What would it mean to go there?
This question lies at the heart of “Falling Out of Time,” the Israeli writer David Grossman’s harrowingly poetic novel of grief and mourning. It tells the story of an unnamed man who reckons with his son’s death by one day setting out from his home and walking, endlessly, toward an elusive “there” — a place where he may once again glimpse the shadow of his child, of his own past life, of all that has been irreparably torn away. The man is propelled by magical thinking and by ineffable longing. Yet as he prepares to leave, his own wife fears she will lose him to the madness of parental grief. “There is no there!” she protests. He replies, “There will be, if we go there.”
Grossman’s novel was written in the years following his son’s death in 2006, during the Lebanon War. But the book’s deeply poignant meditation on the self-exile of grief and the working through of trauma takes on an enlarged resonance at this very moment, as the US approaches 250,000 deaths from COVID-19. The sheer magnitude of that toll — more than double the number of Americans who have cumulatively died in all armed conflicts since the Second World War — is only part of the trauma. The loss has been further exacerbated by factors that have made it extraordinarily difficult, individually and collectively, to go there.
For the bereaved families, pandemic restrictions have cruelly curtailed the rituals of farewell and of mourning, with hours at hospital bedsides forsaken, nursing homes closed to visitors, funerals “attended” by Zoom. And on a collective level, our national leadership has also refused to go there, refused to acknowledge the pandemic’s severity, refused to take the measures that could have mitigated the loss. Not only have the walkers been denied their path, but they have been told that, collectively, there should be no need to walk at all.
In this wider climate of top-down reality denial, imaginative literature paradoxically becomes a kind of preserve of truth, a sanctuary of the real. And so I recently found myself devouring Grossman’s novel in one sitting, and then savoring its rich store of metaphor. For what does art offer if not a boundless collection of maps for going there? Or if this place cannot be reached, then for angling hearts and minds in its direction, for glimpsing in a fleeting moment, as the author has written, “both the absolute nihility of death and the full abundance of life.”
In the novel, the figure known only as Walking Man begins his journey alone, because “mourning condemns the living to the grimmest solitude.” But soon he is joined by other villagers who have also lost sons and daughters. A cobbler. A net-mender. A midwife. A math teacher. A figure called the Centaur who is half-man, half-desk (also known as a writer). Soon they are walking together in ever-widening circles, conversing with ghosts, hallucinating the past, and refracting their loss through prisms of boundless yearning.
In a somewhat parallel fashion, Grossman’s own novel now seems to have attracted a kindred following from another artist. When the Argentine-born, Boston-based composer Osvaldo Golijov first encountered it, he has explained, the book called to mind his own childhood memories of elderly relatives mourning the deaths of their children. It also evoked the haunting story he once heard of a man who lost a son to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was so riven by grief that, night after night, he would sleep on his son’s grave.
As a composer, Golijov had recently wrestled with years of creative silence. Yet after he read Grossman’s novel, that period came to an end. He knew he needed to go there, with his music.
The result is a deeply moving new score, an adaptation of the novel entitled “Falling Out of Time: A Tone Poem in Voices.” It had been scheduled for live performances this season, but as the halls themselves have now fallen silent, the piece can instead be heard in a beautifully rendered new recording by the Silkroad Ensemble, which commissioned the work.
Golijov’s music is known for both its audacious emotional directness and its genre-bending assemblage of disparate styles. Like his song cycle “Ayre,” the new work glides frictionlessly across classical, folk, pop, and jazz idioms. Its expressive intensity, however, feels more sharply distilled. It’s as if Grossman’s original has been less adapted than boiled down to its essence and then reimagined through an art form with its own uncanny knack for falling in and out of time. Staged across 13 movements, the Walking Man’s journey plays out as a kind of voyage of the soul through jagged sweeps of grief and defiance, memory and yearning.
The vocal soloists sing poetic slivers from Grossman’s text in Hebrew and in English. And the instruments themselves amble, wail, and weep. There are moments of lyrical reflection and concentrated insight but the new work, like Grossman’s original, resists any facile sense of closure. It declines to answer whether there can ultimately be reached, whether memory can ever be fully separated from pain.
And of course, memory’s gaze is not only retrospective. Listening to the new recording and reading Grossman’s novel during the last week, one could be forgiven for allowing their light to fall on this wider moment of dramatic political transition. For the last four years, the country has been led by someone who seemingly abhors vulnerability with every atom of his being. Our next president, by contrast, has himself been laid low by family tragedy and its stamp of humility is unmistakable. He has walked his circles of grief. Perhaps his leadership will now allow the country to finally begin walking its own.
Yet the wisdom in “Falling Out of Time” — whether as novel, tone poem, or parable — may reach beyond itineraries of mourning. Looking ahead to the next administration, some observers have already identified a critical choice that must soon be faced: whether to publicly reckon with the ruptures of the past four years, or to willfully forget them in the name of “moving forward.” These works speak eloquently on behalf of reckoning. To do so, they suggest, to trace a circle on the land, to accompany the walkers in the way that Grossman and Golijov set out to do, does not mean that we merely end up in the same place. In fact, it may be the only way to avoid ending up in the same place. A circle may look identical at its beginning and its ending. The walker does not.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.