According to the Bible, creation was an exercise in higher linguistics. “In the beginning was the Word”, writes John, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” But disappointment was quick to establish itself – if we use geological time as our measure. In the 1920s, Alter Esselin, an émigré Yiddish poet long domiciled in America’s midwest, complained – in a poem called “Words” – that the language of exile and even his mother tongue were so devalued by cliché and over-use that they no longer offered access to the deeper emotions, and were certainly incapable of expressing them without recourse to extra-verbal gimmicks: flowers and violins, for instance, should you wish to declare your love. His depressing conclusion? “Dead is every word.” At that time the idea of a flourishing Jewish state in the Middle East with Ivrit (a revitalized Hebrew) as its native tongue still seemed fanciful. But Theodor Herzl’s “Altneuland” is now a fact. Fittingly for a nation that germinated in a work of fiction, Israel has developed a vital literary culture.
In David Grossman’s The Book of Intimate Grammar (1994) the prepubescent hero, Aron Kleinfeld, sets himself the task of disinfecting his vocabulary so that it becomes uniquely his: “certain words, if you know how to pronounce them in a special way, not from the outside but as though you were calling their names, right away they turn to you, they show you their pink penetralia, they purr to you and they’re yours, they’ll do anything you want”. Unfortunately Aron’s own body is not so compliant, and local history completely out of control. The novel ends in 1967 on the eve of the Six Day War, which is when another Grossman novel, To the End of the Land (2010), begins. In the prologue to this book we meet Ora, Ilan and Avram. The narrative then jumps to 2000, by which time Ora is the mother of a serving soldier. Although officially discharged, Ofer has returned voluntarily to his unit to fight in the latest campaign. At which point Ora becomes fearful that her beloved son has made a fatal mistake, and convinces herself that the only way of preserving Ofer’s life is to ensure that she is not at home to hear the dread words of his death delivered. Unlike the poet Esselin, she believes in the continuing power of words, including their capacity to kill.