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Be My Knife by David Grossman
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Be My Knife (1998)

by David Grossman

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I mainly live in what I'm not.When I first brought this book home from the library and realized it was epistolary fiction, I felt disheartened. When I want to read a writer's letters, I want to read their actual letters, not ones they have made up for the sake of their characters. But for some reason, a lingering sensation insisted that I read this book. And now that I have, I'm not even sure what to think about it.

The book is divided into three sections: Yair, Miriam, Rain. The premise is that this odd serial philanderer of a man-child, Yair, observes this woman, Miriam, at a class reunion and without ever speaking to her, decides to seduce her through the written word. Yair is an arrogant prick, annoying and verbose, and yet he writes his way into Miriam's closed-off heart. They are both married to other people: he to Maya and she to Amos. They also each have one son.

The first section consists solely of Yair's letters to Miriam and so the story is revealed slowly and enigmatically, as we only have Yair's reactions to Miriam's letters, not her actual words written to him. There is a voyeuristic aspect, like I didn't want to know so much about Yair, to read his soul like that. I think I also saw tiny bits of myself in him, here and there, and maybe that made me uncomfortable. Some books do this; they make you feel uncomfortable about yourself. I don't find it to happen often, but when it does I am reminded all over again of the complexities of reading, of how another person's words on a page can separate the tissue from the bone and leave one weak and gasping.I don't understand you. You hide the world of your imagination from Maya and the physical world from me. How can you navigate between all these opening and closing doors? Where do you truly live a full life?Like any successful long-term adulterer, Yair excels at compartmentalizing his life. But, as Miriam points out, where does this leave him? He chops up bits of his psyche and feeds them to a selection of the most important people in his life. But nobody gets all of him. And in return he doesn't get to completely be with anyone. A certain aloofness presents itself, an inability to be truly present in any one single compartment.When a man cries out, 'I'm hurt,' he doesn't necessarily believe that his pain can be relieved; more often than not, he just needs someone to chase away the loneliness inside his pain.Yair is wounded, his maturity stunted, and maybe he wants Miriam to help him out of the pit he wallows in. But maybe he also just wants to seduce her, like he has so many other women. I spent much time in the first section wishing I could get to the next section, the one titled 'Miriam' because I was so tired of listening to Yair and I desperately wanted to hear from Miriam. What particularly drove me mad was when Yair put words into her mouth, how he wrote out entire paragraphs as if they were written by her (not surprisingly, this bothered her, too).

When I finally got to Miriam's section, I felt exhausted, wearily relieved, like I'd just crossed a brutal desert where each grain of sand was one of Yair's words. At this point, I was expecting letters from Miriam, but there were also journal entries. I don't want to reveal too much, though, because a lot of the tension in the book stems from its form, not just its content.

I didn't want Miriam to be with Yair. I maintained this position throughout the book, although by the very end I admit that I had come close to not even caring anymore. Miriam had been through so much in her life, was still going through so much, and Yair's issues seemed miniscule compared to hers. Yet she was so committed to helping him, despite the fact that he was such a self-centered jerk. But she also claimed he helped her, so what do I know.

There are some keen insights here into the nature and dynamics of long-term relationships. That was somewhat peripheral to the storyline perhaps, but notable all the same. We are all in these cocoons and maybe some of us get desperate to connect to others outside the cocoon. For Yair, I think it was just to find out about himself, maybe an attempt to heal the broken parts inside. To a certain extent it was that for Miriam, too, but it also allowed her to glimpse her good parts again, the ones that had been buried for so long.

The quote at the top of this review is what I saw as the essence of the book: I mainly live in what I'm not. They are Yair's words, but Miriam later quotes them, along with her emphatic agreement (“so do I!”). The book is not a love story, at least not in a conventional way. It's about two people who live in what they're not, and that is what made their correspondence possible. Who but two people not fully living in the present, merely existing, could strike up such a correspondence? It felt completely natural to the both of them to slip into this new rhythm, exposing the darkest parts of themselves to each other in some weird not-exactly-real bond between two complete strangers.

This book was originally published in Israel in 1998, when the Internet Age was in its infancy. And so, while clearly Grossman wasn't commenting on its effects on us, what has the online world done since then but foster the types of relationships between strangers that he describes? So many of us reaching out across the globe, intense friendships forming without the face-to-face element but with the benefit of instant communication, the explosion of social media...are we all looking to poke our heads out of our cocoons, looking for something we are not getting elsewhere? Have we all just learned, like Yair, to compartmentalize our lives, dividing our interactions into discrete sections that never touch, getting little bits of what we need from each small place. But I am now straying beyond the scope of this review, bumping up against a constant iceberg of speculation floating in my head.

Three stars because I found it plodding at times. And Yair pissed me off too much. Then there was my pre-existing bias against epistolary fiction. The cards were stacked against this one from the beginning. In the end, I suppose I'm glad that I read it, but I'm also happy it's over. ( )
  S.D. | Apr 4, 2014 |
I think I have dog-eared more pages in David Grossman's books than in any other author's books. His aren't always the easiest or most accessible, but he is after something deeper; you just have to be willing to go along for the ride, and struggle along with the characters. ( )
  JennyArch | Apr 3, 2013 |
This novel affords the reader an intellectually voyeuristic observation of a developing relationship. Instead of seeing the caressing of a neck or kiss of the lips, the intimate thoughts and close-kept secrets revealed to a lover are witnessed.

The series of letters to and from, in and out, got a little confusing, for me, at times. It is definitely a unique perspective and writing style. ( )
  Sovranty | Jan 11, 2010 |
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Bamberger, ShulamithTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
When the word turns into a body
And the body opens its mouth
And speaks the word from which
It was created-
I will embrace that body
And lay it to rest by my side.

-"Hebrew Lesson #5"
Chezi Laskly, 'The mice and Leah Goldberg'.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312421478, Paperback)

Be My Knife, by the highly acclaimed Israeli novelist David Grossman, explores the perennial dilemma of unrequited love. Grossman, however, is far too original a novelist not to give his story a twist. The book opens with a letter written by Yair Einhorn, a neurotic, compulsive rare-books dealer, to Miriam, a beautiful, mysterious woman he glimpses "at the class reunion a few days ago--but you didn't see me." Her offhand gesture and brief, enigmatic smile prompts him to send her a passionate letter, what he calls a "restrained suicide note." To his joy and amazement, she writes back to him. So begins an extraordinary love affair by letter, recounted for the first 200 pages by Yair's impulsive, impassioned, and angst-ridden letters to Miriam. When Miriam finally finds her own voice toward the end of the book, Yair has raised the reader's expectations so high that ultimately her character is rather disappointing. Be My Knife is a novelist's novel about obsession, compulsion, and desire. The writing is dense, demanding, and full of moments of great poetry and inventiveness, but it can become difficult and obscure. Stylistically Grossman is experimenting with plot and character in the grand modernist tradition, and Yair is reminiscent of the tormented "little men" in the works of Joyce and Beckett. However, at times Grossman's brilliant artfulness overwhelms a potentially fascinating story. --Jerry Brotton, Amazon.co.uk

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:03:48 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"An awkward, neurotic seller of rare books writes a desperate letter to a beautiful stranger whom he sees at a class reunion. This simple, lonely attempt at seduction begins a love affair of words between Yair and Miriam - two married, middle-aged adults, dissatisfied with their lives, yearning for a sense of connection that has always eluded them - and reawakens feelings that they thought had passed them by. The correspondence between them unfolds into a dialogue of their most naked confessions to reveal a man whose life has been one of duplicity and a woman who fills her own with distraction to avoid the painful secrets of her past."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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