Hatred and Jealousy, Petulance and Platitudes


Two Novellas
By David Grossman
Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen
264 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $23.00.

For ten years, Shaul has believed his wife is cheating on him. He can imagine her making love to her lover in precise detail—sucking her toes, biting her ankles, running his tongue up her ankles—and when he sits across from her at meals, he envisions what her face looks like when she’s with his competitor. And most recently, he has bought her a car. This would seem to make it only easier for her to carry on the affair, but in Shaul’s mind, his gift allows him to track her. It is, he says, “a shiny microchip inserted into her veins so a camera could monitor her.”

One night, Shaul summons his sister-in-law Esti and asks her to drive him to an undisclosed location. She consents, though she is not particularly close to or fond of him, and together they go, she at the wheel, and he, suffering from a mysterious leg injury, writhing in pain in the backseat. Along the way, Shaul spews a diatribe of hate, self-hatred, jealousy, and obsession, gradually revealing that he believes his wife is right now with her inamorato and he intends to surprise them. Esti is a lactation consultant and happily married mother of five. She is not equipped to deal with the dark thoughts he is hurling at her. The drive, which makes up of the bulk of “Frenzy,” the first of the two novellas in David Grossman’s latest collection, becomes an object-lesson in the insidious influence of hatred and jealousy.

It’s almost a shame that “Frenzy” is so engrossing, because almost any story that came after it would seem, by comparison, a disappointment. But “Her Body Knows,” the second novella, struck me as especially weak, its characters uninteresting, and its central themes—writing’s power to bridge consciousness and heal dysfunctional relationships—are only superficially explored.

Rotem, an Israeli expatriate living in England, returns home to stand vigil at her mother Nili’s bedside. Rotem has written a story based on a true incident in her mother’s life in which Nili had befriended a physically abused teenage boy. The novella goes back and forth between the deathbed scene and Rotem’s story, which she reads to her mother in hopes of getting feedback and, ultimately, approval. There was such perverse pleasure for me in plumbing the depths of Shaul’s dementia, but in “Her Body Knows,” I have to spend time with Rotem, a self-absorbed, petulant writer, and Nili, a loopy Yoga teacher who spouts New Age platitudes. I missed Shaul.

Grossman is one of Israel’s most famous writers, having won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Literature and the Israeli Book Publishers’ Association Prize for best novel. His masterpiece is the novel See Under: LOVE, but he has also written several books of journalism. In the late ’80s, he spent several weeks traveling in the West Bank and talking with Palestinians. The result was The Yellow Wind, a sympathetic portrayal of the Arabs living under Israeli rule, and, by extension, an indictment of his countrymen for maintaining such a brutal occupation.

A lot has changed in two decades, though, and Grossman, like many other doves, has grown more jaundiced and despairing about the political situation. He currently expresses as much anger at the Palestinians as he does at the Israelis. In a recent interview in the British press, he quoted a line from poet Yehuda Amichai to sum up his views on the Middle East: “The writing is already on the wall, and it is written in three languages—Hebrew, Arabic and Death.”

So is “Frenzy” somehow about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? I hesitate to ask that question, because it’s posed in almost every interview with Grossman I’ve read—as if there were nothing else to write about in Israeli society. All the same, Grossman has described the experience of hearing sirens, turning the radio on to find out if there was a bombing, and then, if there has been an attack, calling all his family members to make sure they’re still alive. Imagine living in New York and every time you heard a siren you had to wonder if someone close to you were dead. Sirens must blare in that city at least two or three times an hour. It’s hard to imagine a scribe wanting to write about anything other than the political situation.

Shaul is a bureaucrat for the Ministry of Education, and strikes me as a fairly typical middle-aged Israeli. His wife, who runs a day-care center out of their home, denies she’s having an affair, but Shaul doesn’t believe her. As evidence, he cites the smell of chlorine in her hair whenever she comes home every day. It’s part of an elaborate cover up, he concludes, evidence of the extreme lengths she goes to keep him from discovering her adultery.  Of course, it could also mean that his wife, as she claims, has merely gone for her daily swim, but Shaul cannot concede this alternative.

Shaul’s hatred has reached the point where it is cut off from reality and self-perpetuating. His spite and jealousy have developed their own internal logic that ensures they will only continue growing. “This twisted innards of his thoughts,” is how Grossman puts it.

One thinks immediately of the buildup to the Iraqi war when the Bush administration read every piece of evidence as just more proof that Saddam Hussein was amassing weapons of destruction, but also of the Israelis whose mindset after all these years of violence just might be very much like Shaul’s. Grossman himself has said that he worries that the Israelis, in their understandable and very justifiable outrage over Palestinian violence, have nonetheless forgotten that they remain occupiers and oppressors of another people. It seems that, in “Frenzy,” he takes this position even further, arguing that his countrymen have become so consumed by their loathing of the Palestinians that it is now self-sustaining. There may be peace someday, but the hatred has gained enough momentum to continue for generations.