By Eileen Ramos
David Grossman’s novel Be My Knife is as evocative and strange as its title. As translated from the original Hebrew by Vered Almog and Maya Gurantz, this is an epistolary novel that functions in a weird way. Instead of having all of the replies come one after another in the normal fashion, you have two separate sections, Yair’s letters and Miriam’s diary, with no interlacing of responses. And the third section Rain which features both of the protagonists’ thoughts and actions as they talk on the phone for the very first time. Set in Jerusalem, Yair is a used and rare bookseller who was at a class reunion when he catches a glimpse of Miriam and decides to start writing to Miriam, a teacher.
There starts Yair’s very revealing and introspective letters to Miriam, all of which are eerie and beautiful. After fantasizing about a nude mob of people running around town, he writes of how it will be between him and Miriam:
“But in the meantime, where were we, what are all my noble thoughts worth, in the meantime the entire world is dressed and armored and there is only us, hugging and wet and shivering from the cold, or from whatever makes you shiver. And my eyes were in your eyes, and the true weight of a woman’s body was in my body, an alien soul fluttered freely in my soul, and I didn’t contract and spit it out like a pit stuck in my throat; on the contrary, I inhaled, breathed her into me more and more, and she enfolded my body within herself, and I understood the beautiful expression ‘the creatures of my torso’ for the first time…” (pages 38-39)
Be My Knife is a very dense but thankfully rewarding read as you see how enraptured Yair becomes with his correspondent. He even creates a dialogue with his own version of Miriam in his letters using italics: “Yair? Yair, wake up, it’s me… Yair don’t fall asleep again… This is how I keep myself awake, saying my name with your mouth, in your tune— and each time my heart beats to my name in your mouth” (page 173). His actions are as fanciful as his prose, for example taping all of Miriam’s letters on the walls of his hotel room. Their wondrous words don’t match what I thought two middle-aged and married people would express in letter writing. Very little of their correspondence is sexual but it passion is imbued within the pages.
Miriam’s writing is more grounded but just as lovely to read. Here she examines her shortcomings fully:
“So what if I’m heavy? You’d promise to hold me. Yair, I never dared the way I dared with you. I never allowed myself such license, internal license, I mean, with no boundaries; and you know I have the most generous partner in the world, a man who tells me in countless ways, Just be you, yourself. Anything you like, Miriam, as long as you are you, yourself. But I never dared, not all the way, not to the places beyond my strength, and surely not the way I now know I want to feel. Perhaps I can’t really reach that place by myself with only my own strength to see it through.“ (page 239)
There’s not much plot or action, and it can be quite confusing, but I chose to stay in the pages for its unrestrained and elegant eloquence. Yair and Miriam are fascinating reads that will make you want to know more and more about their worlds. Obscure passages abound, but the graceful words make up for confusion. Be My Knife is a wonderful exploration for the lover of language.