Novella a Day in May 2020 #28

A Horse Walks into a Bar – David Grossman (2014, trans. Jessica Cohen 2016) 198 pages

A Horse Walks Into a Bar is a novel about a comedian, but the fact that it won the 2017 Man Booker International Prize (there’s an interesting interview with translator Jessica Cohen on the Asymptote blog) is an indication that it has serious things to say. Its takes place in Israel and so it also forms my last stop this novella month on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. 

Dovaleh Greenstein is a stand-up comic known as Dovaleh G, and the novel follows his set in a Netanya comedy club over two hours, from the point of view of his childhood friend Avishai Lazar, now a retired district court judge in his late 50s who barely remembers Dovaleh.

“From the minute he got on stage he’s been seeking my eyes. But I can’t look straight at him. I dislike the air in here. I dislike the air he breathes.”

Dovaleh G is not a pleasant man. He berates the audience, he insults their town, he has the style of stand-up that mixes old-fashioned jokes with barely concealed aggression.

“I swear to God, standing before you tonight is the first man in history to get post-partum depression. Five times! Actually four, ‘cause two of them were twins. Actually five, if you count the bout of depression after my birth.”

He’s offensive and at various points audience members walk out. They complain he is not giving them what they paid for – a night of laughs. Instead, Dovaleh recounts his childhood memories: living with his mother who was traumatised from the camps, and his father who beat him. He walked on his hands to escape neighbourhood bullies.

Onstage, he verges on being a bully himself. Someone else is in the audience who remembers him as a child: Azulai, a small woman and spirit medium, to whom he is absolutely brutal. Yet his most vehement aggression is reserved for himself:

“Somehow, on the phone, there was something attractive about his offer, and I can’t deny that he does have his moments on stage, too. When he hit himself, there was something there, I’m not sure what, some sort of alluring abyss that opened up. And the guy is no idiot. He never was”

Grossman captures brilliantly that tension that can exist in stand-up where the audience don’t feel entirely safe, and don’t exactly know where their laughter is coming from. He also exploits fully that a lot of comedy is born out of pain. Dovaleh G is not likable, but throughout the course of the novella he does become understandable, and it is possible to feel compassion for him.

The audience (and readers) become witnesses for Dovaleh G; to his life, his trauma and his anger. What humour there is, is very, very dark. There was a riff on Dr Mengele that actually made me wince – I’m not sure I’ve winced at a book before.

A Horse Walks into a Bar is a devastating read but not a destructive one. At the end I felt there was some hope, which given Grossman is a highly political writer has wider significance than the life of Dovaleh G and Avishai Lazar. I’ve not discussed the politics of the novella because I felt I didn’t know enough about Israel and Palestine to do it justice, but if you know about this in more depth then I’m sure A Horse Walks Into a Bar will have an extra resonance for you.

“How, in such a short time, did he manage to turn the audience, even me to some extent, into household members of his soul?