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A Cut Below Paradise

BE MY KNIFE: A Novel, By David Grossman, Translated from the Hebrew by Vered Almog and Maya Gurantz, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 304 pp., $25

January 27, 2002|JONATHAN LEVI

There is something quaint about epistolary novels in the age of e-mail. The "killer app" has not only shrunk our sense of time but also atrophied the muscle that allows us to write or read the 1,000-word artifacts formerly known as letters. And yet Israeli author David Grossman's "Be My Knife" may be the strangest saddest love story ever told.

Like many love stories, this one begins on a playground. At a school reunion, Yair sees Miriam at a distance, a tall dark-haired woman with a face from the '50s, standing next to her powerful husband, Amos, who is entertaining the crowd. In the midst of the hilarity, Miriam hugs herself, retreating into a private place. That simple motion, seen only by Yair, leads to his first letter. "Don't worry," he writes, "I don't want to meet you in person or interfere with your day-to-day life in any way, but I would like you to agree to receive my letters ... if you are the woman I saw, hugging herself with a slightly crooked smile, I think you'll understand."

Miriam understands. In return, she receives hundreds of pages of letters from Yair, and except for the occasional quotation from her replies, we see only his correspondence. "I need a real partner for an imaginary journey," he writes to her, inviting her on a voyage of the mind. True to this vow, over nine months, the two meet strictly through the confessional of the letter, "like two people who inject themselves with truth serum and at long last have to tell it, the truth. I want to be able to say to myself, 'I bled truth with her,' yes, that's what I want. Be a knife for me, and I, I swear, will be a knife for you: sharp but compassionate."

Bleed truth Yair does, and the sight is not a pretty one. Veteran of a dozen adulteries, Yair refuses to meet Miriam, not only to avoid the pitfalls of sex but also out of discomfort with a body that is out of proportion to his soul, "some kind of hybrid between a sulky marabou and a Jew." He is a former 8-year-old who tried to commit suicide by buckling his father's belt tightly around his heart. He is "a devoted family man" who nevertheless writes two, three, sometimes five letters to Miriam in a day, writing at his kitchen table, writing in his car as he sits outside Miriam's house one night, smoking furiously until the passion moves him to run seven times around her sleeping bungalow like Joshua around Jericho. Miriam is not an uncomplicated woman--schoolteacher, wife to an understanding husband, mother to a 10-year-old boy who suffers from an illness that has deprived him of speech and left him with fits and rage. And yet, she is a woman of uncommon imagination. In one of the letters that Yair quotes back to her, she recalls: "You wanted to wake up without your memory, after an accident, or an operation, and start remembering our story, step by step, and tell it to yourself from the beginning, without knowing for even one moment whether you were the man or the woman in the story."

"I never imagined," Yair writes in one of his early letters, "that meeting a stranger's language could be as exciting as the first touch of her body, and her smell, and the texture of her skin and hair and beauty marks." Exciting it is, given the always exquisite language Grossman attaches even to Yair and Miriam's ugliest confessions. And yet, with all the possibilities of e-mail and phone sex, there is something piercingly sad about Yair's search for a 19th century epistolary solution, the distance, the refusal to substitute this writing therapy with physical contact. In real life, Yair confesses, he is a dealer of rare and used books. "I thought I finally found my vocation," he writes to Miriam in his last letter, "working with books, searching to find for people the stories from their childhood that they loved. What could be more suitable for me? Apparently it isn't. I am only almost happy here. It is still a secondhand pleasure."

One has to squint fairly hard to see the usual obsessions of Grossman, who hitherto has chosen more clearly Jewish and Israeli topics--the Six-Day War, Palestinians, the Holocaust--for his novels and nonfiction. And yet, as "Be My Knife" moves inevitably away from Yair's letters to a denouement of frightening honesty, it locates itself in a non-Keatsian country, where truth is not always beauty but the bitter fruit of a tree sitting in a promised, unattainable paradise.

*

Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer for Book Review.

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