The Ghost of Books: Part V

By Dinah Lenney, December 24, 2011

Speaking of Ghosts:

For months now, I’ve been reading David Grossman’s To the End of the Land — which I want to finish, but also I don’t. A poet friend, David Biespiel (who won the Oregon book award this year) admits that he reads Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn again and again but never gets to the last page, because he doesn’t want it to end. And I guess, as the end gets closer, I’m starting to feel that way about Grossman’s book, which is everything the critics have said, from Toibin (in the New York Times) to Packer (in the New Yorker) to Gottlieb (in the Los Angeles Times) to Balint, right here at the LARB: Yes, sure, as much as anything this is a tome about the senselessness of war. Which might be why people keep asking me — when they hear that I’m somewhere in the middle, when I tell them the book makes my throat hurt — if it isn’t impossibly sad? The thing is — it isn’t. It isn’t because this book is deeply sad that it’s hard to read or hard to put down; I mean, yes, it’s sad, but the best kind of sad — infused with beauty and joy and having to do with the human condition across the board; with our bewilderment in the face of our mortality, and the courage, joy, and pride (we’re only human, right?) we nonetheless take in our efforts and experience.

Seems to me this has been one of those years (are they all years like this and I just didn’t notice?), when we’ve been again and again confronted with art that examines our perception of time over and over — in terms of moments on the one hand and eons on the other (from Christian Marclay’s The Clock to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life) — but Grossman gets at the utter poignancy of the passage of minutes, and days, and years, and our place on the continuum, in a way that feels entirely original, with a story that’s as singular as it is universal: as the best stories are, right?

Anyway — for me — this is a book about how we are responsible for each other and also how we’re not. How we cannot help but fail the people we love, precisely because we love them. Then too, it’s about the power of memory (speaking of ghosts) — and about making everything real even before it disappears. It’s about having faith in the ongoing, and about how it goes on, regardless of whether or not we have faith; since the world, the natural world, that is, is just bigger than we, and largely oblivious to our contortions. For the moment I feel as though I have never read anything so authentic, and brave, and committed to investigating the human condition. It is therefore excruciating to read — exquisitely so on the level of the prose — not only because it’s tragic, but because, sad or joyful, it feels so entirely and deeply true. Bottom line: ghosts are all well and good, nothing bad about ghosts of books past — even so I’m not wanting to finish this one, not ready to let it waft away…