Wednesday, July 28, 2010

We should be discussing more than the blurb

Something that recently made the rounds is the blurb author Nicole Krauss attached to David Grossman's forthcoming novel, "To the End of the Land", first published in Israel in 2008. Bloggers and readers find the quote over-done, and even the Guardian finds the whole situation rather ludicrous, making a game out of it (or, as they call it, an "outblurb" challenge).

But we should be discussing more than the blurb. We should be discussing the book.

"To the End of the Land" doesn't really deserve this bad press. When first published in Israel, it was more than just a bestseller - it was a fairly monumental part of the daily culture. Popular books in Israel are split according to origin - abroad and home-grown. Here was a home-grown author, though, that went beyond simple bestseller. Grossman is known for more than just his books. He's known for his politics, and even for the fact that his son was killed in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict. "To the End of the Land", contrary to popular belief, was not written following the death of Grossman's son. Though it looks at many subjects through a lens that fits this theory, Grossman even discusses in interviews the fact that the book was conceived long before his son was killed. And, he adds in the interview, the manuscript wasn't edited afterward either. The book itself is complex and difficult to describe, even more so when taking into account culture differences between Israel and the rest of the world. And all this without getting into stylistic issues (or topics, to be more diplomatic).

Reading "To the End of the Land" is a bit like cheating at all times, because you can't, can't disconnect yourself from Grossman's reality. It's hard to read this book without looking at Grossman's personal story and taking something from it. This works well for some people. For others, less so. For me, reading Grossman's book was a little like an attempt at rock-climbing, trying to swallow this tome in large gulps, when really it should have been treated with more care. It was letting Grossman slide with stylistic things (like an incredibly abrupt, teetering-at-the-edge-of-a-cliff-seconds-before-falling ending), accepting things that might normally seem a little "out there". It was suspending belief for 600 pages, and coming down to earth feeling like something really had changed.

I would not define "To the End of the Land" as a book entirely built on one clear story. It's built of small stories that define characters, these little vague entries in a larger story that make up life. Easily split into two parts (the first presents youthful characters, while the second revisits these children middle-aged), the bridge between the two parts is, again, abrupt. Even awkward. It's hard to shift gears so suddenly in the midst of a story, but once passing that hurdle... the book is good. Good like most of Grossman's writing is. Good like you'd expect from literature. Just... good.

When Krauss writes that the book touches your essence, she's taking a serious point too far. "To the End of the Land" did affect me. Reading it caused me to shift my point of view just a little, to look at certain subjects from a slightly different angle. It made me appreciate aspects of my life, educated me a bit more about Israeli history (though rather subtly), and got me so into the lives of these characters. That's what a book is supposed to do, and Grossman does it well.

I wasn't thrilled with the translation of Grossman's "Someone to Run With" (a good book in its own right, but translated somewhat sloppily), but Jessica Cohen's work flows in a manner that seems much closer to the original (and is altogether more satisfactory). It's a book that's hard to classify. On the one hand, I didn't exactly love it: it has flaws such as the abruptness, such as vagueness, such as the occasional awkwardness... On the other hand, it's not a book I see myself getting rid of so easily. I have grown quite attached to it and someday when I revisit it, I suspect I shall learn quite a bit.

Don't judge this book by its bland, rather ugly cover. And don't judge it by the "over-wrought" quote. Judge it by Grossman's incredible writing talent, by the cultural importance, the historical context regarding Israel, and by the wonderful way Grossman builds a world out of a small cast of characters. This is not a cheerful romp through flowered fields (as the current Amazon cover indicates) - it's a rather bleak view of life.

"To the End of the Land" does not deserve ridicule for a poorly picked blurb, but rather deserves serious discussion for its literary merit. I hope this has helped.


  1. Fantastic review, thanks for digging past that blurb. I'd been hesitant to read it, but it sounds like it's worth my time, if for no other reason than to get me thinking.

  2. Wow! I'm really glad you brought this to my attention.


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