An “affair” conducted through the correspondence between two unhappily married would-be lovers is the subject of this brooding fifth novel from the accomplished Israeli author.
It begins shortly after Yair, a rare-book dealer, has encountered Miriam, a schoolteacher, at their high school reunion. He writes importunately to her, gradually revealing details of his miserable youth (as the child of abusive parents), dull marriage and conflicted fatherhood, and deep emotional neediness, citing as precedents the letters Flaubert exchanged with his mistress Louise Colet and, more pointedly, Kafka’s letters to his estranged soulmate Milena Jesenska (these latter provide the source of Grossman’s title: Kafka’s declaration that “love is that you are my knife with which I dig deeply into myself”). Yair’s “half” of their correspondence, which occupies fully two thirds of the novel, is filled with redundant vacillations between self-justification and self-hatred, and considerable rhetorical overkill (“I suddenly jump and expose the armpits of my soul to you in an obscene striptease”). By the time we get Miriam’s reactions to all this (recorded in her “notebook,” and also expressed in her final letter to him—the only one the reader ever sees), we’ve long since lost interest in either Yair’s connubial problems or Miriam’s struggles with her emotionally disturbed son and inhibiting past, not to mention a nagging conscience. In a brief final section, Grossman presents each character’s participation in, and later reactions to, an exchange of phone calls, in which they effectively dare each other to cut the ties that bind them elsewhere, and be together—and wraps it up with a genuinely dramatic surprise ending. Too little, too late. The novel’s considerable technical sophistication aside, even the most willing reader will find it difficult to empathize with these literate whiners.
Overattenuated and underimagined. The author of See Under: Love (1989) can do better than this.