Saturday, October 04, 2008

an evening with amos oz

Reading a book--especially a memoir--always makes one feel they know the author, so it was a rare pressure to actually meet Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist, at Columbia University last week. "Meet" is perhaps overstating it: I actually got closer to Sarah Palin than I did to Oz, who attracted a sellout crowd many of whom, curiously, spoke the same European-accented Hebrew that his parents spoke in the book ("A Tale of Love and Darkness") about which he was speaking. The lecture was short (45 minutes), the questions (what is your writing routine? which of your books do you like best?) predictably idiotic, and Oz--whom I always thought a sort of enfant terrible--looked every bit of his 69 years. Yet the evening was spellbinding, for reasons that I will develop below.

"A Tale of Love and Darkness" [Sipur al ahava ve'khosekh] is the story of Oz's parents and, implicitly, the birth of the State of Israel as reflected in their experiences. As the title suggests, the story is not a happy one. Oz's mother, Fania Mussman Klausner, killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills in her sister's Tel Aviv apartment in 1952, at the age of 38. His father, Arieh Klausner, was a well-meaning but clumsy intellectual who never quite managed to find an academic job, working instead in the national library and, Oz suggests, seeking the company of other women while his wife wasted away and eventually imploded when their only son was the ripe age of 12 1/2. Oz himself left home, changed his name [Oz means strength in Hebrew] and joined Kibbutz Hulda in the middle 1950s, where he became a famous if controversial writer and one of the leading voices of the Israeli peace movement (he now lives in the desert town of Arad, where your correspondent spent a year in the 1970s, but that's another story).

As Oz put it in his lecture, "Love and Darkness" is a sort of tragicomedy, with the twist that--rather than alternating tragic and comic aspects--it tends to describe the same events as sad and funny at the same time. Perhaps the most famous involves a speech by Menachem Begin, then a right-wing leader and later Prime Minister, that Oz's father took him to about 1950 and which, he says, marked his final break with the Israeli nationalist right. In his speech Begin asserted that the Ben Gurion Government was weak, encouraging the world powers to arm the Arabs; if he were leader, by contrast, "the whole world would be arming us." Unfortunately the classical Hebrew "to arm" [lezayen] is the modern word "to f---" or, more literally, "to penisize" someone, so that Begin appeared to be promising that Israel would either screw or be screwed by the entire world if he ever came to power: a prediction which to a certain extent, came true in the 1970s and 1980s, but which at the time sent the 12-year-old Oz into fits of laughter an ignominious exit, and eventually the Peace Now movement. In a somewhat less jocular vein Oz describes the excitement in Jerusalem on November 29, 1947, when the UN approved the partition plan and thus the existence of Israel, the only time he heard (or felt) his father cry: but even this event is leavened by related passages, as when his father tries futilely to load a rifle, or when Israeli boys use condoms left by British soldiers as inflatable balloons.

The tension between comedy and tragedy, and the interplay between private and public events, give "Love and Darkness" extraordinary power, reminding one of the famous assertion that all unhappy families (and perhaps countries) are unhappy in their own particular way. Neither tension entirely departs, even in the book's bleakest moments. In the final pages Oz confronts the death of his mother, which he has hinted at throughout the book but never fully dealt with. The description is intensely private and bitterly, almost unbearably sad. But even here there is an element of humor, or at least absurdity: her relatives suggest that she wander the streets of Tel Aviv on Friday night to be cheered up by the good looking men there, and the description of her imagined walk (right on Dizengoff, left on Frishman) doubles as a guide, one presumes intentional, of the city and country's growth in this period. Nor is this story devoid of literary allusions, as Oz surely realizes: like the title character in Shosha or Micol in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Fania does not so much die as simply disappear, once the European past to which she was attached no longer exists. It is as if Oz, who became famous as a chronicler of contemporary Israel, is admitting that the country is part of a larger Jewish world, that the themes and tragedies of Europe could not wholly be avoided by changing locales.

In his talk Oz tended to emphasize comedy more than the tragedy, although he did speak of Jews' "unrequited love" for Europe as a theme of the book. A good part of the time was devoted to his Grandma Shlomit who, he said, is the only person in history to die of cleanliness (she believed the Middle East to be full of germs and eventually collapsed in the bathtub). In a similar vein he spoke of the postman in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kerem Avraham, who would attach unrequested notes (take in your laundry, can't you see you are spoiling your children) to the letters he delivered on his route. He suggested that the author's role--recounting stories but embellishing or reinventing them on the way--was similar to the postman's, or as Oz put it, that "[unadorned] facts are sometimes the enemy of the truth."

Had there been more time, or had I been more important, I would have liked to ask Oz some more challenging questions, regarding the impact of Zionism on his writing (he takes a universalist stance but his father, like Gabriel in A.B. Yehoshua's "The Lover," seems an exaggerated stereotype of the Galut [Disaspora] Jew); his attitude toward women (he proclaims their superiority, sexually and otherwise, to men, but in a way that reduces them to an oddly passive role); and the broader question of national literatures in the modern world. (Oz was heavily influenced by Sherwood Anderson and Yehoshua by William Faulkner: in what sense, then, are they "Israeli" or "Jewish" writers, and is it even meaningful to speak in these terms?) For now it was privilege enough to be in the same room with one of the "g'dolei ha'am", the great ones of his people or generation: a term his parents would have understood all too well, even if they did not live to see it.


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