From Germany to Israel, from the epic to the intimate – the next stage of our Man Booker International Prize longlist journey is certainly very different to the last one. However, there are some similarities. For one thing, this one is also a story of the night, with the central character baring their soul (and more besides) for money. What’s more, we find ourselves in a rather voyeuristic position once again, privy to personal details we’d prefer not to know…
A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman
– Jonathan Cape, translated by Jessica Cohen
What’s it all about?
Avishai Lazar, a retired judge, is contacted by a brief acquaintance from his teens, a boy he knew for a short period of time but had forgotten about until the surprise phone call. Dovaleh Greenstein, or Dov G. as he’s also called, has become a stand-up comedian, and he’s contacting Lazar to ask him to watch his show:
“I want you to look at me,” he spurted. “I want you to see me, really see me, and then afterward tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“What you saw.”
p.29 (Knopf, 2017)
Despite his misgivings, Lazar agrees to the request, and this is where the novel begins, with Dov’s ragged figure lurching onto a stage somewhere in the Israeli provinces.
What follows is a lengthy train-wreck of a performance, with Lazar tempted to leave soon after arriving. Unfortunately, the cunning comedian senses his old friend’s mood and outs him to the audience, cutting off his escape route, leaving the ex-judge with no choice but to sit tight and watch Dov attempt to drag his audience along with him on a journey down memory lane. As he intersperses his personal anecdotes with jokes, Lazar begins to feel for the poor man, and by the end of the night, he understands far more about Greenstein than he did before – as do those in the audience that manage to stay the distance.
A Horse Walks into a Bar is a daring undertaking, the literary equivalent of a stand-up act. For the most part, the novel consists of Dov’s spiel, with the spotlight firmly fixed on the stage, and the reader is there with Lazar at a table, cringing whenever the comedian fixes his gaze on us and sharing the embarrassment whenever someone decides to cut their losses and leave. Occasionally, as the act touches on stories from Dov’s childhood, Lazar is reminded of those times, briefly zoning out to share his own memories with the reader.
While the focus is understandably on the stand-up, there’s also a lot here about Lazar himself. We gradually learn that his retirement wasn’t entirely voluntary, with a connection here to a former partner, Tamara, who is no longer on the scene. Initially, he takes this anger out on Dov, refusing his request out of hand, but he gradually comes to realise that his old friend is hurting more than he knew.
Nevertheless, we always come back to the show, and what a show it is. Dov is undoubtedly an experienced campaigner, with the ability to grab people’s attention and turn hostility into grudging respect, even when the act is bombing:
The room is very quiet again; the air suddenly feels dense. The thought that he might never get up passes, I think, through everyone’s mind. As though each of us feels that somewhere out there, in some distant and capricious courtroom, a coin has been flipped that could come down either way.
How did he do that? I wonder. How, in such a short time, did he manage to turn the audience, even me to some extent, into household members of his soul? And into its hostages? (p.57)
In fact, Dov feeds on the electricity of the audience, energised by both the applause and the abuse. Yet the comedian has an ulterior motive this time, and he uses every last ruse in his bag of tricks to keep as much of the audience as possible with him while he attempts to finish what he came here to do, to tell the story of who he is and how he came to be this way.
The strongest aspect of the novel is the way Grossman balances the tension and comedy, enabling Dov to keep going despite the obvious suffering shown (and that’s just the audience…). We ride the wave up and down, from dirty jokes (which is what most people came for) to self-flagellating and even self-abuse, eventually realising that something very strange is happening:
This is no longer a show. There is something here, and the audience is drawn to it, although anxiously, and apparently people are willing to give up on what they came here for, at least for a few minutes. I try to overcome the paralysis that grips me again. I try to wake myself up, to prepare for what is coming. I have no doubt that it’s coming. (p.77)
This is stand-up as therapy, and surprisingly, we’re not always sure who the patient is. It might be Dov, it could be Lazar, but there’s also an unexpected guest, sitting by herself at a table in the corner, whose presence is enough to throw even the experienced comedian off his game.
A Horse Walks into a Bar is a short novel that lives and dies on the performance of its main character, but there’s more to it than simply the on-stage death of a clown. Like Lazar, we sense that there’s a point to all this, a secret that will be revealed at some point, and that secret is…
…well, I won’t spoil the punchline 😉
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
After reading all that, you might be surprised to hear that I wasn’t a huge fan. I can see that this is a well-constructed novel, and there’s certainly something appealing about watching Dov spiral further into darkness. However, this just wasn’t my kind of book: it took far too long to warm up, and the much-hyped first pages left me cold. In addition, there really needed to be more to the story than what we get. There’s every chance that you’ll get to the end, having enjoyed it, and feel strangely flat as you realise that it was nothing more than a couple of hours of light entertainment…
Will it make the shortlist?
Yes, I think so (again, perhaps a surprising opinion). The fact that it made the shortlist bodes well, and I suspect that it will bear up to a rereading better than some of the other contenders. If you like your literature emotional, and enjoy extended character studies, this might be for you – and it may well be for the judges, too 🙂
With only a few stops left to make, it’s time to return to Europe, where we’ll be spending the rest of our literary holiday. First up, we’ll be visiting Poland and reminiscing about childhood in the company of a young woman growing up in changing times. After a few weeks spent mainly in big cities, we need a change ourselves – let’s take a trip to the countryside 🙂