More Than I Love My Life: A Novel

By – August 24, 2021

In his new nov­el, David Grossman’s genius for cap­ti­vat­ing sto­ry­telling is once again on tri­umphant dis­play as he writes as affect­ing­ly about the great themes that have long stirred his imag­i­na­tion — chil­dren cop­ing with trau­ma, lone­li­ness, loss, and restora­tion — as ever. In his hero­ine Vera, a hero­ic anti-Nazi par­ti­san lat­er interred in an infa­mous­ly bru­tal prison when she and her hus­band are false­ly accused of being Stal­in­ists by Tito’s regime, Gross­man ren­ders a pro­tag­o­nist every bit as mem­o­rable as Ora in his epic To the End of the Land. More Than I Love My Life is his most female-cen­tered work to date, and through Vera’s daugh­ter and grand­daugh­ter he brings to life three gen­er­a­tions of com­plex, strong-willed women. Each plays a role in a cru­el cycle of mis­treat­ment and aban­don­ment set in motion by cru­el his­tor­i­cal forces, and each har­bors bit­ter recrim­i­na­tions toward one anoth­er based in the past.

The sto­ry begins in the win­ter of 1963 when as a new Israeli cit­i­zen, Vera, is sent with her unhap­py young daugh­ter, Nina, to a kib­butz where she meets Tuvia, a famed agron­o­mist. Vera’s first hus­band Milosz com­mit­ted sui­cide dur­ing his bru­tal treat­ment and Tuvia’s cher­ished wife died after a long dis­ease that left their young son Rafael des­per­ate for affec­tion. The pair make an uncon­ven­tion­al pact; Vera promis­es that while she will live with Tuvia always as his faith­ful best friend,” her heart would for­ev­er belong to her beloved Milosz. Sur­pris­ing­ly, on those guard­ed terms their domes­tic har­mo­ny lasts for many hap­py years.

Alas, things don’t work out quite so benign­ly for their unhap­py ado­les­cent chil­dren, Rafael and Nina. After her hor­mone-fueled tryst with Rafael, Nina runs away from the kib­butz, a flight that leads her to an unhap­py life of per­pet­u­al wan­der­ing. Dev­as­tat­ed, Rafael nev­er over­comes what he sees as the great love of his life. Rafael and Nina’s daugh­ter Gili, for­ev­er embit­tered that Nina self­ish­ly aban­doned her as a child, strug­gles to make sense of her par­ents’ lives.

Giv­en the mys­te­ri­ous­ly unyield­ing nature of Nina’s heart, it seems almost too much of a nar­ra­tive arti­fice that she dwells on a tiny frozen island in a remote arch­i­pel­ago between Lap­land and the North Pole. Yet some­how, she and the rest of this utter­ly dys­func­tion­al fam­i­ly reunite to under­take a roots jour­ney of sorts to Vera’s birth­place, the sacred places where she and Milosz first fell in love, through the haunt­ed spaces of World War II, and ulti­mate­ly to Goli Otok itself, the Adri­at­ic prison island where Vera near­ly per­ished. Raphael and Nina film their odyssey, des­per­ate­ly yearn­ing to final­ly cleanse our­selves of what’s been pol­lut­ing our fam­i­ly for three god­damn gen­er­a­tions.” What tran­spires is a white-knuck­led ride of emo­tion­al peaks and lows amidst har­row­ing revelations.

As the dra­mat­ic events of the dis­tant past and present con­verge, we feel the con­flict­ed judge­ments of Gili the nar­ra­tor, grap­pling with a past she is pow­er­less to change but sure­ly would if she could. Once again, Jes­si­ca Cohen, who shared the 2017 Man Book­er Inter­na­tion­al Prize with Gross­man, rewards us with a superb trans­la­tion. Read­ers may be intrigued to learn that More Than I Love My Life is based on a true sto­ry. Yet even with­out that knowl­edge, this star­tling and aching­ly ten­der sto­ry grace­ful­ly deliv­ers both his­tor­i­cal and emo­tion­al verisimil­i­tude. This inter­gen­er­a­tional nov­el about shat­tered lives and ideals, impos­si­ble loves, grief, and heal­ing is as mov­ing a sto­ry as one could hope for from Israel’s con­sum­mate nov­el­ist of trau­ma, empa­thy, and the redemp­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties of storytelling.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and edi­tor of the forth­com­ing book Amos Oz: The Lega­cy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.

Discussion Questions

In a nov­el encom­pass­ing three gen­er­a­tions, David Gross­man cre­ates a com­plex and vibrant fam­i­ly dynam­ic cen­tered on Vera, a Jew­ish Yugosla­vian woman, now an Israeli; her daugh­ter Nina; and Nina’s daugh­ter Gili, a film­mak­er and the story’s nar­ra­tor. As with much of Grossman’s writ­ing, the rich­ness of this nar­ra­tive comes not only from the char­ac­ters them­selves but from the times in which they live. Vera, a pas­sion­ate anti-Nazi par­ti­san, was impris­oned by Tito on a remote island, Goli Otok, after World War II. At nine­ty, she feels the need to reveal her life to her fam­i­ly by tak­ing them to vis­it the site of her great­est sor­row. As she unbur­dens her­self, her daugh­ter and grand­daugh­ter begin to gain a bet­ter under­stand­ing of their own lives.

Unfold­ing in an indi­rect man­ner, the nov­el invites the read­er to empathize with each char­ac­ter. Gross­man, always unafraid of large issues, nev­er doubts the inex­tri­ca­ble involve­ment of the per­son­al and the polit­i­cal, and More Than I Love My Life delves into pol­i­tics, fam­i­ly, betray­al, love, loss, and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. It is a beau­ti­ful and dev­as­tat­ing novel.