Her Body Knows

The different physical and emotional languages of love link the two novellas in David Grossman’s Her Body Knows (Picador, $14.00), a quiet meditation on the connection between internal life and external sensation. First published in Hebrew in 2002 as Baguf Am Mevinah and translated by Jessica Cohen, this latest from Grossman transcends its Israeli locale and moves into the realm of universal questions concerning the darker side of love.

The first novella, “Frenzy,” takes the reader into the mind of Shaul, a Ministry of Education employee who questions his wife’s fidelity. Shaul maintains that Elisheva’s daily swim is actually a cover-up for her secret affair with an immigrant named Paul. Imagining that he has gained entree into Paul’s house, Shaul conducts a sordid voyeuristic relationship with the covert lovers and conjures up aU manner of erotic interactions. During the single night that comprises the duration of the novella, he unloads his darkest suspicions to his sister-inlaw Esti, who has begrudgingly agreed to drive him to Elisheva’s solitary retreat in the Negev. “Sometimes, he told Esti impetuously, when we’re in bed, I think that if only I could take her body to the other room and question it, interrogate it, you know, get it to tell me everything it’s learned there with him . . . .” Despite his seething anger and humiliation, Shaul perversely seems to enjoy his fantasy of their stolen moments together. When he declares to Esti that “it’s an intense life . . . A full life,” he may be describing both the lovers’ existence and his life of incessant, jealous invention.

The title novella, “Her Body Knows,” also takes place over the course of one evening, and also features one character narrating a story to another. Rotem, a writer living in London, returns to Israel to visit her dying mother, Nili, upon whom she has based her latest story. In a gesture that bears serious risks for both women, Rotem decides to read Nili the manuscript. Grossman bounces back and forth between that tale and the present emotionally loaded interactions between mother and daughter. Their relationship has always been fraught; Rotem muses, “She is my mother, the ultimate seer, and yet she’s a complete ignoramus when it comes to me.” In her attempt to imagine the details of a past situation between Nili and a troubled young man, Rotem is desperately searching for some clue to the mystery of her mother, a once vibrant yoga instructor now wracked by pain. Some form of redemption comes when Rotem asks whether her account is at all close to accurate, and Nili responds, “It’s exactly the reality I want to hear.”

Both Shaul and Rotem draw a strange strength from imagining the physical interactions that spawn their respective obsessions. Yet both novellas in Her Body Knows also highlight their stories’ impact upon their captive listeners, Esti and Nili. Grossman lyrically evokes the “intimate grammar” that develops between two people bound to each other by the full spectrum of human emotions though his characters must pay dearly for seeking to inhabit the other’s experience. 

Hannah S. Pressman is a doctoral candidate in modern Hebrew literature at New York University