THE BOOK OF INTIMATE GRAMMAR, Israeli writer David Grossman’s third novel, traces the stalled life of Aron Kleinfeld from ages eleven to fifteen. Unlike his friends, Aron fails to grow and eventually comes to recoil from the very thing he longs for most, preferring the purity and relative safety of his prepubescent prison to the ravages he discerns in the physical and emotional lives of his parents and grandmother. Nineteen years earlier, Aron’s mother, an orphan, escaped a spinster’s fate by marrying Aron’s father, then recently escaped from a Russian prison camp, who in turn now finds a momentary release when an attractive neighbor hires him to demolish first one of her apartment walls, then another and another in a fantastic as well as comic but finally doomed courtship of lyrical destruction, a frenzy of hammer blows, plaster dust, and piled rubble. Observing all but having no one to whom to tell his tale, Aron learns “from the pangs in his heart and the coded communications, the idiom of his most intimate grammar.”
The richness of Aron’s deeply felt and increasingly compacted inner-life is reflected in the lyrical intensity of Grossman’s James Joyce-inspired prose and finds its inverse measure in the hollowness of the all too predictable words Aron writes his soldier-sister on the eve of the Six-Day War in 1967: “Keep your morale up, the nation is behind you.” As Israel prepares for its own coming of age, Aron retreats further from his family, closing himself in an abandoned refrigerator from which, like his hero Houdini, he hopes to make his greatest escape. What the novel never makes clear is whether this will be an escape from his child’s body or, as the allusion to Gunter Grass’s THE TIN DRUM (1959) suggests, from the madness of an adult world of war and thwarted dreams, a world in which the victory that will prove Israel’s prowess and provide a zone of safety, the Occupied Territory, will soon transmogrify into the moral and political nightmare from which Israel and its neighbors are even now still trying to awake.