Happy February! This month, we’re back in business with a novel: David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar. Published in Hebrew in 2014 and translated into English in 2017, the book is one of the few, if not the only, novels where the story takes place over the course of a stand-up comedy act. And while that might sound like the setup for a great comedy, that’s not exactly what it is. Over the course of the book, the onstage comedian tells a deeply upsetting story — though still a comedic story at points, to be fair — in front of a slowly thinning audience. What results is a structurally strange but compelling narrative of grief.
We’ll start with an overview of the book and some discussion questions that we’ll come back to as the month progresses. But first, if you’re not already a member of our Babbel Book Club Facebook group, it’s never too late to join!
A Horse Walks into a Bar starts, like many stand-up acts, with the comedian — Dov Greenstein, known better as Dovaleh G — bounding onto the stage and immediately insulting the host city, which in this case is Netanya. For a reader not familiar with the smaller cities of Israel, this can be a bit disorienting, but Dovaleh launches immediately into the regular rhythms of comedy. He talks to the crowd, jokes about politics (which, as you can imagine, is a tense topic in Israel) and also throws in some old-school jokes (the name of the book is A Horse Walks Into A Bar, after all). When someone from Dovaleh’s past speaks up from the crowd, the act starts veering off the rails. Dovaleh then decides to tell a story from his childhood about the time he found out one of his parents had died. It’s an emotionally wrenching tale, with lots of jokes thrown in for good measure.
The juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy can seem a bit jarring, but it fits in with the story that the book is trying to tell. As Dovaleh becomes increasingly agitated and emotional, the jokes become sparser and sparser, until all that’s left is Dovaleh, forced to confront the life he has lived. It’s enough to make you wonder why someone would want to purge their soul so publicly, but based on his performance, you see he doesn’t really have a choice.
David Grossman was born in Israel in 1954. Born to a mother from Palestine and a father from Poland, Grossman started his career in military intelligence and went on to study philosophy and theater at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He started his writing career in the ‘80s and has written fiction, nonfiction and movies since then. He is also a noted leftist peace activist in Israel, with works like To the End of the Land tackling the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Grossman’s early novels were popular in Israel, but his nonfiction account of the West Bank in 1987 The Yellow Wind put him on the map internationally. He has since written a number of award-winning works, and his latest to be translated into English was A Horse Walks Into A Bar (yes, this book), which won the Man Booker International Prize.
Jessica Cohen was born in England in 1973 but moved with her family to Jerusalem, Israel, when she was a child. Therefore, she learned both Hebrew and English from an early age and started working on translating commercial material in the late ‘90s. Over the past two decades, she’s translated a number of Israel’s most famous writers, including David Grossman, Rutu Modan and Etgar Keret.
Hebrew is a language spoken by almost 9 million people, and almost all of the speakers live in Israel, where it’s the official language. The United States also has a sizable population, however, with an estimated 220,000 fluent speakers. Hebrew descended from the Afro-Asiatic language family and is the only surviving language of the Canaanite group. The earliest version of the language is a Paleo-Hebrew text believed to date back to 3,000 years ago.
Hebrew is most often associated with the Jewish religion, and not just because it’s the language of Israel. While the language was regularly used until about the 5th century CE, it went all but extinct after that. The language survived thanks to religious and literary uses, until it was completely revived in the 19th century when an influx of Jewish immigrants moved to Palestine. Hebrew was brought back as a way to unite the disparate Jews seeking a common identity. While the language spoken today has evolved — it’s not the same as the Hebrew of the Torah, for example — it lives on, and is considered the only successfully revived dead language.
- What did you think of the format of the book? Do you think it would’ve worked if it wasn’t framed as a standup act?
- Were the jokes in the book funny to you? Had you heard any of them before?
- Why do you think Dovaleh started counting how many people walked out?
- It’s not that unusual in the United States to see a comedian who bares their soul and tells jokes at the same time. How do you think this act would have gone on, say, Netflix or YouTube?
- On a language note, have you read any Hebrew literature before? Do you know anything about the history of the language?
- Why do you think it was so important for Dovaleh to be seen by the judge? Why was the story told from the judge’s perspective?
- The crux of the story is young Dov Greenstein thinking about his parent’s death on a bus, and the mental math he does comparing his mother and father. Are his thoughts really as awful as he represents, or are they just part of the taxing ordeal that is the human experience?
Stay tuned for the rest of the month to join discussions about the book and the Hebrew language. Want to learn more about Babbel Book Club? Click here.