Sunday, October 17, 2010

SEE UNDER: LOVE by David Grossman

In a word: Wow.

See Under: Love is a great, beautiful, terrible, difficult novel--as great and beautiful, in its way, as One Hundred Years of Solitude, but more difficult and terrible. This is my second reading of SUL, and I can state with confidence that you, no matter who you are, will not satisfactorily understand this book after a single reading. You will probably be impressed, intrigued, puzzled, maybe baffled, but you'll have to read it again before you can begin to fully appreciate its complexities. After two readings, I'm still attempting to understand it, still pondering the meanings of the White Room and Bruno's metamorphosis, still learning to 'hear' the novel's ironies and appreciate the implications of its unexpected (and hair-raising) black comedy. Granted, some of this difficulty may be self-inflicted, since I'm trying to interpret See Under: Love in a way that doesn't grasp at a pre-existing interpretive paradigm (psychological, social historical, structuralist (or post-), intertextual) and hold that paradigm up as the one and only key to Grossman's novel. Such keys have a nasty habit of turning into locks and trapping their users inside.

One way to understand See Under: Love is to consider the tension between form and content as this tension increases past the breaking point over the course of the novel's formal metamorphoses. The book is constructed around four separate attempts by the fictional Israeli writer Shlomo Efraim "Momik" Neuman (1950- ), the son of Holocaust survivors, to represent a genocidal reality that he can only know at second-hand. He attempts, in the face of the silences and selective memorializations of his society, to authentically imagine the Holocaust. His efforts are foredoomed (it's a problem of imagining the unimaginable), but the shapes of his four failures constitute the heart (or hearts) of Grossman's novel. The first section, "Momik,"

[At this point in my typing, my six year-old Dell laptop finally gave up the ghost and descended to Dell Hell, where there is much beeping and gnashing of motherboards. I now resume five days later on my new Toshiba:]

...As I was saying before that rude technological interruption, the novel's first section, "Momik," is a relatively harmonious marriage of form and content. A virtuosic example of the kind of free, indirect narration typically associated with Modernist realism (Woolf, Joyce in his more naturalistic moods), it describes, from the 9 year-old Momik's point of view, his attempt to imagine a genocidal reality that is unspoken in his Jerusalem neighborhood in 1959 (unspoken to him, that is; adults speak of the Shoah, but only when they don't think children are listening). The chapter becomes less naturalistic and more Expressionist-tinged as it proceeds, culminating in the bizarre Nazification of the child protagonist, but nothing in this first section prepares us for the second section's wild leap out of realism and into an erotically-charged surrealism descending from later Joyce, Kafka and (of course) Bruno Schulz. Even on a second reading, the "Bruno" section's stylistic shift is shocking, and I suspect that this section defeats many readers. (It also contains the book's most difficult pages.) But if we consider the novel's formal metamorphosis as analogous to Bruno's transformation into a fish--the two are equally unexpected--we might argue that amidst all the stylistic shifting the section's form and content remain largely compatible--bizarre reflections of one another. The third section tries to imagine the Shoah in terms of the multiple mirrors of postmodern self-consciousness. It's a story (by Grossman) about the telling of a story (by the adult Momik) about the telling of a story (by Wasserman). But that grossly oversimplifies the narrational complexity of part three, in which characters question the author, Neigel the Nazi threatens a takeover of the text, and--most significantly--the various scenes of narration flow seamlessly together in a way that dissolves the hard, Structuralist categories beloved of Narratologists. The form of the fourth section can be seen as a last-ditch effort by the forces of order to control the text's chaos. "The Complete Encyclopedia of Kazik's Life" attempts to imagine the unimaginable from within the defining form of Enlightenment Rationalism, that ur-text of Reason, the Encyclopedia. The tension cannot hold, and it doesn't. Subjective and surreal content almost immediately explode the supposedly 'objective,' rational form. To note just one, admittedly extreme, example: how can the rectilinear recepticles of reason even attempt to contain the 'scientific' theory and practice of the outrageous Yedidya Munin, a transcendental wanker who puts Alexander Portnoy to shame? When we come unexpectedly upon Munin (and some of the other moments of hair-raising black humor in this novel), we might at first find him out of place, a character who has wandered in from an entirely different kind of book. And further reflection will show us that this is exactly the point. Yedidya Munin and everything else in the "Encyclopedia" is radically 'out of place,' unheimlich. The encyclopedia can no more contain Munin's ferocious comic energy than it can represent the horrendously tragic energy of the Holocaust, an event that might be considered an example of history's dark surrealism, a vast unreason that rises from reason's forms and floods them with blood.

My thoughts are moving into George Steiner territory now, and it might be darkly enlightening to read the relevant essays in Steiner's Language and Silence in conjunction with See Under: Love. The two books seem to have much in common: both consider the Holocaust with respect to matters of language and representation, and both are haunted by a conception of the Nazi genocide as an event in which traditional humanism came to shipwreck. Adorno's work on the intertwining of reason and domination is of course relevant here, too. But again I resist the idea of a Steinerian or Adornoan interpretation of Grossman. The more difficult, more interesting course would be to consider whether and how Grossman's novel goes beyond Adorno and Steiner, exceeds them, bursts their categories as violently as it overflows the Encyclopedia of Kazik. That would be a reading worthy of See Under: Love.

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