Acclaimed Israeli author wins St. Louis Literary Award

Israeli author David Grossman speaks during the St. Louis Literary Award ceremony last week at the Sheldon. Photo: Charles Barnes

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

David Grossman, one of Israel’s most acclaimed writers, received the prestigious St. Louis Literary Award from the St. Louis University Library Associates at an award program Sept. 30 attended by nearly 400 people at the Sheldon Concert Hall. 

The award honors a living writer with a significant body of work that has “enriched our literary heritage by deepening our insight into the human condition by expanding the scope of our compassion,” said Lana Pepper, president of the St. Louis University Library Associates board of directors.

“David Grossman is a fearless explorer into the deepest and darkestplaces within our human souls,” Philip Boehm, chairman of the award selection committee, said at the event. “His writing is both unsparingly insightful and utterly compassionate.”  

In accepting the award, Grossman said he is “deeply honored to be in the company of the distinguished writers who have previously received this honor.” 

Grossman, 61, is a native of Jerusalem, where he continues to reside with his wife and family. He has published novels, essays, poems, journalistic pieces, a play and children’s books, all in Hebrew. Among Grossman’s most acclaimed novels is “See Under: Love”(1989), which Edmond White in The New York Times Book Review compared with William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” Gunther Grass’s “The Tin Drum” and Gabriel García Márquez’s “The One Hundred Year Misunderstanding.” 

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Themes of war and peace, loss and attempted redemption are recurring themes in Grossman’s writing and in his views on the need for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.  He dealt with such issues in a frank and forthright manner in “The Yellow Wind” (1988), an unsparing look at Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the harsh realities that have led Israel into “war after war” every few years.

Grossman said his passion for writing and the use of words to escape the bonds of time came tragically together as he was nearing completion of his novel “To the End of the Land” (2006). It is the story of Ora, a middle-age Israeli woman, who is on the verge of celebrating her son’s impending release from army service when he returns to the front for a major offensive.  She sets out for a hike in the Galilee, leaving no forwarding information so as not to tempt fate that military notifiers “might darken her door with the worst possible news.”

In a cruel irony of art imitating life, Grossman was writing Ora’s story starting in May 2003, six months before the end of his oldest son Yonatan’s military service and a year and a half before Yonatan’s younger brother Uri enlisted. They both served in the Armored Corps.  

Grossman said Uri was very familiar with the plot of “To the End of the Land” and its characters.  He would ask, in phone conversations, “What did you do to them this week?” 

“At the time, I had the feeling — or rather a wish —that the book I was writing would protect him,” Grossman said — that is, as long as Grossman kept writing the book, his son’s life would be spared.

Alas, that wish was not fulfilled.  On Aug. 21, 2006, in the final hours of the Lebanon War, a rocket hit Uri’s tank while he was trying to rescue soldiers from another tank. Uri and his crew were killed.

“After we finished sitting shiva, I went back to the book,” Grossman said.  “Most of it was already written. What changed, above all, was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written.”

The loss of his beloved son Uri has deepened Grossman’s longstanding involvement as a member of the peace camp in Israel.

“I want peace between Israel and the Palestinians because I believe such a peace is essential,” he told the Light. “The Palestinians should have an independent state alongside the State of Israel. A binational state or so-called one-state solution would not be a just solution. 

“I still favor a two-state solution, but I am not optimistic right now.  I do not think the current political leadership in Israel and among the Palestinians has the willingness and the moral courage to bring such a solution about.”

Boehm said the award also recognizes the translators who have made Grossman’s work, always written in his native Hebrew, available in English: Jessica Cohen, Betsy Rosenberg, Stuart Schoffman and Haim Watzman.  Grossberg’s writing also has been translated into 33 other languages.

Patrick Murphy of the KETC/Nine Network, who moderated questions and answers from the audience after Grossman’s acceptance remarks, noted that previous recipients of the St. Louis Literary Award include  W.H. Auden, Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller, T.S. Eliot, William H. Gass and Tennessee Williams.