions. Personally, I put so much effort in the choice of the terminology that I am going to use mainly because I want to capture and express all the nuances of significance that the words contain. These represent the power of language which is a writer’s main tool. This discussion about dynamism is then linked to the Israeli people’s lifestyle of eternal wanderers, constantly searching for their home, a place to call their own. Unfortunately, it is still a dream for us but I wish that it could turn into reality as soon as possible. Meanwhile I hope to be seen as a “home”, to guide and protect my family, my friends and my people.

  1. Talking about the power of language, we discussed the importance of the words’ nuances. As a result, it is now necessary to reflect about the beauty and the difficulty of translating, which is a mandatory step for international works like yours. What does David Grossman think about this “art”?

Grossman: in my opinion translating is a kind of sorcery. It is something that I hardly understand. I write in Hebrew and when I do it, I use particular terms that may contain specific references to my mother culture. For instance in my books I put both biblical and other religious works’ references to help the readers understand the topic discussed. Each word leads to past memories and creates different mental associations; once the original text is translated, new ideas and cultural references will come along. But what will happen to the original work after the translation? Maybe something will be lost in the process. It is a potential risk that any international book must face, anyway I hope that the plot will be strong enough to survive the translation or at least that it could benefit some kind of enrichment. I would like to tell you something about a recent personal experience. Before sending my last two books into the translating process I called fifteen translators from all over the world to discuss with them some linguistic choices. During their brief stay they had the opportunity to read and see more than twenty-four thousand books, including ancient dictionaries and literary works of different genres. I had access to the enormous library too and of all the treasures kept there, I remember an old French dictionary about perfumes. To conclude my story, the moment when I realized the real power of language was during the meeting with all the translators. They tried to suggest different translations for the same word, which revealed the great variety of nuances that each term contains in itself. It really was a mystic and profound experience in a not so  spiritual world anymore.

  1. Related to the process of translation I would like to talk about the way Sister Theodora communicates to others; she is a character from the book Qualcuno con cui correre (2000). A Greek nun who speaks a not so understandable language to Asaf, the main character, but that eventually is able to dialogue with him. The conversation is possible because both Sister Theodora and Asaf overcome the linguistic obstacles by speaking through their feelings.

Grossman: the reason why they can understand each other is because of their shared love for the same girl. Despite the thickness of the characters’ language they are able to find a communicative compromise to at least understand and develop a minimal dialogue. This act of reciprocity is for me the biggest motivation for a writer. In order to give the reader an effective general comprehension I must pay attention to the language used. Moreover, to name an emotion previously not fully expressed it is a beautiful and meaningful experience. In the Sixties, for instance, the Hebrew dictionary did not contain the word “frustration”: not because the people of Israel did not know this feeling but because, ironically, that term had not an effective translation. The urge to introduce this new word into the local vocabulary was met by academics who found a linguistic counterpart. During their writing activities authors tend to deliver a specific message to a thick world, mainly dominated by mass media. Under these last ones’ influence global people seem to speak only through clichés and empty slogan, denoting the risk of minimizing their communicative skills.

  1. I noticed that the less used word in the novels is “love”, anyway the feeling is always present and discussed in the books. In Qualcuno con cui correre (2000) a strong sibling love is told. The analysis of this bond shows an interest in the category of adolescents which in the book are pictured as strong and determined humans. Unfortunately these qualities are not very common in the adult world.

Grossman: both childhood and adolescence are fundamental life phases in which change and strength are involved. In particular during the stage of adolescence youngsters face some major mental and physical changes that affect them profoundly. They discover themselves for the first time, exploring their sexuality, which lead them to a common stage of temporary confusion. Fear is also a shared feeling that is unfortunately used by mass media to manipulate common ideas and behaviours. Young people are described as violent and unhappy humans, even though they are simply not free to express themselves; their inner creativity is also in jeopardy because it is considered not cool enough. I really would like to continue my studies in this direction but I also find very interesting the adult world. The family is what I am most attracted to: it is in this social environment that drama is created.

  1. A quote that can represent the novels discussed today is: “Life is short but very intense”. The main character of Applausi a scena vuota (2014) seems to express it very well.

Grossman: the main character of the novel is a comedian at the end of his career with some health issues. The plot tells about a life-changing moment for the man, whose life perspective will change drastically. During an usual performance, filled with vulgar and bad jokes, the showman notices a woman among the public who is not laughing at all. Giving the artist an eloquent glance, the little woman makes him realize that other people seem to be unamused. This sudden realization makes the artist reflect on his life and career. Then the lady tells him that his jokes are evil and that they have known each other before because of their origins. The comedian is gutted and, for the first time, he feels himself naked in front of his public. Forgetting his gaudiness, he tries to give the audience a more authentic version of himself. It is a sort of cathartic experience that allows the showman to discover a story until then unknown for him too. It is a privilege that not so many people can have. How many of us can affirm to live a life that suits their authentic selves? Humans are smart and they are able to fake their existence in order to meet others’ expectations; we live pretending and killing our true selves. Culture and literature can help us in this way. Israel, for example, has been living a parallel existence for more than fifty years, not the one it could and should have had.

  1. The comedian of the novel Applausi a scena vuota (2014), as a kid, used to walk on his hands to defend himself from the bullies. It could be read as an effective metaphor explaining the need to see the world from a different perspective.

Grossman: the act of walking on your hands can mean looking at the world from another point of view. When he was little the artist decided to walk upside down and to reflect on the world in a playful way. Once again he shows the need to play within the hard definitions that are imposed by the society. I am frightened of these definitions, too much strict to represent the variety and complexity of the world. The most important concepts and ideas cannot fit in such hard definitions. We have to pay attention to words because of the precise significance they possess; we as artists must find every nuance of the terms.

  1. So it is clear how you consider hard definitions a threat and an insult to the world’s complexity. I have also to congratulate you on the introspective ability to put yourself in others’ shoes.

Grossman: thank you. Regarding the ability to put yourself in others’ shoes I believe that observing people’s faces you can find masculine traits in women and feminine traits in men. When I was young I used to look at adult faces to try to see their former inner child; anyway now the topic is about the gender perspective. In each one of us there is a double nature even though humans wrongly tend to suppress one of these parts: we must admit that more sides can coexist in us, that this is our real nature. For example, I am Israeli but I was born just metres away from the Palestinian border so I could have been Palestinian; technically I am both. In order to get to know my neighbour I have to understand him and know his history. Everyone’s history and traditions must be told to really know each other. We have to keep our minds open to enrich our knowledge about different topics. In the end, it is absolutely necessary to understand people.

  1. Trying to understand your enemy and tell his story is at the same time shocking and praiseworthy. I usually only read about such gestures but now, for the first time, there is a person in front of me who says it loudly.

Grossman: thank you, but I must admit that others before me spoke publicly about this topic. One of them was the late but never forgotten Amos Oz. He was Israeli too, I have known him for a long time and I am proud to say that we were friends. He was also a great writer, witty and smart, who was constantly aware of the world around him. Thanks to his open mentality, Amos Oz was always ready to accept new and different ideas, points of view and perspectives.

  1. A relevant key word seems to be “knowledge”. There is this pressing urge to know and to be updated about different topics. In the three novels, on the contrary, what is important is the complete opposite condition: not having a clue about what is happening in the world outside.

Grossman: in my books when a character does not know something, he decides to create assumptions to escape his condition of lack of information. It is a great incentive for him even though there is always a human side that makes the man fear a possible negative revelation. Everyone has the inner curiosity to be constantly updated about the world’s latest news. When I begin to write a book I do not know what the plot will talk about as I do not want to preclude me any idea. Every work is unique and different in its own way, both for the reader and me. I think I could not survive without my books. This is my greatest pleasure.

  1. After having talked about the pleasure of writing for an author, I would like to know now how a writer approaches the act of reading.

Grossman: personally, I love reading both Israeli and international literary works. I like reading budding writers too. The act of reading is fundamental because it enriches and protects us from the gaudiness of today’s world. I really enjoy the fact that my books are translated all over the world; I would like to tell you a little story: the daughter of a friend of mine was on a trip in Slovakia when one day she discovered that a dog was named after one of the characters of my novels. Let me tell you, that was one of the proudest moments of my career.

Transcription and translation by Lucia Pedrazzini

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Cristina Muccioli
Cristina Muccioli was born in Milan in 1968. Graduated in Theoretical Philosophy, she teaches Ethics of Communication at the Brera Academy and is an international art critic. Her research is focused on the intertwining of art and science, anthropology and philosophy. Among her publications: "La bellezza possibile" [The Possible Beauty], for the collection "Un poeno che cura" (“A Poison that Cures”, Carocci, 2011), "Le emozioni. Un lieto evento " [Emotions. A Happy Event], for "Il cervello irriverente" (“The Irreverent Brain”, Laterza, 2009 and 2017) and "L’estetica del vero. Le idee e le immagini della verità nella storia dell’arte” (“The aesthetics of truth. Ideas and images of truth in the history of art”, Prospero, 2018). She collaborates with the magazine Zona Letteraria (Literary Zone, Prospero Editore).