Amos Oz Essay - Amos Oz World Literature Analysis

Amos Klausner

Amos Oz World Literature Analysis

In his novels and other fiction, Amos Oz has worked out the experiences of his own life and the lives of his family and the Jewish community that came to Israel to create a Jewish state. His fiction about the current world contains echoes from generations past. He has also sought to find room for many Hebrew literary influences. Among the leading influences from his childhood, and especially through his mother, are Russian authors like Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevski, and Anton Chekhov. In addition, however, he has also managed to find room for the adventure stories of which his mother was fond, such as the novels of Jules Verne. Captain Nemo and Michael Strogoff, characters from Verne novels, also play a role in the imaginations of the characters in Oz’s work.

Oz has tried to describe the atmosphere of the Palestine and Israel that he knows. In Panter ba-martef (1994; Panther in the Basement, 1997), he captures the sense of being an adolescent in the last days of the British Mandate and the political uncertainties of that time. Other novels that describe families living through the years of Israeli independence do not paint a rosy picture of the country, even though the government has changed from British supervision to a Jewish state. If anything, Oz’s characters are readier to complain about the state of things when their coreligionists are running the country than they were when they could not expect much from a British administration.

Oz portrays Israel and Israeli society as a family writ large. His experiences with his father’s family and his mother’s isolation from contemporary events shaped his later life, and his mother’s suicide introduced an element of irrationality into his world. As a result, the female characters in Oz’s novels often play a disruptive role, picking up the lives of those around them and shaking them until they arrive at a new configuration. In particular, Ilana, the central figure of Kufsah shehorah (1987; Black Box, 1988), seems continually able to disrupt the lives of her first and second husbands, as well as her son, while the men in that novel seem able to reach an understanding with one another. Critics have sometimes criticized this attitude as misogynistic, but the female characters in Oz’s fiction do not always leave a shattered world behind them.

Another element in Oz’s fiction is the role played by the Arab characters, a group given special scrutiny because of Oz’s political activity. While he has stood firm in his conviction for the need to compromise with the Arab population on the political scene, in his novels Arab characters often take on roles that are defined in the imaginations of the Jewish characters with whom they interact. In My Michael, for example, the narrator recalls the Arab boys with whom she spent her childhood with affection, but their role becomes increasingly threatening as the story proceeds. This may be an expression of the difficulty Oz felt in separating himself from the Arab friends of his childhood as political issues drove them apart.

Within Oz’s fiction dwells the city of Jerusalem, where his early experiences in walking with his parents enabled him to appreciate the subtle differences between one neighborhood and another. There were the secular neighborhoods, the religious neighborhoods, the socialist neighborhoods, and the nationalist neighborhoods, and then there were the neighborhoods in which the non-Jewish population was ensconced. One of the reasons that Oz left his family as a teenager in order to live on a kibbutz was to live the Zionist dream of casting off the recollections of Eastern Europe and making their new country fruitful. His characters from the kibbutzim have the same problems as those who come from more traditional backgrounds.

The desert also plays a role in Oz’s fiction. While the desert may seem threatening by virtue of its proximity to Arab territory, it is also a source of liberation from the constraints of the streets of Jerusalem. It is not surprising that he chose to live far from Jerusalem and close to the desert.

My Michael

First published: Mikha’el sheli, 1968 (English translation, 1972)

Type of work: Novel

The narrator, a young Israeli woman of great imagination, marries a scientist and drifts away from him into the world of her own imagination.

My Michael was the first of Oz’s novels to enjoy wide sales in the original Hebrew-language edition and his first novel to be translated into English. The narrator of the book is often seen as a fictionalized version of Oz’s mother, although the novel does not conclude with the narrator’s death. Instead, the novel ends with the narrator’s descent into a world of her own, where the visions that she described earlier take on an apocalyptic character. There is an air of destruction in the closing pages that is reminiscent of Moby Dick (1851), one of the novels that influenced Oz.

From the beginning of the book, there is a sense that the narrator and her husband, the Michael of the title, are mismatched. The warmth of their relationship is tepid, at best, and the wife maintains a sense of distance from her husband and from the subjects in which he is interested. The fact that he is a geologist, while she is a student of the humanities, serves as an excuse for her to ignore his scholarly work. When she eventually pays a visit to the university where he works, there is a sense on both of their parts that this is a merely a gesture of politeness.

Politeness is not something the narrator values in the dream world in which she comes increasingly to reside. In that world, she sees herself as a queen, with servants like Michael Strogoff from Jules Verne’s novel of that name and with foes out to destroy the realm over which she rules. She remembers an illness during her childhood when she was...

(The entire section is 2445 words.)