Sometimes a book tears open the fabric of being and forces the reader to question the meaning of existence. A masterpiece of existentialist inquiry, Falling Out of Time by the eminent Israeli author David Grossman is such a book. Grossman asks: How can he go on living now that his son is dead?
Falling Out of Time is Grossman’s mourning prayer for his son Uri.
First Class Sergeant Uri Grossman was killed in Southern Lebanon in the final hours of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, also called the Israeli-Hezbollah War. On August 15, 2006, the tank he commanded was hit by an anti-tank missile during the last two days of an Israeli offensive in South Lebanon, just as the United Nations was brokering a ceasefire between the warring parties. He was just shy of his twenty-first birthday.
In “Writing in the Dark,” published in May 2007 in the New York Times Magazine, Grossman described why he was able to go on living:
“I write. In wake of the death of my son Uri last summer in the war between Israel and Lebanon, the awareness of what happened has sunk into every cell of mine. The power of memory is indeed enormous and heavy, and at times has a paralyzing quality to it. Nevertheless, the act of writing itself at this time creates for me a type of ‘space,’ a mental territory that I’ve never experienced before, where death is not only the absolute and one-dimensional negation of life.”
Falling Out of Time transforms his ineffable human suffering into a communal work of art.
Grossman began writing Falling Out of Time two years after the article in the New York Times Magazine appeared. He finished it in 2011 and the book was published in 2014. Some have called it a fable, a parable, even a libretto, comparing it to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” but its multidimensional form defies a pure definition: It is verse, drama, disquisition, lament, prayer, and meditation about inconsolable loss.
Although the ten characters in Falling Out of Time seem to stretch in an arc from the feudal era to the present, we know only their generic identities. In the order of their appearance in this poetic-dramatic lamentation they are: the Town Chronicler; Man, who becomes the Walking Man; Woman, who becomes the Woman Who Stayed At Home, the Woman Who Left Home, and, apparently, the Woman Atop The Belfry; the Town Chronicler’s Wife; the Midwife and her husband the Cobbler; the Mute Woman in Net, also the Net-mender; the Duke; the Centaur; and the Elderly Math Teacher—all who have lost a son or daughter twenty-six years old or thirteen years or eleven and a half years or six or five or one and one-half years. In the first part of Falling Out of Time, the characters’ losses are revealed, and they join the Walking Man as he circles the town. These characters are in relationship with each other not only because of the death of a child, but also because they are desperately trying to find a way back into life. Having lived halfway between here and there, they are fallen out of time. In the second part of Falling Out of Time, the Walkers perform a communal wake, lifting their feet slowly
from the earth lightly
lightly we hover
between here and there
the thread will soon
and we will glide
at whatever is there
at whatever we dare
only when walking
in a dream
The story is framed by the Town Chronicler, who, with notebook and pen, observes the mourning townspeople and later reports back to his boss, the Duke. Peering through windows, hiding in backyards, and following the Walkers as they join together in a collective chorus, the Town Chronicler narrates the drama that unfolds over days, weeks, perhaps—we can’t tell—months. Even as he reveals their stories, he withholds the history of his own tragic loss until he breaks down as the Town Chronicler’s Wife leaves him to join the Walkers on the hilltops, where “small embers glow tonight as though each holds a beating heart.” Intensifying the pathos, the Town Chronicler calls himself “a memory-amputee,” abstaining from any memory of or feelings for his daughter Hannah, who drowned in a lake thirteen years ago: He will not imagine the person she would have become, forbidding himself to whisper, cry, sob, or even yearn. Like “a prisoner in a tiny remote cell inside” his spirit, the Town Chronicler acknowledges his sorrow because of “that man circling the town.”
“That man” is the first of several townspeople the Town Chronicler observes. Hanging back in the shadows outside their window, he witnesses an existential struggle between the Man and the Woman over the death of their son five years previously. The scene between the Man and the Woman is the first of many reports that the Town Chronicler delivers to the Duke, and it foreshadows the stories he will narrate. This scene opens Falling Out of Time:
—I have to go.
—To him, there.
—To the place where it happened?
—No, no. There.
—What do you mean, there?
—I don’t know.
—You’re scaring me.
—Just to see him once more.
—But what could you see now? What is left to see?
—I might be able to see him there. Maybe even talk to him?
The Woman insists “there” doesn’t exist anymore, no one comes back from there, their son has been dead for five years and he’s still dead. The Man questions if their son gave up on them when they were first notified. The Woman retorts: “Look at me. Look into my eyes. What are you doing to us? It’s me, can’t you see? This is us, the two of us. This is our home. Our kitchen. Come, sit down. I’ll give you some soup.” The Man circles around her, even as she implores him not to go. He begs to see “one single/spark/from his eyes—”, but she tells him, “there is/no there!” He has to go to see him—his dead son—and with arms outstretched, the Man leaves his house, circling the yard, his neighborhood, and eventually the town. He becomes the Walking Man. As such, he is like a magnet drawing the mourners out of their hiding places. They follow him, and together they become a chorus of lamentation walking to the borderland between here and there, between existing and not existing.
As if extracted from a Greek tragedy, the Walking Man sets the stage for the others who, in the second part of Falling Out of Time, will join him at the wall. For the Town Chronicler who performs his duty conscientiously, will he have enough time to record everything? Too much is happening and too fast, it seems. Paradoxically, his job requires a single focus: picking out those who have lost a child. Just as he begins his search for the townspeople, he advises the Duke to look out the window, where, in the distance, the Duke sees a strange phenomenon, “a small luminance of sorts” walking “up and down hills,” encircling the town. This luminance is the Walking Man.
Which of the townspeople matches the fate of the Walking Man? First, there is the mute Net-mender that the Town Chronicler sees pulling herself out of a skein of fishing nets. Years ago, he reminds the Duke, “a cheerful, curly-haired boy was tied to her chest in a brightly colored sling.” Three nights after he finds the Net-mender, the Town Chronicler peers inside a little house on the outskirts of town and sees a centaur sleeping at his desk, surrounded by “a few empty beer bottles, pens, pencils, a school notebook.” So-called by the townspeople, the Centaur is an ungainly creature that can split the roof when he stands up. And, as the Town Chronicler learns, his desk has hooves. He is also an angry Centaur that torments the recorder.
The next evening, the Town Chronicler visits the Midwife and the Cobbler who live in a slum on the edge of town. Peering through a window into their hut, he sees a woman on the verge of collapsing: “She is silent, but her fingers rend her mouth apart as if in a scream.” He witnesses the friction between the Midwife and her husband. She grieves over the loss of their daughter four years ago, but the Cobbler hisses at her “through the nails in his mouth,” the Town Chronicler observes. She would have been five years old, the Midwife tells him. Doesn’t he think of her? The Cobbler, unrestrained, tells his wife to move on, enough is enough, don’t think about those things. In a future visit, the Town Chronicler witnesses the truth about the Cobbler, which is as stark as that of any of the mourners he visits on his rounds. The Cobbler’s grief is heartbreaking.
During this later visit, the Town Chronicler notices a startling reversal in the Cobbler’s behavior. Through the window, he observes a scene of unbearable sorrow as the Cobbler admits his despair. The Midwife discovers, for the first time, the nails inside the Cobbler’s mouth—the identical nails the Town Chronicler had also seen. The Midwife wants to know what’s in her husband’s mouth, insisting that she look inside. The Cobbler resists: “No, leave it, don’t touch, they give me all my power.” She had never noticed, she tells him, and begs him to take them out. He resists even more: “No, I can’t, who’ll protect me so I—” The midwife implores him to spit them into her hand. They are sharp and there is blood and
your whole m-m-mouth
is sores and
When she throws the nails out the window, they clang as they fall around the Town Chronicler. Mesmerized, he watches the Cobbler “probing the emptiness” inside his mouth. Then begins the Cobbler’s lamentation: “There were ten of ‘em. The little ones and the big ones and the crooked ones, and a thick one with no head, what was like a thumb, I called it. They’ve been like parts of me. One for each of her tiny-tiny fingers I used to kiss.” The Cobbler is spiritually wounded, no less than the Walking Man or the Midwife or any of the other characters that constitute the Chorus of Walkers in the second part.
By the time the Town Chronicler catches up with the last mourner he must find—the Elderly Math Teacher whose son Michael died twenty-six years ago—he and the Centaur are not on good terms. The Centaur’s invective and incivility have exhausted the recorder’s patience. “Enough is enough, Your Highness!” he reports to the Duke. “I have reached the end of my tether! From here on out, your town chronicler adamantly refuses to meet with this despicable creature. You may kill me, my lord, but I shall not go back to him.” The Town Chronicler may wish he never has to speak with the Centaur again, but, as the town’s recorder, he has no choice. He must return to the Centaur to collect the data, no matter how repugnant the task. What he learns surprises him: The Centaur is one of them—a mourner grieving over Adam, his son who died eleven and one-half years ago.
The difficult relationship between the Town Chronicler and the Centaur may appear to be just that—two characters who can’t stand each other—but the subtext reveals a vital connection between the Centaur and the Walking Man. Furthermore, it suggests that the Centaur might be the Walking Man’s alter ego.
How so? Immediately preceding a long invective in which the Centaur lashes out at the Town Chronicler, the Walking Man concedes both fury and fact about the death of his son. In an excerpt from a longer monologue, the Walking Man concedes that he is within time, that his son is fallen out of time:
…The way I miss you
is trapped in time as well. Grief
ages with the years, and there are days
when it is new, fresh.
So, too, the fury at all that was robbed
from you. But you are
You are outside
The tone of this passage and the elegance of expression are characteristic of the Walking Man throughout Falling Out of Time, but it could not be further removed from the Centaur’s coarse and rude speech. Juxtapose the above excerpt with the first of many invectives toward the Town Chronicler and clues emerge about the vital connection between the Walking Man and the Centaur.
Given his elevated speech, the Walking Man might call the Town Chronicler a “hireling” or a “lackey” or a “pencil pusher,” but he would not utter the words that so easily roll off the Centaur’s tongue: “scram before I wring your balls”; “gird your gonads and do some chronicling”; “scram, you leech”; “you reek like a fresh pile of droppings”; “listen up, you black-inked tick.” Underlying the Centaur’s vitriol is a perception that the Town Chronicler is one of them—a voyeur who peers “into other people’s hells.” After all, the Centaur sees the Town Chronicler passing by his window three, four, five times a day peering inside, documenting the Centaur’s bereaved state in a phony “expression of tender sorrow and commiseration.”
In the long invective mentioned above, the Centaur likens the recorder to media voyeurs who, in a fit of odious curiosity, swarm around a celebrity or a person of renown. The Centaur’s harangue implicates the Town Chronicler in this cohort: “Isn’t it incredibly fortunate that you, as part of your job…can spend as much time as you want peering into other people’s hells, without dipping so much as your pale little pinkie inside them? Think about it! What could be more titillating than someone else’s hell?” Further, the Centaur refers to this voyeuristic method of extraction as torture, a relentless drive for any tidbit of information, especially about “the son”: “What he was like as a baby, what he liked to eat, what he built with Legos, which lullabies you sang to him.” The son, in this context, refers to the Centaur’s son Adam, but it could reasonably refer to Grossman’s son Uri.
The Centaur’s fury sounds reminiscent of Grossman’s experience with the media after his son’s death. Grossman is himself a celebrity and was one of three famous Israeli authors who appealed for negotiations with the Lebanese government two days before the Israeli offensive in Southern Lebanon, the offensive in which Uri was killed. At his son’s eulogy in August 2006, Grossman deplores “our crazy, cruel, and cynical world” in which people need to guard themselves “from might and simplistic thinking, from the corruption that is in cynicism, from the pollution of the heart and the ill-treatment of humans.” He eulogizes Uri as a person who “had the courage to be himself…to find his exact voice in every thing he said and did. That’s what guarded him from the pollution and corruption and the diminishing of the soul.”
In Falling Out of Time, the Centaur implicates the mass media in perpetuating the exploitation of wounded individuals. In this context, such exploitation diminishes not only the soul but also language itself. When language is used as a commodity, reduced to clichés and slogans, it substitutes cynicism for meaningful dialogue. Grossman refers to the diminishment of language in the context of conflict whereby it “filters down to the mass media that are reporting about the conflict, germinating an even more cunning language that aims to tell its target audience the story easiest for digestion.” More generally, the diminishment of language strips it of its humanistic function and thereby constricts the soul. Ironically, the Centaur reduces the humanity of the Town Chronicler when he audaciously conflates the recorder with a voyeuristic media. Eventually, the tables are turned, and the Centaur—half-writer, half-desk—breaks down, sobbing. Hearing in the Centaur’s sobs one of his own, the Town Chronicler “rises on tiptoes,” hovers over the Centaur’s head, closes his eyes, and caresses the Centaur’s curls.
At the end of the first part of Falling Out of Time, the Walking Man offers himself up as a platform for his dead son to return and experience the fullness of life—to again rejoice and laugh and celebrate and love and roar and tingle. But, the Walking Man tells him, he must be quick because, he, the father, will soon come home, “his pupils will contract/in the light of confining logic,” and as the dawn rises “the magic/ soon will melt.” For the Walking Man, the illusion is too brief and the reality too difficult, and he stops the lie, calling his son to return “to obscurity,/ to oblivion,”
just do not see
with my own eyes
With this monologue, the first part of Falling Out of Time comes to a close, and the transition is seamlessly made as the Chorus of Walkers opens the second part.
The Chorus of Walkers—nine mourners who have lost a child—opens the second part as a commentary of insight, action, and resolution. According to the Town Chronicler, they sleep and walk and lean their heads on one another’s shoulders, as if in a dream-like state. Asking each other difficult questions, they probe the meaning of being: What is death? What is life? If we are here, how did you, our children, get there? The divide between them and their dead children is a burden too much to carry. The Cobbler inquires:
…What’s it like,
my girl, when you die?
And how are you
And who are you
And the Elderly Math Teacher asks:
Tell me just what is the thing
in us, the living,
whereby we can become
within an instant,
in the blink of our own death?
As the mourners pose their questions, together they begin to break through the barrier of their grief:
When we meet, if
what shall I tell him?
What shall I tell her?
Know what? That they
In communion with each other, they become a chorus of humanity moving toward action and, finally, resolution.
The Woman Atop the Belfry (seemingly the Woman Who Stayed At Home) appears at exactly the right moment. She narrates the action from her position atop the belfry, seeing what the Walkers cannot see: a means to resolve their despair. Just as the Walking Man feels he is losing his thread to life and is ready to die, she sings to him, telling him that he is not alone, his son is touching him from there. He admits his wife was right,
…righter than me-
there is no there, there is
and even if I walk
for all of time
I will not get there, not
The Woman Atop the Belfry advises the Walking Man to act. It is a bold and brilliant move on her part, one, even, that seems counterintuitive. Given that his resolve is fading, the Walking Man accepts, in spite of the passion that “still remains inside [him]/like a curse.” “Get up,” she instructs him,
go and be
like him as much as
one alive can be
like the dead—without dying.
yet be your death, too,
The Duke, as overseer of the town, also sees the urgency to save their lives and reinforces her instructions. He tells the Walkers: “Listen to her.” Follow her counsel. “Go,/ upend time” and “be reborn/out of his death.”
Just as the Walking Man struggles to awaken into consciousness, so too do the Walkers step out of their dreamlike state and enter into what appears to be a semi-conscious place between dreaming and waking. It is a difficult act for both the Walkers and the Walking Man, and, yet, upon hearing the Duke’s admonition, they proceed on their journey, walking as they have done for days, weeks, months. Suddenly, a massive wall of rock appears out of nowhere and they stop to confront what? The timeless borderland? The threshold?
Like a deus ex machina, the wall of rock precipitates the action the Walking Man and the Walkers must perform to reconcile their existence with the factual death of their children. It is a fearful performance. The Walking Man stumbles and falls toward the wall, as the contingent of mourners watches him grapple with its meaning. They follow him and kneel down in the soft earth where “whole bodies dig in dirt and dust.”
What is this performance, this climax to Falling Out of Time that seems so utterly strange? The Walkers inhale the warmth and breath of the earth,
to dredge up from her womb
the sweet desires of youth entombed
in her, the sweetness
of childhood which, in her,
So, too, does the Walking Man dig his own trench, as the Walkers observe a distinct change in him: His eyes greet theirs “with kind blue light,” “he smiles warmly,” and whispers thank you. Then he takes off his clothes and steps naked into the pit. There, in the pit, he lies on his back with his arms at his side and closes his eyes. Seeing this, the Walkers perform the same ritual themselves, and, removing their clothes, they descend into their own graves and are reborn out of the conception and death of their lost children.
In his grave, the Walking Man conceives his own consciousness of being:
I had been,
while I was. I knew
down to my fingertips.
It was wonderful
to know, to remember:
how very much
Aware of his own inevitable death, he understands it is not the absolute or opposite of life. And he has one final request of his son: to help him “separate/ memory from the pain,” so that he can remember more of him.
What do the Walkers experience as they rise from the tombs? Do they also conceive a consciousness of being? For them, the wall is alive with the faces of their children whose bodies seem to push through the rock, as if thrusting “their way/back here.” The Town Chronicler, with a steady gaze, knows that the wall is just “slabs of rock,” but he also understands the longing that deranges the mind, his included. At first, they experience terror that the living wall will vanish before they can tear the children apart from it, then they freeze as the reality sets in: They cannot touch, speak, or rescue their children from the wall of rock. And so they whisper to them—Lilli, Adam, Michael, Hanna, Uwi—their specks of life.
As they awaken lying on the ground, the Walkers see that the wall is no longer there, and a thought passes through all of them at the same time. Something had stitched them together with a thread, a hand perhaps, or perhaps it was the man who left his home “to go there,” and when he began to walk in circles
began to walk
to the meeting point
where they would find the resolution they had been seeking. Their children are dead.
Throughout Falling Out of Time, the Centaur acts as a counterpoint to the Walking Man, and notably, to the Town Chronicler. A character described as half-writer-half-desk, the Centaur provides some comic relief through his bawdy put-downs of the Town Chronicler, and, yet, beneath the façade, is a bereaved writer who, grafted to his desk, cannot fathom what happened to his son or who or what he himself has become. Neither can he “understand who he is now either—my son.” And so he writes because language is the last free place inside him, where he “can somehow get close to it, to that goddamn it, without it killing me.” The reference to “it” is the death of his son, and being the writer that he is, the Centaur plays with the word “death”—to get closer to it, to recreate it, to make it come alive without killing him:
‘deathful.’ I wink at it,
like it’s a little game
we play: ‘Death will deathify
or is it deathened? Detherized?
How does he get close to it—Death? He recreates “it in the form of a story” and swarms it with characters, consciously aware that his whole life is “on the tip/of a pen.”
The Centaur’s story is not only the story of the death of his son Adam. It is also the story of Falling Out of Time. Imprisoned at his desk while the Walkers dig their trenches by the wall and are reborn, the Centaur writes the story, “like fingers/probing crumbled earth.” It is a universal story about human existence, about the meaning of life and death, grief and acceptance. And it is, finally, a story of human insight, action, and resolution.
Acknowledging that his son is dead, the Walking Man offers the final lamentation:
He is dead,
Yet, it is the Centaur’s antiphon that closes Falling Out of Time:
Yet still it breaks my heart,
that I have—
that one could—
that I have found
Ranen Omer-Sherman, author and reviewer writes: “This slim book’s dark music come as close to Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ as language can possibly aspire.”
Falling Out of Time was translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen.