At the weekend I read David Grossman’s latest novel A Horse Walks Into a Bar. Now I want to set down some thoughts about this intense and unsettling book. On stage in a comedy club in an Israeli town, a stand-up comedian, Dovaleh G, settles into his usual routine of edgy gags and mocking, abusive comments about members of the audience. Slowly, though, the spectators realise that they are watching a man falling apart before their eyes as Dovaleh G unfolds the story of a childhood trauma from which he has never recovered.
Since Grossman is a progressive Zionist and long-time advocate of peace and reconciliation between Israel and Palestine, does his novel stand as a metaphor for a wounded nation? Or is it the study of a man who presents a public face of cruelty and cynicism whilst hiding deep within himself the vulnerable yet irrepressible child crushed and betrayed by what happened to him one day in 1973.
A Horse Walks Into a Bar unfolds in real time during Dovaleh G’s stand-up comedy routine, and for the first fifty pages or so Grossman gives us a tour de force, capturing the relentless pace of Dovaleh’s act and his barbed responses to audience heckling. What this reminded me of at first was Comedians, the play written by Trevor Griffiths and first performed in 1975 (I saw it when it was broadcast as a Play for Today on BBC 1 in 1979), which challenged accepted ideas of what is funny and what kind of gags are acceptable in standup comedy. Griffiths had been impelled to write the play – also set in real time during an evening class in Manchester in which retired standup Eddie Waters is preparing a group of budding comics before they perform for an agent up from London – after his exposure to ITV’s popular series The Comedians, a weekly flood of sexist, racist and every other kind of sewage in which stand-ups took aim at women, ethnic minorities and gay people.
In Griffith’s play Waters believes that comedy should serve truth and morality but is challenged by his students who argue that pushing the stereotypes will make them more likely to be recognised by the agent – and, ultimately, rich:
Waters: We have the choice. We can say something or we can say nothing. Not everything true is funny, and not everything funny is true. Most comics feed prejudice and fear and blinkered vision, but the best ones, the comedians… illuminate them, make them clearer to see, easier to deal with. We’ve got to make people laugh…
(Pointing at Ged.)
Ged: Til they cry.
Waters: Cry. Til they find their pain and their beauty. Comedy is medicine. Not coloured sweeties to rot the teeth with.
When the comedians go out to do their turns before the agent at the local working men’s club, one by one they jettison the material they have worked up with Waters – all except Price (played by Jonathan Pryce in the TV version), whose visceral, foul-mouthed meld of football violence, politics, mime and skinhead culture is summed up by the agent Challenor as ‘aggressively unfunny’. That was what came to mind as I read Grossman channelling Dovaleh’s tirades – and what Price says at the end of Griffith’s play: it’s not being funny that is important, but being truthful.
Dovaleh G’s act takes place in a comedy club in the town of Netanya, not far from West Bank occupied territory (hence his opening barb regretting not having brought a flak jacket). The entire performance – every joke, every gesture, every bit of audience reaction – is narrated in real time by Grossman. Or, rather, by a member of the audience, Avishai, a retired judge whom Dovaleh was briefly acquainted with as a child when they both went to the same private tuition classes. This man was contacted out of the blue by Dovaleh, who persuaded him to attend this particular performance. Despite having no interest in standup – or scarcely remembering Dovaleh – he agrees, and it is through him that we witness what unfolds.
The immediacy and forcefulness of Grossman’s writing leads to a palpable sense of being there, in the overheated atmosphere of the basement room, as Dovaleh launches into his routine, complete with gags the cruelty with which he singles out members of the audience:
‘Listen, Lips,’ he smiles at the woman at table seven, ‘we’re not done yet. Let’s talk about it. I mean, you look like a pretty serious young lady, I gotta say, and you certainly have an original fashion sense, if I’m correctly reading the fascinating hairdo that must have been done by – let me guess: the designer who gave us the Temple Mount mosque and the nuclear reactor in Dimona?’ Laughter in the audience. ‘And if I’m not mistaken, I detect the faint whiff of a shitload of money emanating from your direction. Am I right or am I right? Heh? Eau de one per cent? No? Not at all? I’m asking because I also note a magnificent dose of Botox, not to mention an out-of-control breast reduction. If you ask me, that surgeon should have his hands cut off.’
However, it soon becomes apparent that Dovaleh has no interest in entertaining his audience. Instead, like a vulture circling, slowly and inexorably approaching dead prey, his intention is to take them with him to the moment that has determined the rest of his life. It was this that reminded me of Price in Trevor Griffith’s play. Avishai the judge is astonished:
How did he do that? I wonder. How, in such a short time, did he manage to turn the audience, even me to some extent, into household members of his soul? And into his hostages?
This monologue, about a childhood trauma and a pain so unbearable that the memory of it has been repressed, consumes much of the novel. To this extent the novel can be interpreted as a universal exploration of compassion – or the lack of it – experienced by a child considered odd because he walked on his hands, who didn’t fit in – who ‘walked upside down inside handcuffs.’
But, this is Israel, and Grossman is a writer who has not shied away from dealing with his nation’s troubled politics, not just in his novels, but also in essays, articles and speeches. So, when Dovaleh turns on a group of hecklers who identify themselves as from the settlements, we’re not surprised:
Wait, you’re from the settlements! But then who’s left to beat up the Arabs? Just kidding! You know I’m kidding, right? Go ahead and grab your compensation right now. Take twenty million dollars so you can buy beanbags and bubblegum for the cultural centre in memory of Baruch Goldstein the murd – oops, I mean the saint, may God avenge his blood. Not enough? No problem! Take another acre and another goat, take a whole herd of goats, take the whole cattle industry, take the whole country for God’s sake. Oh, that’s right, you already did!
Nor is it a surprise to learn that the central childhood event – at a training camp for schoolchildren run by the IDF on military lines – took place during the Yom Kippur war; nor when we learn that his mother is a Holocaust survivor, whereas his father had been one of the early pre-war Zionist settlers.
There’s a moment in Dovaleh G’s account of his childhood when he lists some examples of the names his father made up for his business clients, which include ‘Zisha Breitbart, Goebbels, Rumkovski, Meir Vilner, Ben-Gurion’. Are we meant to deduce something about Grossman’s political bête-noirs from this list, or his wicked sense of humour? Certainly it’s a fine joke putting Breitbart (who founded his operation in Jerusalem) side by side with Goebbels, while the juxtaposition of Rumkovski the Nazi collaborator, Meir Vilner the anti-Zionist communist, and Ben-Gurion the arch-Zionist would be, I imagine, a tad provocative for many Israelis.
Or take the moment when Dovaleh whips his audience into a frenzy by inviting them to ‘Close your eyes for a minute and think about a world where you can do anything you feel like – anything!’ He sketches a fantasy of an occupation that is no longer called an occupation, with ‘no ulcerous editorials in the paper!’
You feel like putting a little Palestinian village under curfew for a week? Bam – curfew! … You feel like seeing Arabs dance at the checkpoint? Bam! Just say the word and they dance, they sing, they undress.
Then, just as the audience are sucking it all up, clapping and cheering, Dovaleh flicks a switch, warning them that this fantasy has one drawback:
After we’ve had our fun and games for a while it’ll be us – surprise! – singing Biladi Biladi at their roadblocks! Oh yeah, the Palestinians, they’ll make us sing their anthems.
In an interview with Grossman published in the Guardian last November, Jonathan Freedland wrote:
Grossman does see a subtler parallel between his character, Dovaleh, and his country, Israel. Dovaleh’s tragedy is that he has strayed from, even betrayed, the person he was. Once a spirited, animated, generous child – “a good boy”, in the words of one witness – he has allowed the bitterness of guilt and shame to change him. As a performer, he has become acidic, cynical and cruel. In the course of the evening, he – and we – get a glimpse of the other life that might have been his.
Grossman is not after anything wild, just the two-state solution that Israeli peaceniks have been advocating for decades:
“There is some parallel to draw in the feeling that I have as an Israeli, that we in Israel, we live in parallel to the life we should have lived,” Grossman explains. The turning point was the 1967 war, when Israel gained the territories it has occupied ever since. He sees that as a kind of navigational error, when Israel strayed off course. “If or when it is corrected, then we should have a chance to go back, to live in a more harmonic way with the region we live in, to try to live a life that is not so darkened constantly with fear.”
Freedland suggests to him that plenty, especially on the European left, would dispute the notion that ‘all was fine until 1967’: their disagreement would go further back, to the circumstances of Israel’s founding in 1948.Grossman replies:
I do not want to idealise the Israel before 1967. Of course, there are terrible things that happened in ’48. And yet, before ’67, there was still a hope that things can be corrected, that we are not doomed to continue to fight with our neighbours for another 50 years. To live by the sword and to die by the sword. What we have now is the belief that this is the only option open to us. That there is a kind of divine decree. I think the majority of Israelis believe that now. It was not like that before 67.
Talking to Freedland, Grossman sees a wider resonance of the story of Dovaleh G.
No one in the audience wants to know the backstory of the man on stage. They only want to see a comedian, telling them jokes. They are indifferent to his deeper pain. Grossman thinks we adopt the same attitude every day, when we look at vast, undifferentiated groups of refugees. “We see them looking miserable and noisy and dirty. Just to make the effort, the 30 seconds effort, of putting these men in a shirt like yours, having an apartment like yours, having friends, having his life, his job, his love, his respect for his parents, his caring for his children, all these small things and suddenly, you will not be able to deny him any more … I think the way to solve the problem of the immigrants, the way to integrate them into their life in new places, is this way of looking at them, which will allow them to regain their dignity.” Everyone, says Grossman, has a backstory.
Given Grossman’s views – which would be regarded a moderate and reasonable in Europe – it was alarming when, early in 2016, the Israeli Minister of Culture, ex-Brigadier General Miri Regev, announced that the Israeli government would not fund left-wing authors, identified on a list that included Grossman, because they are not considered to be ‘loyal to the State of Israel.’ Asked whether he fel tthreatened, Grossman responded: ‘No, I do not feel threatened. I am very proud to be included in that group.’
This point was taken up by an interviewer for euronews last March, who asked:
Dovalé also seems a very isolated figure, as he’s standing in front of his audience, they all, one by one, well most of them end up leaving, and he’s talking to an ever decreasing circle of people. And I know you resist maybe these kind of autobiographical references, but it also made me think of you, because some in your country, consider you a traitor for your beliefs. Do you ever feel that you’re more and more isolated in your own country?
David Grossman: I feel that my opinions are more and more isolated and I feel more and more people, they gave up their efforts to contain the very complicated reality here and they chose simplicity and you see how more and more Israelis are being tempted to this way of looking at the conflict of abandoning their attempt to achieve some political, rational solution and rather they are more and more prone to fanaticism and fundamentalism. You see it on both sides, it happens in Israel, it happens in Palestine, it makes the solution almost impossible.
I don’t think I should even justify my loyalty, I was born here, this is my place, I take a very active part in the life in Israel, in the culture in Israel. I don’t think the question of loyalty should be aroused at all, it’s a fascist question, it’s one of the signs of the deterioration of the democracy and the democratic perception here in Israel.
My loyalty is to my art, what I try to do in my books, in my writing, is to document as much as I can with as much accuracy as I can to document the nuances of life here in Israel because I think this life here is a fascinating life, sometimes it’s unbearable.
At around the same time, Grossman gave an interview on Israeli radio, now transcribed on the Partners for Progressive Israel blog which might have some bearing on A Horse Walked into a Bar:
The fact that we have a state, and that three years after the Holocaust we founded a state, created so many miracles, small and large, is not to be taken for granted. We must protect it and be committed to it. And part of what we must be committed to is the pluralism, the openness. This was the greatness of Zionism, of Israeliness, at the beginning. A phenomenon of boldness, with an eye to the future, pluralistic and open.
But, he went on:
We see how now, as we despair of the possibility of change, as our leaders do nothing in order to change our situation, and we see how our Israeliness is swallowed into the tragic wound of Judaism. That wound is our sense of being foreign, existential strangers, the feeling that no one understands us and the whole world is against us, and we are the victims and we’ll always be the victims, and we will live by the sword forever and ever.
I’m still not sure to what extent A Horse Walked into a Bar is a state of the nation novel. For a hundred pages or so, I was gripped as Grossman built up the tension while giving superb voice to Dovaleh as simultaneously the confrontational stand-up and vulnerable kid whose world fell apart as the Yom Kippur war raged, but (like the audience) I began to feel that Dovaleh G’s performance was a little over-extended. In a sense I can’t quite fathom, I wonder whether it’s Avishai the judge – and the reader’s eyes and ears – who actually is the main character here.
In the book, we never get to hear the punchline of the ‘Horse walks into a bar’ joke. For those who know the territory, it’s an old one, but in one interview Grossman clarified things for those of us who aren’t into stand-up comedy:
A horse walks into a bar and asks for a chaser of vodka, the barman looks at him stunned, pours him, the horse takes the glass, drinks, how much is it. The barman says 50 bucks. The horse pays, goes to the door, barman runs after him. ‘Excuse me, Mr Horse, wait for a second, it’s amazing, I never saw something like that, a talking horse. The horse look at him, tells him, ‘With your prices, you never will again.’
- David Grossman’s Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture, 2007 (edited, Guardian)
- David Grossman, The Art of Fiction (extended interview, Paris Review, 2007)
- David Grossman: ‘You have to act against the gravity of grief – to decide you won’t fall’ (interview, Guardian, November 2016)
- David Grossman: The Dissenting Patriot (interview, Moment, May 2016)