This is a big book, and when I say big, I don’t mean in page count. It’s a modest 450 pages, but the scope of what Grossman tries to do here dwarfs longer works like Dostoevsky’s lesser works, Christina Stead’s novels, and even things like Cortazar’s Hopscotch. It is, I suppose, the sheer outsizedness of Grossman’s ambitions that renders See Under: Love simultaneously awe-inspiring and messy. Things like that have been said about other modern bookss like The Tin Drum and far too many Latin American novels (where outsized ambition is a stereotype, despite the meticulous focus of authors like Borges and Rulfo), but Grossman’s book is unique as far as I know in bringing the aggressiveness to a resolutely abstract peak. A noted expert on Israeli literature tells me that the book had a massive impact when first published in Israel in the mid-80s, because unlike the strict narratives of authors like Wiesel and Appelfeld, Grossman’s approach was out to contextualize the Holocaust in language and literature.

The book is divided strictly into four parts which are only loosely connected. Characters reappear between them, but in drastically different form. The main character is a child (third person) in the first section and an adult (first person) in the second, then recedes to a background third person narrator in the third section before disappearing altogether in the last. Maybe it will make more sense if I describe each segment:

1. Momik: A child, Momik, grows up in Israel in the 50s, born to Holocaust survivor parents. His parents will not speak about what they call “Over There,” and Momik comes to wonder about what he calls the Nazi Beast. He knows it’s present, but he senses it ignores him because he is not truly a Jew; a Jew is one who knows the story of “Over There.” He plots to take his grandfather, Anshel Wasserman, another surivor, into the cellar of his house to lure the Beast into showing itself. His grandfather tells him enough to send him into paroxysms of fear, from which he does not fully recover. Then his grandfather disappears.

2. Bruno: Momik is now an adult writer in the early 80s, and he’s fairly obsessed with Polish writer Bruno Schulz, a half-mystical, half-imagistic Jew who was shot during the war by an SS man. In “The Mythologization of Reality”, Schulz wrote:

At present we consider the word to be merely a shadow of reality, its reflection. But the reverse would be more accurate: reality is but a shadow of the word. Philosophy is really philology, the creative exploration of the word.

And likewise, Grossman presents a fantasia on Schulz’s life that ends with him not being shot, but escaping into the waters, where he communes with the fish. Momik eventually meets up with him, and Schulz takes him to a new world of a new language, one without violence, without the idea of violence. But it’s not what one would expect…

3. Wasserman: Momik is reconstructing a life of his grandfather, who in earlier years was the author of lovable juvenile adventure stories featuring the “Children of the Heart.” Wasserman comes to the camps, and the Nazis find that he cannot be killed; a direct bullet to the head doesn’t do it. They bring him to the camp commandant, Neigel, who makes a deal with Wasserman: Wasserman will tell him new stories, Scheherezade-style, of the Children of the Heart, and for each story, Neigel will attempt to kill Wasserman. So amidst mass death, Wasserman reinvents the Children of the Heart in the present day, in alternately nightmarish and surreal situations. Of particular interest, though not described here, is their parentage of a child named Kazik.

4. The Complete Encyclopedia of Kazik’s Life: Structured as an alphabetical concordance, though not arbitrarily (there is some structural linearity to reading it from beginning to end), this section interweaves revelations about Kazik and the Wasserman/Neigel situation. Kazik, it turns out, is a child who lived an entire human life in less than 24 hours, whom the Children of the Heart prayed would “know nothing of war.” He grows up, has sex, takes a trip, and commits suicide. Meanwhile, Neigel’s wife leaves him, even though he had been attempting to use Wasserman’s stories, unattributed, to draw her back to him. Neigel too commits suicide. Wasserman lives.

There’s more, much, much more. Especially in the last section, Grossman throws out ideas and images so quickly that there is simply too much of an overload to assemble them into a conceptual structure for the book. I suspect this was consciously intended, for it fits with the themes of the book for the beautiful, focused prose of the first two sections (“Bruno” in particular is viscerally moving) to become more abstract and more incoherent as the subject matter comes to inhabit the Holocaust. It is a strange book where an underwater fantasy adventure with Bruno Schulz is more concrete than scenes in a concentration camp, but that is one of Grossman’s most distinctive achievements.

Four words to describe the novel: violence, love, language, memory. In the same way that Momik, in the first section, is alienated by his lack of memory of “Over There,” Kazik suffers in his lack of knowledge of war. The middle two sections, in turn, show language to be, inseparably, an equal conduit for love and violence. This is an absurd reduction of the novel, but since Grossman is very cagey about giving the reader any one place to start, and effectively gives the reader no place to end (the encyclopedia runs out of alphabetical entries, but that is hardly an ending), I constructed my own, and that is it.

To be continued…

Update: The aforementioned expert, Adriana, corrects me for misquoting her:

But the point that I was making when we talked (while measuring flour for a [sugar-free] peach cobbler) had to do specifically with the novel’s reception in Israel and how it compared to the Holocaust narrative of another Israeli author. Wiesel did not factor in that particular comparison. What distinguished See Under: Love was that Grossman was not a Holocaust survivor, and his novel attempted to imagine the Holocaust from the perspective of the second-generation, particularly (and this is a crucial distinction to keep in mind when reading the novel) the Israeli second-generation.

I admit full culpability for adding Wiesel to the equation, but the first-generation/second-generation distinction (which, to the best of my knowledge, I would agree is keenly apparent in the book) is not all that she mentioned. She also described the reception as also centered around the somewhat shocking experimentalism of the book in dealing with the Holocaust material, as well as its overt anti-narrative tendencies. While Appelfeld uses clearly allegorical and synecdochal techniques, his novels are fundamentally realistic and linear. Adriana says:

Appelfeld skillfully exploits the conventions of realism to create narratives that are deeply concerned with language, history, memory and the looming threat of their breakage.

But I would inquire further as to the difference between a novel that obeys the conventions of realism and a novel that is realistic. (What can realism be besides a convention?) I would point out as an ironic example Appelfeld’s novel The Immortal Bartfuss, where the titular adjective is used to denote his survival; meanwhile, Grossman imagines a truly immortal character in See Under: Love. This is not to deny Appelfeld’s stunning use of narrative ellipsis or his undermining of narrative expectation, but he inhabits realistic techniques thoroughly enough that I am willing to draw a line between him and Grossman. I would also ask where Amos Oz figures in this, since he falls in age between the two authors, and seems to stick to the realist paradigm. Even when uses an epistolary format in Black Box, the story remains quite linear and explicit.