See Under: Love ('Ayen 'Erekh-Ahavah)

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SEE UNDER: LOVE ('Ayen 'erekh-ahavah)

Novel by David Grossman, 1986

Given its bent toward the intertextual, David Grossman's 'Ayen 'erekh-ahavah (1986; See Under: Love, 1989) might well be introduced with reference to another hybrid text, W.G. Sebald 's The Emigrants, in which a protagonist likens the memoirs of his deported mother to "one of those evil German fairy tales in which, once you are under the spell, you have to carry on to the finish, till your heart breaks, with whatever work you have begun—in this case, the remembering, writing, and reading." It is a conceit that captures both the textual dynamics and aesthetic ideology at the root of See Under: Love. What Sebald's text circles around obliquely, however, Grossman's interrogates directly, marking a watershed in Israeli fiction and the fictional representation of the Shoah generally. Although it was not the first such novel to stake such claims (that distinction must go to Yoram Kaniuk 's Adam Resurrected from two decades earlier), by dint of sheer formal ingenuity and moral daring, See Under: Love secures their exigency, not to be gainsaid.

From the opening sentences in each of its sections, the novel throws down three gauntlets: (1) not only its aftereffects but the Shoah itself will now reside in the topical foreground (Sebald's "carry on to the finish"); (2) nonrealistic narrative strategies (akin to Sebald's "evil German fairy tales") will assume their rightful place in its representation; and (3) the very act of narrative transmission will be reflexively charged and thematized (Sebald's "remembering, writing, and reading" understood as ethical and exegetical labor—what the novel and its readers will undertake as their collaborative work).

It is in its formal design and discursive styles that Grossman's text most conspicuously announces a new, postmodern departure. Where Israeli Holocaust fiction by statehood generation writers like Yehuda Amichai (Not of This Time, Not of This Place ) or Aharon Appelfeld (The Searing Light ) might look back to literary modernism for its antimimetic effects, See Under: Love directly thematizes the dilemma of writing the novel in the first place, under the double shadow of national catastrophe and the pressure of antecedent authors and writings. Thus both Anshel Wasserman (a figure in the novel's diegesis) and Bruno Schultz (reimagined in the narrative as a literary character) offer parallel cases as Jewish writers of mythopoetic literary fictions whom the writer in the text, Shlomo Neuman, imitates but must also transcend in order to legitimate his own voice.

The story that we read thus represents a recuperation of both the undersound of the human tongue muted by horrors of the Shoah and the oversound of literary influence (Bruno Schulz, Sholem Aleichem, Mendele Mokher Seforim). See Under: Love is thus an astonishing parable and enactment of what Elias Canetti has called "the tongue set free"—both on the plane of the story's events and on the authorial plane subtending it. The latter, for Grossman, means imagining the Shoah without having personally undergone its depredations, within a literary establishment for which the conventions of testimony were both authoritative and culturally sacrosanct.

The novel divides in four distinct but overlapping parts. The first, "Momik," tells the story of Shlomo "Momik" Neuman as the nine-year-old Israeli-born child of survivors belatedly introduced to his grand-uncle Anshel Wasserman, who has just been released from a sanatorium and is unable to communicate except for incoherent fragments (a "code" Momik seeks to decipher). Assembling his grand-uncle along with other similarly marginalized Yiddish-speaking survivors, and armed with the few details extracted from his parents and relatives and a scrap of the author Anshel Wasserman's "The Children of the Heart" (tales written for a children's magazine published in 1912), Momik gives febrile authorial form to "the Nazi Beast" he imagines hiding in the cellar of his house in order to vanquish it. This first section of See Under: Love ends with Momik's nervous breakdown, as the narrative burden of the Holocaust remains unintegrated and inchoately realized.

In the second part (discursively the most difficult) Shlomo, now an adult, seeks to remedy that unresolved childhood trauma, which stands in for unassimilated large-scale cultural trauma, together with his own uncertainties about a literary vocation by transferring onto the figure of Bruno Schulz, whom he reimagines as having escaped death by metamorphosing into a sea creature. It is, however, simultaneously a liberation and a regression. Thus in the section's culminating episode, Bruno invites Shlomo to witness the triumph of hermetic literary creation over quotidian life—Schulz's "Age of Genius"—through which the fictionalizing imagination seeks to displace reality and, consequently along with it, individual choice and collective responsibility.

A self-criticized retreat into idolatry becomes the text's second failed resolution of its narrative and mimetic burden. The third and fourth sections, "Wasserman" and "The Complete Encyclopedia of Kazik's Life," represent Shlomo Neuman's (and David Grossman's) successful, Jewishly reimagined version of an evil German fairy tale in which, once you are under the spell, you have to carry on to the finish with whatever work you have begun—in this case, the remembering, writing, and reading. Yet here too the novel signals its awareness of its own wager, since, as critic Efraim Sicher has noted, the plot device in this second half of the novel—victimized Jewish storyteller becomes indestructible Scheherazade—allegorizes the risk of abandoning historical record for fantasy in the first place, even if the fictive ultimately justifies the meaning behind the novel's title.

The product of that fantasy, a homunculus generated by Wasserman's storytelling, provides a seam where an escapist Jewish past, the Shoah itself, and its survivor aftermath all meet; literary fiction is thus allowed to become a temporary and tenuous bridge for ruptures in time as well as representation. More important, however, this Jewish prototype for "the new man" justifies the organizing framework for the novel's fourth section. Called an encyclopedia, really a lexicon, it attests to the moral force of language at the level of the individual word. And thus, though easily missed, the supplementary glossary of Yiddish terms that ends the novel is really its last section. While registering its own precedent in contemporary Hebrew fiction, it marks one final heteroglot demonstration of the novel's romance with the power of fusion: between the real and the fictive, authoring selves and narrating others, literature and destruction.

—Adam Zachary Newton