You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Contested Terrain

The Smile of the Lamb
by David Grossman
translated by Betsy Rosenberg
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 325 pp., $19.95)

The young Israeli writer David Grossman has published two novels—The Smile of the Lamb (1983) and See Under: Love (1986), both of which have been well received in his country. When the second of these books came out in English translation in 1989, it was greeted with lavish praise in the United States; Hillel Halkin declared it, in The New Republic, a “truly extraordinary work of fiction.” Now Grossman’s earlier novel has been issued in translation, and I have the unhappy task of filing a minority report about this talented writer.

Just how talented Grossman is we can see in the opening segment of See Under: Love, which depicts the childhood fantasies and traumas of a nine-year-old boy in Israel. Momik is a child of Holocaust survivors who have tried to shield him from their own memories, and as a result he envisions the “Nazi beast” as a vague, hovering creature, a threat always present but never quite located. The writing is fierce and taut, but after a powerful start See Under: Love rambles off into a group of phantasmagorical episodes that I found pretentious, willed, and tiresome. Bruno Schulz, a writer somewhat mishandled in recent fiction, suddenly appears as a figure in the imaginings of Momik, now a grown-up and troubled novelist. Schulz does not die, as in fact he did, at the hands of a Nazi thug, but escapes to Danzig, plunges into the ocean to join a school of fish, and turns into a salmon. This curious transformation tempts literary critics into ingenious symbolic readings, but I found it all too literary (flounder to salmon), a disastrous exercise in up-to-date technique—so much so that its possible interpretation comes to seem inconsequential. Reviewers have applied the handy term “imaginative” to the Schulz episode, but I suspect that the term serves as a consoling surrogate for “confusing.”

The Smile of the Lamb is, by contrast, relatively modest in conception, but it is also, I fear, an unsatisfying piece of writing. Grossman set his first novel in the West Bank, and he deserves credit for scouting a terrain that most Israeli writers find difficult. He has written, he says, “the story of the Jewish people in Israel, champions of humanistic morality and justice turned subjugators of another people, causing the erosion of their own values.” This statement of intention seems to me admirable; but the book itself is something else again.

As a convenience let me separate two elements of the novel: its situation and its story. The situation turns on the twisted relationships among three Israelis, Uri, Shosh, and Katzman. Uri is a young soldier stationed in the West Bank, one of Israel’s “gentle folk,” soft and idealistic, and marked, as his wife, Shosh, puts it, by “the smile of the lamb.” Shosh herself is an equally familiar type, ravenously neurotic, a virtuoso of kvetching. If “the smile of the lamb” strikes her as acceptable in a husband, she prefers as her lover someone more wolfish, the cynical and battered Katzman, Uri’s friend and superior officer.

This triangle, if not exactly brimming with freshness, is probably no worse than many others in modern fiction: all depends on what the writer can make of it. It is a situation that cries out for narrative development, but mostly Grossman vibrates emotionally with his characters, so that again and again we share the self-lacerations of his trio—perhaps true to life, but like many things that are true to life, soon wearisome in a novel.

It may be argued in Grossman’s defense that the entanglements of these characters should be seen as a neurotic refraction of the circumstances in which they find themselves, that is, the struggle in the West Bank. That may indeed have been Grossman’s intention. Still, the troubles of his trio seem so uncontrolled and ingrown, so much a consequence of their own character disorders, that the neurotic aura too often gets in the way of the depicted circumstances.

The story, by contrast, is absorbing, especially if one trips past the allegorical suggestions. Uri has become the friend of Khilmi, a wise old Arab who serves a little as the Karataev to his Pierre Bezhukhov. When Khilmi’s son is killed in a clash with Israeli troops, Uri has to break the news to the old man; and then, overcome not just by his own pain but by a sense of how insufferable life has become in the West Bank, Khilmi issues an “ultimatum”: either the Israeli occupiers get out immediately or he will kill his beloved friend Uri, whom he has managed to entrap. The tense denouement comes when Katzman leads a squad to rescue Uri and the novel reaches a violent, necessarily ambiguous conclusion.

Even with its stereotyped characters (idealistic young Israeli, mythmaking old Arab), The Smile of the Lamb might have been a tolerable novel if Grossman had not been so intent on loading his pages with verbal and symbolic weight. Perhaps sensing that his matter is fairly thin, he compensates through a nervous strategy of verbal intensification, somewhat like a musician in a fever of vibrato. The result is wanton.

When old Khilmi screams in despair over the death of his son, Uri “groans. Ripping me right down the middle. No. that’s not a groan, that’s a blind drill press.” Exactly what a blind drill press might be, Grossman does not tell us. He ought to have been content with the introductory groan. At another point, Uri examines a picture of the dead Arab boy and sees in him

the infinite loneliness of one who has been bereft of life, whose body is but an empty hull stuffed full of cotton-wooly words by strangers, and just then he resembled one of the animal trophies hanging by the tail in the tent of Sha’-aban Ibn Sha’-aban, the mirthless hunter.

The first of these clauses would have sufficed, but a mania for accumulation drives Grossman to the bad prose of the second clause and the opaque comparison with “the mirthless hunter.” And here, trapped in a metaphor, is Shosh:

No one will ever try to coerce you, because you have willed yourself off on a sidetrack of time, a track no longer in use, where you can move forward or backward, and have fun in the station house where clock time has no set value like high-quality Opus magnet tape. ...

Grossman’s overreaching can lead to embarrassment, as in Shosh’s reflection that she “had known what she was getting into by allowing [Katzman] to resonate inside her.” Some of this may be the fault of the translator—I am not equipped to check the original Hebrew—but I doubt it, since Betsy Rosenberg is quite capable of writing disciplined prose when Grossman’s text asks her to.

Now, what seems interesting here is not the rightness or wrongness of my judgment, but the problem of how to reconcile it with the high praise accorded Grossman by the critics, say, by Halkin in these pages. Let’s assume that neither Halkin nor I is so incompetent that both or either of our judgments should be dismissed. We might then suppose that our readings reflect sharply divergent critical outlooks, that while Halkin is inclined to admire a novel because it is experimental, I am inclined to be skeptical for the same reason. If either of these suppositions is true, then there is no cause for worry, since the problem has been shifted from the text to the critics.

But let’s assume that neither Halkin nor I is excessively rigid in our literary tastes, and that we are both open to different kinds of fiction. There follows the possibility that one or both of us have neglected, or overvalued, important elements in the novel. Halkin might be charged with failing to recognize how pretentious Grossman’s writing often is, while I might be charged with making too much of some isolated bad passages. How can this difference be resolved? Only through a tedious sequence of textual citation such as neither the editors nor the readers of this magazine would tolerate.

But suppose, again, that Halkin and I did cite many passages to support our judgments, and we still disagreed. What I take to be wanton he might feel to be evocative. And he might then go on the attack by saying, “You could also find plenty of bad passages in the novels of the Faulkner you admire so much.” Would I be in difficulty? Perhaps; but I’d reply that the occasionally frantic rhetoric in Faulkner sustains both great narrative power and a profound moral vision, while Grossman’s rhetoric, imbedded in what Shosh calls “the fermenting matter of my psyche,” lacks such attributes. Still, Halkin would not be without resources for rebuttal.

But let us stop here. After every effort to test the ways in which two honest critics could reach such widely divergent judgments, the problem, not at all unusual in literary life, might still remain. Would we then be back where we started, mired in subjectivity? I think not. For the act of providing examples and arguments in order to discover the grounds for our different judgments should yield some illumination. It might also support the claim for criticism as a reasoned discourse by trained readers.

Where does this leave David Grossman? By now he must be thoroughly sick of critics, especially this one, who nevertheless wishes to repeat that in the marred pages of his two novels there lurks a large talent waiting to emerge.