David Grossman’s Latest Novel Examines Love and War
More Than I Love My Life
By David Grossman
Translated by Jessica Cohen (Knopf)
David Grossman’s latest novel, More Than I Love My Life, has been described as a story of three strong women. This is accurate. But Grossman, one of Israel’s most acclaimed writers, uses the stories of these women as a springboard to touch on many themes: love and abandonment; memory, secrets and blame; class warfare; Israeli kibbutz life; and the politics of postwar Yugoslavia under the iron rule of Communist leader Josip Broz Tito. Grossman packs all this into almost 300 pages of powerful prose, ably translated by Jessica Cohen, who shared the 2017 Man Booker International Prize with him for A Horse Walks Into a Bar.
The novel’s main protagonist is Vera, now age 90. She arrived in Israel with her daughter, Nina, from Yugoslavia in the 1960s, after serving three years in one of Tito’s harshest political prisons on the island of Goli Otok. Nina was a teenager when Vera brought her to Israel to live on a kibbutz. It is Nina’s daughter, Gili, who narrates their stories 40 years after Vera made aliyah.
Grossman weaves three men into his story, too. Tuvia, a widower and kibbutznik, falls for Vera and marries her. Rafael, Tuvia’s son, falls in love with Nina and fathers Gili. Then there is the mysterious Milosz, Vera’s first husband and Nina’s father, who died in Yugoslavia. Even after years of marriage to Tuvia, Vera speaks of Milosz as the “husband I loved more than my life”—the source of the novel’s title.
Rafael and Gili are both filmmakers. Citing an expedition to create a documentary as an excuse, they bring Vera and Nina back to Croatia (part of the former Yugoslavia) and the abandoned Goli Otok to learn the secrets of Vera’s past while attempting to heal family wounds. Amid the ruins of the island prison, elderly Vera confronts questions about her past: Did she have a choice when she left 6-year-old Nina for incarceration? Why did Nina reenact that abandonment with her own child? And will Gili leave her longtime partner because of his desire for children? Are these women capable of mothering, or have they been permanently scarred by their history of abandonment?
In the author’s acknowledgements, Grossman reveals that the character of Vera is based on his friend Eva Pani´c Nahir, a Yugoslavian World War II partisan and postwar political prisoner. Eva and her daughter gave him “the freedom to tell [their] story but also to imagine it and invent it in ways it never existed.” With this permission, Grossman steps outside Israel, his usual novelistic focus, to give us a universal examination of the brutal legacies of love and war.
Elizabeth Edelglass is a fiction writer, poet and book reviewer living in Connecticut.