Todd Hasak-Lowy on Dror Burstein

Perhaps the most surprising moment in David Grossman's ambitious and widely read 2008 novel, To the End of the Land, comes at the very end, in its final line. Here it is, along with the rest of the paragraph that precedes it:

Then Ora detaches her body from his and lies down on her side on the rock ledge. She pulls her knees into her stomach and rests her cheek on her open palm. Her eyes are open yet she sees nothing. Avram sits beside her, his fingers hovering over her body, barely touching. A light breeze fills the air with the scents of za'atar and poterium and a sweet whiff of honeysuckle. Beneath her body are the cool stone and the whole mountain, enormous and solid and infinite. She thinks: how thin is the crust of Earth.
I find this novel's final moment perfectly arresting, since here—after 576 richly detailed pages, pages that present the reader with a nearly exhaustive portrait of its main characters in their social and historical context—Grossman offers us a radically new vantage point from which to consider his fictional world. With this final gesture, the narrator does nothing more and nothing less than present Ora in her geological context. By emphasizing, of all things, the thinness of the Earth's crust, Grossman rotates the narrative's orientation ninety degrees. In other words, the novel's final note draws our attention to the Earth's vertical axis, though it does this precisely by mentioning its uppermost layer, the crust. This is the horizontal axis along which Ora desperately escapes and across which her husband Ilan bravely marches during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and on which her lover Avram (and the rest of the characters—including, possibly, the dead ones) remain tragically stuck.

Covering forty years, Grossman's To the End of the Land is exactly the kind of wide-canvas historical novel that modern Hebrew literature (like virtually all modern national literatures) has aspired to for over a century, but has rarely realized. Grossman meticulously situates the lives of his characters within Israeli history since 1967, masterfully blending the macro (the political, the historical, and the social) with the micro (the familial, the personal, and the psychological) in the process. And, of course, such comprehensive blending of these two extremes is something that virtually all great novelists—Dickens, Tolstoy, Joyce, Faulkner—have in common.

For this reason—and despite all its interest in erets in its many, many senses—Grossman's novel has done little to prepare his reader for this final moment. Ora is suddenly dwarfed by the vastness of planet Earth, and with our perspective radically altered the entire human drama—including the Israeli one—is rendered rather trivial in the scheme of things. Here Grossman both escalates the novel's escapist thrust (to hell with the surface of the Earth, along with all the people on it) and compels us to view his whole massive narrative as somehow miniscule as well. In other words, this conclusion is arguably a subtle admission of a fundamental absurdity informing the supposedly epic terms of this novel as a whole, an especially remarkable move in a work that would seem to embody the greatest aspirations of national literature.

But what if, as Grossman intimates here, the two poles of Israeli life (the historical and personal) don't actually represent the true edges of anything? In particular, what if the macro of modern Israeli history (and modern Middle Eastern geography) isn't so macro after all? What would happen if a writer stretched the macro all the way out to the spatial and temporal limits of the universe in its entirety? Could such a macro be blended with literature's standard micro? And what would happen if this writer didn't wait until the final line of his book to destabilize the conventional dimensions of national culture, but instead opened with this gesture and then sustained it for two hundred pages? Dror Burstein's Netanya is an effort to confront questions like these, and the results are unlike anything I have ever read.

, which probably contains too much explicit autobiography to be called a novel, opens with an epiphany: Burstein has been reading, "with an amazement that turned, on occasion, into awe," Rare Earth, by the American scientists Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee. Briefly, Rare Earth argues that though simple life may be quite common throughout the universe, an improbably vast set of astrophysical and geological events and conditions are necessary for the type of complex life that exists here on Earth. Lying down on a street bench near his home in Tel Aviv, Burstein states his epiphany:

How flimsy our existence is, how many conditions must exist and must continue to exist over the course of millions of years so that a single flower or a single pencil or a single book might exist...For a moment I felt like a string being strummed by thousands of fingers, and I closed my eyes. Our existence on this planet hangs by a thread, every tomato and every onion is such an enormous miracle you could collapse with awe in a vegetable market.
is Burstein's effort to recreate the night he spent on this bench, which, not surprisingly, includes extensive reflections on the "rare Earth" hypothesis and a host of related scientific works. Indeed, like much of Hebrew literature, Netanya is positioned within a thick intertextual web, but here Burstein conducts a dialogue not with Hebrew novels such as Brenner's Breakdown and Bereavement, Shamir's He Walked Through the Fields, or Shabtai's Past Continuous, but rather with scientific studies such as Life as We Do Not Know It, The Chilling Stars, and The Call Of Distant Mammoths.

And yet Netanya is much more than an Israeli writer's reflection on this collection of decidedly thought-provoking research. All this represents only Netanya's macro extreme, but there is a micro as well. Burstein introduces his version of the micro by recalling, early on, that he studied astronomy and built a telescope at the age of fourteen. Netanya thus opens up into a memoir, one that will alternate with, reflect on, and be read against Burstein's commentaries on the aforementioned science. One of the great pleasures of reading Burstein's book is following the author as he cleverly and regularly shuttles between these two vastly distinct extremes, between the cosmic and the human.

Burstein employs a number of strategies to facilitate this shuttling, some more obvious than others. In addition to the episodes in his biography that find him as an amateur astronomer, there are moments of coincidence, such as the fact that his grandfather reached an Immigrant Center in Palestine on the same date (but not the same year) that rays from an exploded magnetar (a giant star) reached Earth: August 27th. But the dialogue between the human and the cosmic grows most interesting in Netanya when their relationship becomes metaphorical. For instance, Burstein writes about a third of the way through the book:

All of these, my uncle's death, the boy's murder, my grandfather's watches, they are planets in my solar system or in what I could call my universe, which is in fact every person's universe, just as the universe of each person is my universe as well, just as the sun is part of the solar system but by the very same measure is part of a galaxy and a cluster of galaxies and the universe. I was not at the center of these things, but they had exerted their pulls on me just as I certainly had exerted mine on them.
This metaphorical language resonates strongly with the reader for a couple of reasons. First, after already spending over fifty pages steeping in the profundity of the planets, the stars, and the whole universe, the reader has been primed by Burstein himself to decode this kind of figurative language as particularly, perhaps uniquely, meaningful. Second, and more important, the reader can't help but suspect, and ultimately conclude, that much of the figurative language isn't in fact figurative at all.

What Burstein is advancing here—and this is one of the book's central themes—is not just, as the cliché goes, that everything is connected, but that every thing is absolutely part of every other thing. The first appearance of "universe" in this passage functions within an extended metaphor, but by its fourth mention "universe" has become the actual, literal universe, of which Burstein suggests he is an integral part. In other words, Burstein, while reconstructing his childhood and his night on the bench, consistently strives to position them within the largest conceivable contexts: the history of the Earth and the universe as a whole. For this reason, when Burstein writes, "I closed my eyes, raised my hands, and felt Jupiter's gravity pull at my fingernails and lengthen them," he's not merely being playful, that is, if he's being playful at all.

And while Burstein makes these kind of far-reaching, nearly counterintuitive claims again and again, there is also something matter-of-fact about his presentation. As he writes elsewhere, "This book is written by a living man with the help of many dead, and this proclamation is perfectly obvious, I think, and not the least bit mystical." Though it may not be mystical, this book has an unmistakably spiritual undercurrent. Burstein grew up in a religious Jewish home, and though he would now be described—in Israeli terms—as secular, there's no question that the kind of transcendent thinking associated with religion remains evident throughout Netanya. Only now it appears to be of a decidedly eastern variety. Burstein quotes the Vietnamese Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, for three straight pages here, presenting Hanh's claim that on the largest scale there are no such things as birth and death, but only manifestations of continuity.

This combination of the profound and the direct is Burstein's expression of another Zen term, tathata, sometimes translated as "suchness." As Alan Watts writes:

The Sanskrit word tat (our "that") is probably based on a child's first efforts at speech, when it points at something and says, "Ta" or "Da."...Tathata therefore indicates the world just as it is, unscreened and undivided by the symbols and definitions of thought. It points to the concrete and the actual as distinct from the abstract and conceptual. A Buddha is a Tathagata, a "thus-goes," because he is awakened to the primary, nonconceptual world...
opens with Burstein's suddenly unmediated recognition of the unlikely and unmistakable reality of all life, and by exten­sion, existence. The suchness of truly everything. Though this might seem to be an abstraction, it isn't at all, since for the dura­tion of the book Burstein remains facing the night sky and the universe beyond it as things absolutely present and concrete. He is, in a sense, pointing at all of this. As Watts notes, "When we say just 'That' or 'Thus,' we are pointing to the realm of the nonverbal experience, to reality as we perceive it directly, for we are trying to indicate what we see or feel rather than what we think or say." In other words, Burstein's epiphany can be understood as the experi­ence of simply feeling this invisible, boundless abstraction trans­form into a physical, palpable actuality. I read Netanya in large part as his ambitious effort to articulate this universal, transcen­dent suchness in such a way as to render it perfectly ordinary (in part by integrating it with the conventionally quotidian)—to, in other words, demystify what is so often confused with mysticism.

And yet it is precisely the combination of this all-embracing, cosmic suchness with the details of Burstein's biography and family history that give the latter their force. In regards to the macro, Netanya is front-loaded. The reader encounters fewer and fewer references to science as the book progresses; but these later, comparatively more familiar pages are no less powerful than what came before. Some of this effect, of course, has to do with the atypically vast context in which his personal and familial past have been situated. But much of the force of these sections has to do with Burstein's skill as a writer in more traditional senses. Burstein's approach to memory, his project of reconstructing his family's participation in the drama of Zionism and Israel, are both terribly poignant. In this regard, his contribution to the trend of the memoir in Hebrew literature should be read as an intervention as well.

The best-known Hebrew memoir by far is Amos Oz's 2002 A Tale of Love and Darkness, widely considered one of modern Hebrew literature's greatest achievements. This work's status may be explained in part by the fact that Oz's sweeping memoir reasserts a decidedly epic Zionist and Israeli narrative. Oz is able to construct this kind of story by virtue of the way his biography intersects with national history. Born in 1939, Oz witnessed the declaration of Israeli independence, lived on a kibbutz, and achieved literary renown in the second half of the 1960s. In other words, his personal story overlaps with the realization of Zionism and the growth—and later expansion—of the state itself. However critical it is at times, Oz presents his readers with an Israel they have come to expect (and quite possibly now long for).

Burstein, by contrast, was born two literary generations later. Though the reconstruction of his family history includes numerous recognizable and even quintessential moments from the Zionist and Israeli story (immigration to Palestine, fighting in its wars, etc.), the overall effect is radically different than that produced by A Tale of Love and Darkness. Burstein's work is fragmented and achronological, there is barely a narrative here at all, but rather, as Burstein himself calls them, a series of "sketches." But more than this is the fact that Burstein's childhood, instead of being surrounded by birth and growth, is informed by decay, death, and a single instance of decades-long mourning.

The central space of Burstein's childhood is the family-run hotel, which devolves into a ruin before his very eyes. The family's dominant encounter with key dates in the national narrative comes in the form of his uncle's death in 1973. In what might be called a thoroughly post-Zionist gesture, Burstein never once weighs in on the political implications of this death or this war, at least not in recognizable terms. The closest he comes to commentary—once again expanding the scope of his prose—is to view war as a manifestation of the human "extinction impulse." In lieu of politics, Burstein recounts, again and again, the way this death left a lasting mark on his grandfather, Zvi Burstein, who entered his "ice age in October 1973."

Indeed, Burstein's grandfather is—along with Burstein himself—this book's true protagonist, and one of the more memorable characters (fictional or not) I've come across in Hebrew literature in some time. A central presence throughout Burstein's childhood—he appears here much more than either of Dror's own parents—this grandfather infuses the memoir with a tender, haunting melancholy. The younger Burstein is raised in (and perhaps raised by) the loving shadow of his grandfather's steady mourning and slow decline, though the tragedy of the former and the sorrow in the latter are rarely, if ever, named directly. In other words, Burstein never exploits his grandfather's situation in order to manipulate the reader emotionally. His grandfather was simply a looming feature of his childhood landscape, a diminished but still lofty suchness in the larger suchness of Burstein's fragmented past.

The great interpretive challenge of Netanya is deciding quite how to reconcile Burstein's extreme oscillation between the cosmic and the human. How are we to view this more familiar family history against the boundless backdrop erected by the book's astronomical opening? What is the meaning of Burstein's childhood and family history in the face of the Rare Earth hypothesis, and, for that matter, vice versa? One of the great pleasures of Netanya is sitting with this arguably unanswerable question, of simply being compelled to try and produce a response. What is certain is that the contrast between the two extremes is only heightened by the fact that Burstein presents the cosmic with grateful wonder, whereas he reconstructs his biography with sober melancholy. Burstein's extended experiment here makes the reading of Netanya an encounter with a very existential defamiliarization, of suddenly seeing everything—yes, everything—in a wholly new light. The success of this defamiliarization can be measured by the way Burstein destabilizes the meaning of the book's final word. The novel concludes with Burstein standing up from the bench as morning begins. After a brief spell of dizziness, he walks to his car, unlocks it, and sits down inside. Here are the last two sentences: "I saw that I was holding my car's steering wheel. All of sudden—reality." It's hard to know exactly what Burstein intends to suggest with this last word, but what is clear is the word can't possibly mean for the reader quite what it meant before opening Netanya.