A Horse Walks into a Bar—David Grossman

[I read this novel in two halves. I wrote about the first half before reading further, so I didn’t know at that time how things would turn out.]

21 February 2018
First half—to page 104 (of 198) in my edition
We only find things out gradually in this novel. Or maybe I mean that it lurches forward (or backward) in one or other of the narratives to let us in on new pieces of information. We guess these will probably turn out to be crucial—but who to? Maybe to the narrator, the one we don’t even realise is a character until he’s several pages in? (How many pages? I’ll tell you if I remember to check.) Maybe to the stand-up comedian, ‘Dovaleh G’, whose two-hour show forms the backbone of the whole novel—he’s an hour into it at this halfway point—describing in harrowing detail some of the most bitter experiences of his life? Or crucial in the story of Israel? Because at one level, this is turning into a state-of-the-nation novel about a country that lost its way a long time ago.

In the comedian’s presentation of it, Israel is a messed-up place and things are only getting worse. And Dovaleh likes to make out that their histories are linked. A non-Israeli like me—and like the readers in any of the thirty languages Grossman’s novels get translated into—needs clues like Dov’s bizarre claim early on that his father impregnated his mother exactly when Nasser closed the Suez Canal. Nine months before his birth—he’s done the maths—his father ‘doesn’t even take one second to consider before he goes off to open her up! So really, if you think about it you could say that I’m a retaliatory operation…. I’m payback!’ It’s not exactly Midnight’s Children. It’s more like Yeats’s ‘Strange Beauty.’ Ok, Dovaleh didn’t slouch towards Bethlehem to be born, it was Jerusalem, but it’s close enough. And another link I’ve just thought of: Dov’s (probably tongue-in-cheek) complaint about the ‘new anti-Semitism’, referring to any criticism of Israel, has the ring of familiarity about it.

is the grown-up version of the kid who was always bullied, his fast-talking, wisecracking banter prone, on this night, to veer dangerously from self-pity to self-loathing and back again. At first, we know nothing of this man who keeps hyping up his own reputation while members of his audience yell at him to start telling some jokes. Which he does, about once every twenty pages, but most of the time we’re getting details of his life. As a way of coping with the incessant bullying, he used to walk on his hands all the time, content to both see and be seen upside-down. His talking is another coping (or defensive) strategy, and this is what the narrator most remembers about him as a fourteen-year old.

Now things are just the same. Or different. He has cancer now, if that’s what it really is, which may be a metaphor of something wrong at the heart of Israel. Ok, it’s his prostate gland—reminders of his own problematic maleness are never far beneath the surface of his in-your-face spiel—and the narrator isn’t absolutely sure that this routine might be his former not-quite friend’s swansong. Whatever, there’s a whole lot of rottenness going on. The narrator, who wasn’t going to stay long, is held by—by what? Apparently, by something like that urge to pick at a scab. Or to watch somebody else do it.

The narrator. On the surface at least, he is as respectable as Dovaleh isn’t. He’s been a judge, for God’s sake, well-known enough for Dov to introduce him, embarrassingly, to the rest of the crowd. But, when we first get an inkling of his existence more than three pages in, that is yet to come. Before this, the man onstage has been referred to as just that, ‘the man,’ so it comes as something of a surprise that he and the narrator are somehow known to one another. ‘He tents his hand over his eyes and scans the darkened room.’ New one-line paragraph. ‘I’m the one he’s looking for.’ This ‘I’ might be a current or former lover for all we know, male or female, but apparently not. The judge, whose name we don’t know for a long time, knew him briefly when they were growing up. And he’s the one who tells us this, in one of the sections separated out by line-breaks.

But the story of the time they knew each other, in two or three sections, isn’t the only narrative that runs parallel to Dovaleh’s onstage act. Long before this, we get the account, again in several sections, of the way Dov first got back in touch with him. It’s by phone, and at first Avishai Lazar, as we later find out he is called, seems to have no memory of who the caller is. It might be the first hint we get that this was no big friendship, despite the fact that Dov won’t put down the phone until he’s almost forced him to come and see his show. What on earth, he wonders, can this man want from him? He only briefly got to know him, 40-odd years ago, as they made their way home after a weekly catch-up class when they were at high school. Then, as now, this vulnerable little kid would never stop talking, never stop moving, forcing himself on to the attention of whoever he was with. Some victims of bullying hide, but not this guy. He seems to have made a living by pushing himself into people’s line of vision.

It’s no accident, we are forced to guess, that Lazar is the one he has selected to assess his performance. All he wants, he insists before he puts the phone down, is an evaluation, and who better to do this than a judge? Except… this isn’t just a trick on Grossman’s part. Lazar, it seems, is in no way the establishment figure we might have taken him for, and there seem to have been problems in his own life. Early on, he contrasts his own adolescent aloofness, really a mask for his unease in company, with the incessant attention-seeking of the odd kid who seems to see something in him. Unlike Dov, up to his neck in debt after at least two expensive divorces and with five children to be taken into account, Lazar has had no family. But all this talk of wives pains him. The only love of his own life, a woman he wasn’t married to nearly long enough, died three years ago. He keeps seeing her from the corner of his eye, wonders what she would have made of all of this. He never mentioned Dov to her—because, as he makes clear almost from the start, he had erased him from his own memory. Now why would he want to do that?

Lazar isn’t giving us the wohole story. We know he left the judiciary in his fifties, under some kind of cloud. He insists to Dov that this was because he was making high-profile judgments the politicians didn’t like… but, in this of all novels, we know not to take anybody’s word for anything. What is he hiding from, living in the ugly-sounding provincial city where the performance is taking place? (I don’t think Netanya is ugly in reality, but Dov never lets the truth get in the way of what he wants to say.)

At the point I’ve reached, Lazar has just described his own childhood betrayal of this one-time friend. They had been at a kind of cadet boot-camp, apparently attended by every Israeli kid and their happening to be there together is a complete accident. They are in different schools, live in different parts of the city—Dov will never even let the young Avishai Lazar know where he lives—but find themselves in a cabin together, with a crowd of other boys. Avishai never acknowledges that he knows him. He’s arrived late, and Dov is already the kid everybody picks on. As he presents it, Lazar explains how he has to keep a low profile, being certain not only that any sign of recognition would be an excuse for the other boys to pick on him too, but that if it Dov hadn’t got there first, he would have been the chosen victim himself. So, a justified betrayal? It’s taken him half the novel to remember it, and he only does so because Dov himself mentions the camp in his act. Lazar wonders why he would do that—and this isn’t the first time that it’s becoming clear that this uncomfortable evening isn’t only about Dov. Lazar is, step by step, being forced to look into his own soul.

There’s another audience member who recognises Dov, one whose presence he can’t forget for the rest of the show. She’s tiny—he calls her a midget—and not a single part of the bantering conversation he attempts with her can budge her from her view that he’s taken some bad turns in his life. Where is the boy she used to know, the one who—and she is the first to mention how he was always upside-down. She is also, she tells him, in touch with the dead. She’s a medium, then? he asks her, and she says no, but she knows what she knows. And, for much of the show, she’s in tears. Getting up on his hands to walk around for a while, or referring back to it as he delays the outcome of the funeral story, doesn’t change a thing. Now, whoever he has become, he is what he is.

There are other things. We’re hearing about the camp when the novel reaches the halfway point, and the episode isn’t over yet: Dov has just been called away from a lesson—he is telling the story, heavily modified and transformed into an adolescent erotic fantasy, as Lazar looks on appalled, wondering where he’s going with it—and has just found out that he must leave to attend a funeral. But whose funeral? He doesn’t know anybody except the father who slaps him about a lot and his mother, a Holocaust survivor who has carried her scars around with her ever since. He’s laying it on thick—‘it must be a mistake, why would they send me to a funeral?’—and, two pages later, we still don’t know who’s dead. But we know this isn’t going anywhere good.

And names. Why does Dovaleh G, birth name Dov Greenstein, share his initials with the author of this book? His name sent me to find out that Dov means ‘little bear’ and, I suppose, Greenstein is a typical Europeanisation of a Jewish name. The judge’s given name means ‘gift of my father’—in fact, his own father is as problematic to Avishai as Dovaleh’s is to him—and we recognise ‘Lazar,’ the leper, the one people avoid. I’m sure Israelis would notice plenty of other things. The city is Netanya, founded in the 1920s and, I guess, full of resonances for Israelis. And… there’s a lot I’m not getting.

But I’m getting enough. A judge, at least one betrayal, a woman who can talk to the dead, a funeral. The crowd, like Lazar, stay where they are despite the bizarre turns the evening keeps taking. Nobody, including Dov, seems very happy about any of it, but they’re sticking with it. And so is the reader. I’m not surprised this novel has been called a tour de force—I had to force myself to put it down to write this. Time to pick it up again.

27 February
The second half…
…which seems more stripped-down than the first. There are really only two timelines now: the ongoing calamity of Dovaleh’s act, and the single story he tells. Or continues to tell. Half-way through, we didn’t know whose funeral he would be attending. Three-quarters of the way through, we still don’t, or seven-eighths and beyond. The driver doesn’t only not know, he doesn’t know that the fourteen-year-old Dov doesn’t know either. And after a hellish drive he gets home to be told by a neighbour that he should be with the other mourners by now. And he still doesn’t know. It’s only when the Orthodox figure in charge, angered at first by Dov’s apparent lack of focus, is appalled to have to tell him that it’s his beloved mother under the shroud. And she really is beloved, because, after having spent the journey recounting to himself how much he loves her compared to the father who somehow just gets in the way, we know who he doesn’t want to find dead. This is less than six pages from the end of the novel, but we’re not placing any bets that things won’t get even worse….

Meanwhile, as Dovaleh works through the wretchedness of his guilt, Avishar Lazar is wrestling with his own demons. Parallel to Dov’s story run his efforts to relive the hour-by-hour experiences of that same day. Back at the camp, what was he doing? What was he thinking about when he should have been… et cetera. He decides that burying the memory of his friend’s misery only worsened his own aloofness. He had been aloof as a child, he’s told us early on, but his betrayal closed him up even more. Somehow—and he doesn’t actually put it this way—his life has been one long displacement activity. He should have been helping the boy, and later the man, who is still telling us he could never relate to a human being properly ever again: his father, after the funeral (don’t ask); his wives and children. Anybody.

So, this novel isn’t mainly about Israel, it’s mainly about two men who feel they took a wrong turning in their lives. It was on that day when they saw each other for the last time and, long before the end, Lazar is convinced that Dov has been telling his version of it for his benefit alone. The audience has shrunk to about a dozen diehards, all of whom, Lazar guesses, have known him a long time. And maybe, he realises, that’s the point too. Pitz, Dov’s name for the tiny woman who remembers him as a good kid, has known him longer than anybody else there. And most the handful of women now present, Lazar suspects, are the ex-wives. So this is Dov’s explanation, to all the people he loves, of how he became the screwed-up mess he is.

And, as Lazar knew long before this evening, he’s a screwed-up mess too. He waited years (how many?) to meet the woman who could love him, and her death hasn’t stopped causing him pain for a single minute since. So Tamara, the woman he still sees everywhere, the woman he thinks of as he sits alone at the table on this night as any other, must have given him something he had never had before. He had never let anybody else come close to him, never mind love him, and he had never loved himself.

On the day of Dov’s hasty exit from the camp, these two things came together disastrously for Avishar too. He had already spent days not acknowledging Dov’s existence and, despite a bout of tortured self-questioning, he now can’t remember whether he thought about him even for a moment after he had been taken away. He decides not, and finds himself casting around for reasons. We know he wooldn’t acknowledge Dov for reasons to do with self-preservation, but the thing that was preying on his mind on this day was a girl at the camp. He’d spent tormented days fantasising about a future relationship with her… and we all know how successful that was ever likely to be. Not for the last time, he was wasting his time on the wrong thing.

Where can this novel go, as the evening draws to a close, and after all the strange places it has been to—from a comedian whose joke rate is about one per quarter hour to the man who drives him from the camp who is so stressed he has to tell jokes almost compulsively? The driver pretends he is practising for a stand-up contest but, in later life, Dov checks it out. There was never any such competition. Maybe, like Dovaleh himself, he does it so he doesn’t have to face up to reality. Not like Lazar, of course, who deploys his own set of avoidance tactics. We’ve got two men, one publicly and one privately, digging deep down into their hidden, guilt-ridden souls, and finding nothing good there. Dovaleh shows himself no mercy—‘Such dirt on me, such pollution… God, all the way to my bones’—and, in the very next line, Lazar is just as hard on himself. ‘If I’d only stood up and run to him before he got into the truck and left….’ He sees his old excuses for what they are, and throws them out: ‘Even though it was the middle of a drill. Even though … everyone would have fun of me. They’d have made me their punching bag. Instead of him.’ This is pure regret, a million miles from self-justification. He could have made a stand.

Ok. But when Dov had got in touch with his old classmate, he did it because he needed something. After pages of failing to get Lazar to understand him during the call, Dov had finally come out with it. ‘I’ve been chewing it over for a long time…. I want you to see me, really see me, and then afterwards tell me…. What you saw.’ Lazar didn’t get it then, but—but what? But now, after the journey they’ve both been on, maybe he does. Since Dovaleh started talking about the camp, he had worried that his own betrayal would be laid out for all to see. The audience all know who Lazar is, and would now know he had always been a coward….

But no, that isn’t what this has been about at all. Dov had reached a terrible understanding, in the last part of that awful drive to the funeral and in the 40-odd years since, that he could never forgive himself for the decision he made about his parents. He’s spent a lot of time this evening telling us about how he loved to help his mother get through every evening—and how his father would get home and burst the bubble. But all the time he has been trying to talk about her, he keeps veering off into anecdotes about his father’s remarkable efforts to keep the family going. The young Dov was more likely to feel the back of his hand than any sign of affection but, as he must know by now, it wasn’t his father’s fault that he couldn’t show him his love. Not long after the funeral, Dov disappeared and didn’t go back for a long time. It’s part of the reason he can’t forgive himself.

He knew who he needed in Netanya. He needed Lazar, and Lazar needed him. The show ends, but this isn’t the end of things between these two. After everyone has gone, Dovaleh asks if he has another minute. ‘Even an hour,’ Lazar replies. ‘You’re not in a rush to get home?’ And Lazar’s flippant-sounding reply masks the truth of it: ‘I’m not in a rush to get anywhere.’ And, for what seems to be the first time since her death, Tamara’s presence is ‘all around’ him, and she whispers a quotation that they used to share: ‘To be whole, it is enough to exist.’ Now, maybe, he’s beginning to know what it means.

Dovaleh agrees to go home with him, describes how he had gone back to look after his father in his final ears, and insists on one last joke. Having asked Lazar to be an audience just one more time, he exhorts everyone leaving to watch out and warns them about the heavy traffic at the exits. The show ends, because that’s what happens at these events, and Dovaleh likes to do the job properly. ‘Goodnight everyone.’

What I realise now is that this is a novel about love, and how men keep getting it wrong. It always goes back to fathers, even though we don’t hear much about Lazar’s. All I can remember is that his father was successful in the world and the family kept moving to follow him to his next posting. Maybe that’s the point: Lazar doesn’t mention his father much because he doesn’t remember much about him. He was always too busy. He thought his father wanted him to be a success at school, and he grows nelieving that school is only about keeping your head down and being a good boy. He doesn’t relate to other boys at all, and the young Dov is a short-lived whirlwind of other possibilities in his life. But by then, he’s become incapable of understanding what Dov is offering. His realisation that the other boys don’t matter comes 40 years too late. ‘They’d have made me their punching bag. Instead of him.’ But there’s a kind of epiphany. Now, he sees, there’s something he can do about it after all.

And what about Dovaleh? It’s complicated, obviously—he’s spent two hours telling us how complicated it is—but all his guilt, all his failure in life, comes down to the father he used to think of only as an obstacle. Pitz, the tiny woman, is right about him being a good boy. He used to run to meet his mother from work—at a munitions factory, for God’s sake—and care for her from that moment on. He tells his depleted audience how he used to prepare nightly performances for her, to keep her entertained. And these worked… until her mind would drift to another place, somewhere he couldn’t reach. It only made him care for her more. Tomorrow, he would perform better—and we can see where this is going. It becomes his only means of self-expression. If the other kids didn’t like it, he’d jump up on his hands and walk away.

It’s only after he’d let us think that he ran away from home for good shortly after the funeral that he reveals that this isn’t true. He doesn’t tell everybody—his father, and his own dealings with him, have particular parts to play in his act—but when everybody else has gone he tells Lazar. His father might have been the butt of his jokes for 40 years, but Dov went back to him. Consequently—or maybe there’s some other reason—he never left the poor district he’d been ashamed of as a kid. ‘I didn’t get very far,’ he says, and it’s true. But it also isn’t true. Perhaps it’s the closeness of his own death from cancer—not that we really know whether to believe in it—or perhaps, as he says, he’s had a lot of time to chew it over. But, in his head, he’s come a long way. Lazar doesn’t find him wanting, and makes sure he knows. And maybe they can both stop feeling guilty now.

Just kidding.