David Grossman has written two acclaimed works of non-fiction and four novels. In all of them he has been interested in exploring the individual's relationship to "the other" and the way that relationship shapes a notion of "the self." His effort to put a sympathetic face on Palestinian suffering during the first intifada in The Yellow Wind was groundbreaking reportage. The book mapped out the subtle ways in which the occupation was indelibly altering Israeli's ideas of themselves, and established Grossman as one of the country's most daring and powerful writers. In the masterful novel, See Under: Love he expanded this theme by showing the moral necessity of imagination in the life of a child of Holocaust survivors attempting to form and affirm a coherent identity. In this case, the unseen "other" was a tragic history as forcefully present as it was mysterious to the young protagonist. Be My Knife is Grossman's boldest, most concentrated and transparent treatment of this subject to date.
The novel is the story of a man's obsession with a woman he doesn't know. Yair spies Miriam across a crowded room at a high-school reunion and decides that she will be the recipient of his letters. Contrary to conventional wisdom, by virtue of the fact that he knows absolutely nothing about her, Yair feels liberated to disclose his most intimate thoughts and feelings.
At first, there is little pretense in their relationship. Yair wants nothing from Miriam other than have her agree to accept his letters. He tells her that what he desires is a pure, uncensored exposure of souls. "We could be like two people who inject themselves with truth serum and at long last have to tell it, the truth." For two thirds of the novel we don't read Miriam's responses, only Yair's reactions to them.
As the letters move back and forth, it becomes ominously apparent that Yair craves more, nothing less than the joining of their two souls. In the process, as in all relationships, power, control and self-justification quickly become currency. In a moment of hesitation Yair pleads "ą what do I know about relationships that do not operate according to the normal laws of territorial battle and war over each millimeter of the other's soul, to solely constantly surrender or be surrendered?"
Grossman wants the reader to ponder the possibility of moving beyond subtext in any relationship, particularly one of deep intimacy. He also wants us to understand that it is our relationships that define us. Without them, in essence, we cease to exist in any meaningful way. A eulogy comes to mind. When a person dies we typically extol the deceased as husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter, friend etc. We retrieve a sense of a person by the quality and character of their relationships. In Be My Knife, this fact is taken to the extreme. Yair is defined virtually exclusively by his obsession with Miriam. And conversely we are never sure whether Miriam is real or exists largely as a fabrication of Yair's desperate imagination. He admits "ąin order to find you I have to invent a littleą"
Grossman cleverly adds another dimension to the narrative. Not only is he testing the boundaries of the primary relationship between Yair and Miriam, he is also implicitly doing the same with the relationship between author and reader. The book becomes itself a metafiction, which is to say a story about storytelling. All along we are aware that this is less Yair writing to Miriam, than Grossman writing to an anonymous reader. The triangulated relationship between author, subject and reader, is, in the end, the only true one. When Yair writes that a triangle is a shaky structure, Miriam answers not if it's equilateral "ąand all involved know they are sides of a triangle." Here is the finely balanced geometry of trust and dependence on which all literature is based. The reader relies on the author who in turn relies on the subject which relies on the reader's faith and so on.
At times, it feels as if Grossman is erecting a literary house of cards, precarious and challenging. The reader is forced to reflect on the viability if the entire literary exercise. Yair may be attempting to reveal his soul to Miriam, and the author to the reader, but is the enterprise even possible? Can the soul ever truly be captured and transmitted? Words are structured and limited while the soul is expansive and evanescent.
Still, Grossman knows language is all we have. It's the vessel which gives shape to our liquid souls. And water is repeatedly invoked in the novel as a metaphor for the soul. The name Miriam is significant. In the bible, it was for the sake of Moses' sister Miriam that God gave the Israelites water in the desert. They literally depended on her for survival, again, suggesting triangulation, between God (author), Miriam (subject), and Israel (reader).
There's a second aspect to the biblical allusion. God later punishes Miriam with leprosy for defaming Moses. She is synonymous with the sin of gossip, the irresponsible use of language. Grossman wants us to consider the paradox of language, how it simultaneously represents salvation and potential danger.
This paradox which fascinates Grossman is both intriguing and problematic. The novel is so densely written and richly textured it's a chore to read. This is a particular disappointment following his last book The Zigzag Kid which was a marvel of fluid, effortless storytelling and equally profound. In Be My Knife Grossman calls into question the conceit of fiction. The reader is overwhelmed by the intensity and gorgeousness of prose, to the point of claustrophobia, which is undoubtedly the author's intention. Yair writes "Yes, we are both people of wordsłand then your sudden realization, that perhaps I am a person who actually suffocates inside words." The reader suffocates in words and it's not pleasant. Successful as it may be, one closes this novel feeling the outsider to another's obsessions, and certain that it's the knife of craft, not the raw profusion of language, which truly holds the greatest promise of exposing the soul in fiction. ņ