See Under: Love
See Under: Love
by David Grossman
THE LITRARY WORK
A novel set primarily in Israel in the late 1950s and early 1980s, as well as in a Nazi death camp during World War II; published in Hebrew (as Ayen erekh: ahavah) in 1986, in English in 1989.
An Israeli child of Holocaust survivors tries to understand and tame the “Nazi Beast” in the hopes of protecting his parents; 20 years later, he attempts a series of ambitious and imaginative literary responses to the Holocaust.
David Grossman, one of contemporary Israel’s leading writers, was born in Jerusalem in 1954. His family immigrated to Palestine from Poland in the 1930s, before the Second World War, so he is neither a Holocaust survivor nor a child of survivors. Grossman studied philosophy and theater at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and embarked on a writing career. Beginning in the early 1980s, he published six novels, a short-story collection, two nonfiction books, and numerous children’s books. His articles and editorials on current events in Israel regularly appear in the Hebrew press. His haZeman hat-sahov (1987; The Yellow Wind, 1988), a nonfiction book on Israeli-Palestinian relations, encouraged Israel to confront the moral cost of its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories that it had conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War. His second novel, See Under: Love is an intensely creative treatment of the Holocaust and its aftermath. Some have criticized the degree of experimentation in the novel, given its grave subject matter. Nevertheless, the novel’s deeply compassionate evocation of the lives of survivors and their children, combined with its bold innovations in language and form, make See Under: Love a central achievement of modern Hebrew literature.
Multiple, overlapping settings
See Under: Love is divided into four sections: “Momik,” “Bruno,” “Wasserman,” and “The Complete Encyclopedia of Kazik’s life.” With the exception of “Momik,” which is set solely in 1959 Jerusalem, each section is set in numerous times and places: Israel in the early 1980s, a Nazi death camp, the port city of Danzig during World War II, and the depths of the ocean, among others. In the last two sections of the novel, characters from different times and places encounter one another. For instance, the narrator (and implied author) Shlomo Neuman, writing in 1980s Israel, interacts with his protagonist, Anshel Wasserman, during Wassermaris time in a Nazi death camp during World War II. A great portion of the last two sections consists of a story related by Wasserman, whose characters at times interact with figures from the camps and even with Neuman himself. Thus, while Grossman’s novel engages concrete historical events, the text’s crossing of normally impermeable temporal and spatial boundaries distinguishes See Under: Love from the conventional historical novel. In contrast to most other contemporary Israeli novels, it proceeds with little direct reference to setting, focusing at the start on a community of Holocaust survivors who are almost completely detached from the larger Israeli society.
Surviving the Holocaust
With the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party in 1933, anti-Semitism worsened in German society. Throughout the 1930s the government introduced increasingly severe anti-Semitic policies and general persecution of the Jews mounted. During World War II, Nazi Germany instituted the Final Solution, a program of genocide targeted against the Jews of Europe. Investing massive resources and relying on the most efficient technology, the Nazis relocated Jews from all over Europe to concentration camps, where millions were gassed to death. The end of the war prevented the completion of the program, but not before 6 million Jews and thousands from other persecuted groups (homosexuals, Gypsies, etc.) had been murdered.
Many of the concentration camps were essentially death factories; in the extermination camps, Jews were efficiently unloaded from trains, briefly inspected, and then sent directly to the gas chambers. A very small percentage of the imprisoned Jews were kept alive to operate the death camps. Among other tasks, these prisoners were forced to remove corpses from the gas chambers and bring them to the crematoria. A comparatively small number of Jews survived the Holocaust in this way, witnessing and being forced to participate in its horrors day after day for months or years at a time. Others survived because they were selected for work duty as slave labor rather than for immediate death.
After the war, which wiped out their Jewish communities in Europe, survivors were faced with the challenge of integrating into new societies. In addition to coming to terms with their wartime experiences, whether they had lived in the camps or in hiding, survivors had to figure out how to resume “normal” lives. After employing the most extreme strategies of survival for years, after witnessing brutality of a sort and on a scale previously unimaginable, these Jews were now expected to function as members of civil society. Many survivors experienced post-traumatic symptoms, including chronic anxiety, recurring nightmares, and even guilt for having survived at all when so many of their relatives had perished. The children of survivors were marked by the burden of the trauma too, as they tried to comprehend their parents’ experiences, experiences often cloaked in silence.
Israeli attitudes to the Holocaust
Over a quarter million Holocaust survivors immigrated to Israel during the early years of the state. Founded in 1948, only a few years after the end of World War II, and conceived of as a safe haven for persecuted Jews everywhere, the state of Israel has had a complicated relationship with the survivors of the Holocaust. To a certain extent, the Holocaust came to be viewed in early Israeli culture as the logical culmination of the widespread and constant anti-Semitism and persecution that marked the Jewish experience in the diaspora. This approach to the Holocaust reflected Zionism’s longstanding rejection of Jewish life in the diaspora community, which, according to many Zionists, had been passive in the face of persecution during 2,000 years of exile.
The general rejection of the diasporic experience left the state ill-equipped to address and at times even acknowledge the horrors endured by the massive number of Holocaust survivors that it absorbed after the war. Instead, until the early 1960s, the Israeli response to the Holocaust consisted largely of silence and (less markedly) of explicit disdain for the survivors, whom some saw as representative of the passive diasporic Jew. In sum, the survivors were expected to integrate into a society that repudiated their experiences and viewed those murdered by the Nazis as having gone “like sheep to the slaughter.”
The 1961 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann sparked a shift in Israeli attitudes toward the Holocaust. For the first time in Israel, survivors’ testimonies were made public, forcing the general population to confront these experiences. Subsequent wars in Israel sensitized the citizenry to their collective vulnerability. Especially shocking was the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel was attacked on the Jewish Day of Atonement and suffered massive casualties before overwhelming the Egyptian and Syrian armies. These experiences, along with factors such as the gradual waning of Zionist ideology and its anti-diaspora attitudes, led to a new empathy with Holocaust victims and survivors. Among the other factors was the maturation of the post-Holocaust generation, including children who sought to understand their parents’ experience as much as possible.
The life and death of Bruno Schulz
The real-life Polish Jewish writer Bruno Schulz (1892–1942), to whom the chapter “Bruno” in Grossman’s novel refers, was born in Drohobycz (then a Polish town, today in the Ukraine). Trained in lithography and drawing, Schulz taught for a number of years in Drohobycz as an art teacher. He started writing in his thirties and authored a small body of highly regarded, deeply imaginative, often phantasmagoric fiction, published in English as The Street of Crocodiles (1995) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1977). An unfinished novel, The Messiah, in which Schulz had invested some four years, disappeared during the war, and Schulz himself was murdered. Years later he would find a champion in Grossman, whose own enthusiasm sparked increased interest in Schulz’s works in Israel and abroad.
Schulz’s writing was marked by unbridled fantasy and the search for an innovative, truly personal language. In his The Street of Crocodiles, the narrator’s reflections on a giant city map, which his father once owned, blossom into an intricate tour of a section of the city known as the Street of Crocodiles. The remarkable detail in the narrator’s conjectural ruminations on the area creates an unmistakable tension with the colorlessness of the place itself. Ultimately the reader’s hypothetical
THE PRECURSOR TO EARLY ISRAELI ATTITUDES TOWARD SURVIVORS—ZIONISM AND THE DIASPORA
Modem Zionism, the movement that set in motion the creation of a Jewish nation-state in the historic land of Israel, emerged in Europe during the last decades of the 1800s, a half century before the Holocaust of World War IL European anti-Semitism was already widespread at the time; indeed it functioned as one of the primary factors in the early Zionist leadership’s rejection of Jewish life in the diaspora. Spearheading this rejection was Theodor Herzl, a Viennese Jewish journalist and the father of modern Zionism. While Herzl and other Zionist figures denounced European anti-Semitism, they also internalized a host of anti-Semitic Jewish stereotypes, reflected in their criticism of the standard roles that the Jew had taken on in European society (e.g., moneylender, member of the bourgeoisie) and of the characteristics or personality attributed to the Jew, The European intelligentsia during this era tended to link biology to cultural characteristics, and the European Jewish intelligentsia was no exception, Common among Zionist thinkers was a subtle self hatred that viewed the Jew as weak, passive, and even diseased. This condition, argued the Zionists, could be remedied by the creation of a Jewish society in Palestine, Jews would be forced to fill various positions in such a society; in particular, they would benefit from a return to physical labor. The Zionist settlements in Palestine before 1948 (known collectively as the Yishuv) to a large extent realized this program of creating an alternative Jewish society. Many of the Zionist settlers rejected the diaspora Jews (lews living outside Palestine) in favor of the new native “Hebrews” (Jews born in Palestine), who were celebrated as active, strong, and healthy. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Zionist rejection of the diaspora grew more pronounced, as the Yishuv came to view the nearly 2,000-year-long Jewish exile since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 c.e. as an essentially monolithic experience of persecution and national degeneration.
experience of the Street of Crocodiles, an experience entirely mediated by the narrator, seems more authentic than the actual place and recalls another representation of the Street of Crocodiles—the elaborate map of the city from the story’s opening. Here, as in many other stories by Schulz, fantasy and representation—the products of an unrestrained play of language—eventually overwhelm and displace reality.
Bruno Schulz was shot and killed by a Nazi officer in the ghetto of Drohobycz, Poland, in November 1942. A story surrounding his death, partially reproduced in See Under: Love, claims that Schulz was protected during the war by a German officer and that he was killed by this officer’s rival. When Schulz’s protector later encountered this rival (who had a similar relationship with a different Jewish man), the rival declared, “I killed your Jew”; in response Schulz’s protector declared, “O.K., now I will kill your Jew.”
Grossman has expressed deep admiration for Schulz’s writing, and in fact claims that the “Bruno” section of See Under: Love is the center of the novel and his attempt to redeem Schulz from the unspeakable logic tied to his death. As he relates in an interview, Grossman felt shocked when he first heard the particulars of Schulz’s death; he was stunned by the ability of language to formulate so coldly the type of “My Jew/Your Jew” equivalency cited below (Grossman in Kashtan, p. 17). In essence, observes one critic, Grossman’s novel asks a question of universal significance:
Can art… create an explosive new, revelatory, “messianic” language, as the historical Bruno Schulz dreamed, or is all human speech doomed to obscenity once it has made it possible for one Nazi officer to say in German to another in the Drohobych ghetto, “You killed my Jew, now I’m going to kill your Jew”?
(Alter, p. 100)
See Under: Love is divided into four sections, loosely tied together by the shifting figure of Shlomo Efraim Neuman (nicknamed Momik and Shleimeleh), who appears as the young protagonist of the first section and as the older author/narrator/editor protagonist of the remaining sections.
The first section, “Momik,” takes place in 1959 and begins with the delivery of Anshel Wasserman, Momik’s grandfather (actually great-uncle) who was presumed killed in Auschwitz, from an Israeli insane asylum to the boy’s Jerusalem neighborhood. Before Anshel’s arrival, Momik had known of him only through the adventure stories about the Children of the Heart that Anshel wrote before the war. Momik safeguards a fragment of one of Anshel’s stories, a sacred text and priceless treasure Momik naively views as the source of all literature. Unfortunately the real Anshel now only mutters incoherently parts of what Momik believes to be another story. The nine-and-a-half-year-old Momik is precocious but isolated, virtually the only child in an insular community of Holocaust survivors, who refuse to explain to the curious boy the nature of their experiences in what is simply referred to as the “Over There.” Thirsting for an understanding of the past world of the adults in his community, Momik latches on to the figurative phrase “the Nazi Beast,” which he is told “could come out of any kind of animal if it got the right care and nourishment” (Grossman, See: Under Love, p. 13). Interpreting these words literally, Momik captures a variety of animals; in the family cellar, he proceeds to mistreat them in various ways in an attempt to draw out the Nazi Beast in order to tame it. Momik’s repeated failures drive him to ever more extreme methods, until he concludes that what the Nazi Beast likes most is Jews. He therefore brings Anshel, along with the other deranged survivors from the neighborhood, down into the cellar. Momik’s project ends in failure: unable to lure the Nazi Beast out of its hiding place, Momik finds himself consumed by hatred and contempt for the very Jews he sought to save. During the climax in the cellar, the Israeli boy, naively confident in the possibility of undoing the Holocaust, stops identifying with the survivors and instead assumes, however briefly, the role of a full-fledged German anti-Semite:
Grandfather Anshel started telling his story from the beginning again, and Momik squeezed his head because he didn’t think he could stand it anymore, he wanted to vomit everything, everything he’d eaten for lunch and everything he’d learned about lately, including himself, and now these stinky Jews here too, the kind the goyim called Jude, before he thought that was just an insult, but now he saw it suited them perfectly, and he whispered, Jude, and felt a warm thrill in his stomach and felt his muscles filling out all over, and he said it again out loud, Jude, and it made him feel strong, and he shook himself and stood over Grandfather Wasserman, sneering, Shut up already, enough already.…
(See Under: Love, pp. 84–85)
The novel’s second and most experimental section, “Bruno,” takes places 20 years later, when the now grown-up Shlomo Neuman (alias Momik) has become a writer, like his grandfather Anshel before him. The phantasmagoric section revolves around Neuman’s effort to re-imagine the death of a real-life Polish-Jewish writer, Bruno Schulz. Neuman imagines that, instead of being shot by a Nazi officer, Schulz escapes into the sea, where he gradually transforms into a salmon. This section alternates between the story of Schulz’s transformation, Neuman’s effort to write about the Holocaust in general, and the sea’s own encounter with Schulz, told from the sea’s feminine perspective. The section ends with a surreal encounter between Bruno Schulz and Neuman in Schulz’s lost novel The Messiah, set during the emergence of the Messianic era, when the world would be free from war and want. Featuring unbridled, individual creative forces, the surreal scene ultimately proves too chaotic to be tenable. As Bruno Schulz disappears, Neuman asks him about the story his grandfather “Anshel Wasserman told the German called Neigel” (See Under: Love, p. 181). Schulz encourages Neuman to retell the story, to remember it, although, paradoxically, Neuman has never heard it before.
The “Wasserman” section is Neuman’s magical realist retelling of the experiences of his grandfather, Anshel Wasserman, in a Nazi death camp. Unable to be killed by any means—gas does nothing to him, a gunshot merely buzzes through his skull—Wasserman is brought to the camp commander, Herr Neigel. The German officer eventually discovers Wasserman to be the author of the young people’s adventure stories, Children of the Heart, which he adored as a boy (readers have encountered a fragment of these stories in the novel’s first section). The two men strike a deal, inverting the frame-story of Shahrazad from The Arabian Nights (also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times). In the original The Arabian Nights, Shahrazad tells a story each night to postpone being killed by the king; in See Under Love, the indestructible Wasserman becomes a storyteller for the opposite reason. He will tell Neigel part of a new Children of the Heart adventure story each night, and in exchange Neigel will try to kill the Jew. Wasserman watched as his only daughter was murdered and now his strongest desire is to die himself.
Wasserman uses his storytelling as an opportunity to “infect” the Nazi with some humanity. The storyteller reintroduces the original Children of the Heart as aging adults, now accompanied by the band of deranged but (thanks to Wasserman’s inventiveness) newly heroic survivors from Momik’s neighborhood. Eventually a baby, Kazik, is discovered among them; he suffers from a strange condition that will cause him to live his full life in only 24 hours. Neigel, who becomes deeply attached to the characters, particularly the baby, protests vehemently, but Wasserman refuses to change the story, which spills over into the fourth section.
“The Complete Encyclopedia of Kazik’s Life” consists of a series of entries, arranged alphabetically (according to the Hebrew alphabet), about the 24-hour-long life of the baby, who is not actually a baby for more than a few hours. The novel’s title, See Under: Love, comes from a reference in this fourth and final section. Throughout the encyclopedia, the narrative boundaries separating Neuman (the editor) from Wasserman (the storyteller) and Wasserman from the Children of the Heart characters are regularly and boldly crossed. In the entry entitled “Kazik, the Death of,” contact between Wasserman and his fictional creations, commented on by Neuman, the editor, creates a particularly potent effect:
He [Kazik] could no longer bear his life. He asked Otto to help him see the world in which he had lived. The untasted life beyond the fence. At a nod from Otto, Harotian tore an opening in the cage bars. Instead of the zoo, the opening revealed a view of Neigel’s camp. [Editorial comment: no wonder. The camp had always been waiting there.] Kazik saw the high, gloomy watchtowers and the electrified barbed-wire fences, and the train station which leads to nowhere but to death. And he smelled the smell of human flesh burned by human beings, heard the screaming and snorting of a prisoner hanged all night long by his feet, and the tortured groans of one Obersturmbannführer Neigel, who was imprisoned with him. Wasserman told him—his voice utterly monotonous—how in his first days at work cremating bodies in the camp, his overseers had found that women burn best, especially fat women, so they instructed the gravediggers to put fat women at the bottom of the pile. This saves a lot of fuel, Wasserman explained. Kazik’s eyes grew wide. A tear burst through so fiercely that it made his eye bleed.
(See Under: Love, p. 428)
In addition to the numerous episodes from Kazik’s life and the Children of the Heart’s new adventure, the reader also encounters the resolution of the Wasserman-Neigel/Jewish inmate-Nazi camp commander story. The Nazi becomes deeply invested in the creation of the narrative, through which he encounters his own humanity. This recognition seems irreconcilable with the massive destruction for which he is responsible. In response, Neigel commits suicide.
While on the most general level See Under: Love is about the Holocaust, the novel repeatedly focuses on texts and storytelling as well. It sustains a central storytelling motif, progressing from the fragment of Anshel’s early Children of the Heart serial treasured by young Momik, to Bruno Schulz’s lost and reimag-ined novel The Messiah, to Neuman’s agonized efforts to write about the Holocaust in a mythical “White Room,” to a children’s encyclopedia of the Holocaust that Neuman hopes to create, to Wasserman’s story told for and with Neigel, and finally to the encyclopedia of Kazik’s life. Indeed, direct representations of the camps and of the historical period as a whole are relatively scant throughout the novel, and at times seem to appear as background for the more central task of storytelling and writing. In turn, this motif is tied to the larger theme of creation; together they constitute the central thrust of See Under: Love’s imaginative and affirming response to the Holocaust.
In the “Bruno” section of the novel, Neuman describes his first encounter with Bruno Schulz’s writing:
It was the first time I ever began to reread a book as soon as I finished it. And I’ve read it a good many times since. For months it was the only book I needed. It was the Book for me in the sense Bruno had yearned for that great tome, sighing, a stormy Bible, its pages fluttering in the wind like an overblown rose.
(See Under: Love, p. 99)
Neuman goes on to explain that he began transcribing sections of Schulz’s writing, much like he had done with Grandfather Anshel’s writings 20 years earlier. Here in the narrative Neuman reveals that he began, almost involuntarily, writing like Schulz at the moment he came to realize (or imagine) that Schulz had “escaped.” In other words, Schulz’s transformation into a salmon coincides with Neuman’s sudden ability to write like Bruno Schulz, to channel the dead writer’s creative voice. In a 1986 interview David Grossman described his impetus for writing the “Bruno” section and later the novel as a whole:
I decided, yes, childishly, I will write a book that will avenge his death, that will pull him out of his biography… a book that will redeem Schulz. I wanted to create a book that would be alive, bursting with life, a book that would be like a person, a book that would tremble on the shelf.
(Grossman in Kashtan, p. 17)
Grossman’s comments reveal his belief—a belief that he admits is naíve—in the power of language. In real life Grossman came to write the “Bruno” section by endlessly rereading, like his protagonist Neuman, Schulz’s work until their voices began to overlap. In this regard, Grossman’s fascination with writing and the power of language turns the act of writing into a redemptive rearticulation of another writer’s voice.
Along these lines, the second section, “Bruno,” climaxes with a surreal encounter between Schulz and Neuman that can be viewed as a re-imagining of Schulz’s lost manuscript, The Messiah. In the episode, based partly on Schulz’s short story “The Age of Genius,” Neuman becomes one of the story’s characters—Shloma, son of Tobias. Schulz’s town of Drohobycz is suddenly redeemed by the arrival of the Messianic era. The era is marked by unmitigated individual expression, the sort Schulz sought in his own writing and that Neuman (and Grossman) aspired to through Schulz. The realization of this aim proves too much, but as the scene spins out of control and as the section draws to an end, Schulz encourages Shloma (alias Neuman) to retell the story his grandfather Wasserman told the German Neigel. By doing so, Neuman marks the following third and fourth sections of the novel as rearticulations. Wasserman’s creation, his story, will not only be his opportunity to vanquish the Nazi but will include the redemption of the group of deranged adults from Momik’s childhood, who now reappear as central members of the Children of the Heart. In this light, Grossman’s project is less about the impossible goal of undoing the Holocaust than of reclaiming writers, literature, and even language from a world in which things like “you killed my Jew” can be said.
Storytelling and creative responses to the Holocaust
Grossman’s investigation of the limits of language’s creative force is not the novel’s only encounter with the concept of creation. By setting much of the second section in the depths of the ocean and by casting a feminized sea as a character in his kaleidoscopic plot, Grossman, while narrating in Schulz’s voice, simultaneously describes his return to the primordial and mythic creative forces of the sea. “Bruno” is undeniably difficult to navigate, but reading it against early Canaanite and Mesopotamian creation myths and epics (e.g., The Mythic Cycle of Ba’l and ‘Anat, the Mesopotamian Epic of Creation), which are subtly alluded to throughout the section, can provide a helpful framework. In these ancient mythic narratives, the sea is represented as the unruly, chaotic, original site of creation, where all life began. The story of Bruno’s transformation into a salmon, which sounds almost comically arbitrary at first, likewise resonates with the theme of creation. In the Bruno section, the reader follows the school of salmon as it travels tirelessly around the globe. The salmon continue, at times suicidally, to return upstream to spawn, obeying an instinct to procreate their species. Set against the Holocaust, when Nazi Germany attempted to destroy the Jewish people, Grossman’s focus on the salmon collective—whose ultimate goal is to recreate—suggests itself as a potent counter-narrative. In contrast to the Nazis’ elaborate but single-minded devotion to the destruction of life, Grossman provides an alternate collective entirely devoted to creating life.
These subjects of language, life, and creation surface throughout the third and fourth sections of the novel. Like Bruno Schulz before him, Wasserman struggles with all the life-affirming possibilities of artistic creation in the third section. It is, however, in the encyclopedia of the final section that all these creative strands are intertwined, that love, artistry, and sex are brought together as a vital response to the destructive power of the Holocaust. An entry near the end of the encyclopedia, “Zeitren, Hannah,” is named for one of the survivors from Momik’s Jerusalem neighborhood, a woman whose madness finds her, in the first section of the novel, running stark naked through the streets at night, calling for God. Here in this final section she is an “Artist of love,” a person redeemed, conquering murderous Nazis (who have killed her two children and husband) through her magical reproductive system (See Under: Love, p. 409). She and her second husband, Barkov, respond to death with life in the most literal way possible:
We gave birth to my son Dolek, and my Rochka, and then Nechemia, and Ben-Zion, and Abigail. And our last child. And Bartov lay with me again and again. And we scratched and bit each other till we bled.… And my womb was a giant funnel, cornucopia. Seas and mountains and forests and land. And children flowed out of Barkov and me and filled the streets, and the ghetto, and all of Warsaw. And our passion knew no bounds. And our children were murdered outside. And we made new children.
THE LAYERED QUALITY OF MODERN HEBREW
Though often referred to as “dead” until its “resurrection” as a spoken language around the turn of the twentieth century, the Hebrew language had in fact been in continuous, if limited, use throughout the time of the Jewish exile. Not only did Hebrew regularly surface in a variety of religious settings, but it was intermittently the medium of literary and secular texts, ranging from poetry to travel books. As a result, Hebrew is not merely an old language, but a deeply layered language, with the most pronounced layerings being biblical, Talmudic, and modern Hebrew, each of which has its distinct vocabulary and grammar. Modern Hebrew literature, predating by a few decades the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, called on these earlier layers in bold and original ways in order to forge a language capable of describing the modern world. And though it is much less evident in the English translation, See Under: Love reveals itself to be an inclusive document of modern Hebrew’s range and flexibility, as the reader encounters technical, colloquial, poetic, childish, and standard instances of modern Hebrew, in addition to Wasserman’s European or Haskalah (Enlightenment) Hebrew, with its sprinklings of biblical and Talmudic locutions.
And then we heard shots outside again. So we made more children. And toward dawn we knew we could never stop. And then we felt everything move with us, the bed and the room and the house and the street. Everything rose and fell and writhed and sweated and groaned. And when dawn broke, all the world was with us, all the world was dancing our dance.
(See Under: Love, p. 411)
Not only does See Under: Love end with an act of creation, but throughout the novel, characters confront the urgency of creating, whether the product is a story or another human being. Grossman himself repeatedly confronts this urgency in his writing of the varied sections, encouraging the reader to view the entire novel as a step in the recovery and regeneration that, almost a half century after the Holocaust, had not yet been achieved or even adequately addressed.
Sources and literary context
Like the rest of Israeli culture and society during the first decade after the founding of Israel in 1948, Israeli literature—in particular its fiction—mostly avoided an engagement with the Holocaust. This avoidance can be seen as more than a mere reflection of the larger cultural climate. From the beginnings of modern Zionism in the nineteenth century, Hebrew literature has occupied a formative place in Zionist and later in Israeli culture. Hebrew works regularly gave voice, often for the first time, to Zionist ideals and aspirations. Since 1948 this trend has continued, with Hebrew literature reflecting and at times visibly influencing the country’s political climate and ongoing questions about Israeli and even Jewish identity. In this light, the literature’s early reticence in relation to the Holocaust is significant; it not only mirrored but also reinforced Israel’s failure to confront the Holocaust.
Once Israeli writers began to deal with this topic in earnest, they focused less on realistically recreating Europe during the war than on the post-Holocaust experience of survivors, their children, and even Israelis with no direct link to the events themselves. Such is the case in Yehuda Amichai’s ho me-akhshav, lo mi-kan (1963; Not of This Time, Not of This Place, 1968), Hanoch Bartov’s Pits’e bagrut (1965; The Brigade, 1969), Yoram Kaniuk’s Adam ben kelev (1969; Adam Resurrected, 1971), and Aharon Appelfeld’s Bartfus ben ha-almavet (1988, The Immortal Bartfuss, 1988). Amichai’s and Kaniuk’s novels are boldly experimental in their treatment of time, place, and even causality. Not until the mid-1980s would this approach be popular again in Hebrew fiction, beginning with Grossman’s novel.
See Under: Love is generally viewed as unique in scope and ambition, having less in common with antecedents in Hebrew literature than with certain post-World War II landmarks in world literature, such as Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum (1959), Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981). The commonality is that these works rely on magic realism and other postmodernist devices to invoke the unprecedented upheavals of the twentieth century; in the words of one critic, such texts suggest “that the laws of nature may have to be abrogated by the novelist in order to body forth in fiction the appalling murderousness of twentieth-century reality” (Alter, p. 102).
While Grossman drew inspiration from other imaginative works—Bruno Schulz’s fiction, creation myths, and The Arabian Nights —he also turned to documentary evidence in his construction of See Under: Love. Grossman conducted extensive historical research on Nazism and the Holocaust throughout his writing of the novel.
Though Grossman’s second novel was immediately recognized in Israel as a work of great importance—and marked Grossman as a major figure in Hebrew literature—See Under: Love was not uniformly praised. Many critics questioned the liberties that Grossman took in his treatment of such a sacred subject, particularly in the “Bruno” section, where Grossman’s dense, extended, nearly stream-of-consciousness passages on the sea are at once difficult to navigate and, at least at first glance, apparently unrelated to the Holocaust. Other reviewers challenged Grossman’s right to treat the Holocaust at such length, since he is neither a survivor nor the child of a survivor. Yet, despite these objections, many recognized the novel’s brilliance, and there was unanimous praise for the opening “Momik” section. Readers considered it to be the most poignant portrait of a child of survivors yet to appear in Holocaust literature.
The English translation of See Under: Love was not published until 1989, after Grossman’s later, much discussed nonfiction book on Palestinians in Israel, The Yellow Wind, had appeared in translation and Grossman already had a significant reputation in the United States. A few years later a translation of his less-successful first novel, The Smile of the Lamb, was released. Thus, Grossman the novelist was introduced to the English-speaking world at the height of his abilities. His See Under: Love met with a generally positive critical reception in the United States, where a seemingly insatiable thirst for material on the Holocaust was already evident, though some American reviewers voiced reservations about the final three sections of the novel. One reviewer remarks that “In depicting Neigel as redeemable, Momik-Grossman risks trivializing… what he along with countless others during the past half century has been consumed by: the Holocaust itself (Motola, p. 41). Yet this critic concludes that the virtues of the novel outweigh its shortcomings; in his view, See Under: Love “is so stunning that even its flaws are eclipsed by its ultimate brilliance” (Motola, p. 37).
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