Study Guide

Amos Oz

by Amos Klausner

Amos Oz Essay - Oz, Amos

Oz, Amos

Introduction

Amos Oz 1939–-

(Born Amos Klausner) Israeli novella and short story writer, novelist, biographer, and essayist.

The following entry provides criticism on Oz's short fiction from 1978 to 2001.

Amos Oz is among the most critically acclaimed and widely popular Israeli fiction writers to emerge in the late twentieth century. His short fiction grapples with dilemmas concerning modern Israeli politics and ancient biblical doctrine. Oz's stories, which contain strong elements of realism, often have allegorical or fantastic qualities as well.

Biographical Information

Oz was born on May 4, 1939, in Jerusalem, Israel, with the given name Amos Klausner. He served in the Israeli Army from 1957 to 1960, and fought as a reserve soldier in the Six Day War of 1967, as well as the Yom Kippur War of 1970. Oz graduated with a B.A. from Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1963, and earned a master's degree from St. Cross College in Oxford, England, in 1970. He taught literature and philosophy at Hulda High School in Israel from 1963 to 1986. Since 1986 he has been a professor at Ben Gurion University Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel. He served as a visiting professor or writer-in-residence at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Colorado College, University of California at Berkeley, Boston University, and Princeton University. Oz's experiences living on the kibbutz have informed much of his fiction, in which the microcosm of Jewish community often serves as an analogy for the Israeli nation. Oz, who is a member of Peace Now, is outspoken about his political opinions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His several volumes of essays address the many nuances of Israel's relationship with the Arab populations of the Middle East.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Oz’s short stories and novellas are often allegories for the problems facing modern Israel. His first collection, Artzot ha’ tan (1965; Where the Jackals Howl, and Other Stories), utilizes the image of the jackal to symbolize the hostility and danger Israel faces from its neighbors and from internal dissension. In “Before His Time” a man engages in struggle with the jackals that threaten the borders of the kibbutz. In the end, the jackals win out over the man, as they eat the flesh from the corpse of his son, who has died in military combat. Other stories in Where the Jackals Howl, and Other Stories address internal conflicts with the kibbutz community, particularly the tensions between the needs of the individual and the idealistic vision of communal life. In “A Crack Open to the Wind,” a man living on a kibbutz finds that a crack has opened in the wall of his room, but his efforts to enlist the bureaucratic authorities of the kibbutz to repair the crack fail. After befriending a wild jackal, he is inspired to fix the crack on his own.

Oz’s novellas address broader national and historical subject matter and combine realism with allegorical qualities. In Late Love (1971), a Jewish man on a lecture tour of Israeli kibbutzim becomes obsessed with the potential threat of the Soviet Union to the survival of the Jews. He ultimately descends into a delusional paranoia in which he fantasizes about a massive Jewish retaliation against both Russians and Nazis. The three novellas included in Har he’etza ha’raah (1976; The Hill of Evil Counsel) are set in the final days of the British Mandate in Palestine during the years 1946-47. All three novellas feature young boys who harbor a passionate sense of Hebrew nationalism. In the title novella The Hill of Evil Counsel, a married Polish-Jewish woman meets a British army officer at a house party at the residence of the high commissioner, located where British governmental forces in Jerusalem were housed. The woman, Ruth, runs off with the British soldier; in the process she abandons not only her husband but also her son, who is subsequently molested by his neighbors. Two central themes in Oz’s fiction—modern Israeli politics and ancient Biblical doctrine—are addressed in Panter ba-martel (1995; Panther in the Basement). In this novella, the young protagonist grapples with his stance toward both Judaism and Israeli nationalism.

Critical Reception

Oz is recognized as one of the most important Israeli writers of his generation. His representation of the complexities of life on the kibbutz and the conflicts inherent in Israeli politics have earned him widespread praise. Commentators also commend his attempts to evaluate the significance of ancient religious doctrine to modern Israel and his exploration of such universal themes as man’s relationship with nature, the flesh versus spirit, the struggle between the individual and the collective, the struggle for survival, and the conscious versus the unconscious. While many critics have offered the highest praise for Oz’s short fiction, some feminist critics find his representations of women to be stereotypical and misogynist. He has received many awards for his work, including the Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur (France) in 1997 and the 1998 Israel Prize for Literature.

Principal Works

Artzot ha’ tan [Where the Jackals Howl, and Other Stories] 1965

*Ad mavet [Unto Death] (novellas) 1971

Anashim acherim [Different People] 1974

Har he’etza ha’raah [The Hill of Evil Counsel] (novellas) 1976

Panter ba-martel [Panther in the Basement] (novella) 1995

Makom acher [Elsewhere, Perhaps] (novel) 1966

Michael sheli [My Michael] (novel) 1968

Laga’at ba’mayim, laga’at ba’ruach [Touch the Water, Touch the Wind] (novel) 1973

Soumchi [Soumchi] (juvenile) 1978

Be’ or ha’tchelet he’azah [Under This Blazing Light: Essays] (essays) 1979

Menucha nechonah [A Perfect Peace] (novel) 1982

Po ve’sham b’eretz Yisra’el bistav 1982 [In the Land of Israel] (nonfiction) 1983

Kufsah she’horah [Black Box] (novel) 1987

Mi-mordot ha’Levanon [The Slopes of Lebanon] (essays) 1987

La-da at ishah [To Know a Woman] (novel) 1989

Ha-Matsav ha-Selishi [The Third Condition] (novel) 1991

Fima (novel) 1993

Shetikat ha-shamayim: Agnon mishtomem al Elohim [The Silence of Heaven: Agnon's Fear of God] (biography) 1993

Al Tagidu Layla [Don't Call It Night] (novel) 1994

Israel, Palestine, and Peace: Essays (essays) 1995

Mathilim sipur [The Story Begins: Essays on Literature] (essays) 1996

Oto ha-yam [The Same Sea] (novel) 1999

*Comprised of the novellas Crusade and Late Love.

†Comprised of the novellas Har he’etza ha’raah [The Hill of Evil Counsel], Adon Levi [Mr. Levi], and Gaaguim [Longing].

Criticism

Leon I. Yudkin (essay date autumn 1978)

SOURCE: Yudkin, Leon I. “The Jackal and the Other Place—The Stories of Amos Oz.” Journal of Semitic Studies 23, no. 2 (autumn 1978): 330-42.

[In the following essay, Yudkin provides an overview of Oz's short fiction, focusing on his characteristic concerns, stylistic techniques, and recurring imagery.]

I

Since the mid-sixties, Amos Oz (b. 1939) has been in the forefront of Israeli fiction, both in popular regard and in critical attention. He has produced a succession of stories, novellas and novels1 that have struck chords deep in the Israeli readership and, through the medium of translation, abroad, where he has won perhaps more notice than any other Israeli novelist. Each work is striking in incident, character, plot and viewpoint, though, as we shall see, there have been changes of course over the years of the œuvre. Psychological insight has been combined with dramatic tension and narrative sophistication to create a disconcerting resonance. The mood if often extreme, some might think wayward, the incidents often unhappy or cruel, some might think sadistic, the psychological terminology regular, some might think monotonous or limited. But there is a subtlety of effect in the depiction of the human condition that always suggests disturbing, normally unsuspected layers of construction in the specifically Israeli condition too. The cliché of Israeli society is not left unchallenged, as its pathology is exposed to the exploratory probing of a restless pen.

In a recent interview given to the Israeli newspaper Maariv (30 December 1977), Amos Oz was invited to speculate on the possibility of a Middle East peace in the wake of the Sadat initiative. If there should be peace for Israel, how would this affect the literature of the country? Oz both answers the question by suggesting that the writer might revert to his normal concern, and he also asserts the constant centrality of the negative in a writer's work. There is always something going wrong, whatever the larger political reality: “Children will not understand their parents well, parents won't understand their children. Brothers and sisters will sometimes fight, men and women won't get on particularly well even if there is peace. And as for the weak people, the little men, the sufferers and the afflicted—literature will treat of them. Perhaps there will also be a literature dealing with heroes, but that's hard for me to believe.” Literature, avers the writer, has a tendency to treat the negative. That is where its strength seems to be located: “A story about despair can be finer than despair itself, a poem about death less painful than death.” The observed corollary is that literature does not seem to excel in description of the magnificent or the successful. In such instances, the thing described is always finer in reality, and literature falls short of its model. Literature, then, seems to be the cathartic transformer of the negative into something worthwhile in its own right, an art work.

II

It is from the base of this description of literature's function that we can begin to delineate the contour's of Oz's writing. We, of course, do not have to accept his characterisation as a universal truth holding good for all work, in order to see how it works for him. The question posed to him as an Israeli writer who has grown up in a political and social condition of siege, and whose work noticeably (in view of the critics) bears that scar and image, is—if the external condition of siege is lifted, will this not necessarily affect the character of the literature produced in the changing society? And if this is so, how will this change operate? Oz answers by saying that the scarred literature is not a product of an external political influence, but rather an internal necessity. Shakespeare, writing at a splendid period of English History, is not at his greatest in his celebration of glory. He might have said that this human condition is necessarily tragic. So if the threat does not come from without, it will still emanate from within.

Threat, of course, is a major theme of Oz's stories. The name of his first collection, Artzot hatan [Artzot ha’ tan] (Lands of the Jackal [Where the Jackals Howl, and Other Stories]), which is also the title story, embodies just that, because the “jackal” is actuality and symbol. In the prophet Jeremiah's words, when Jerusalem is destroyed it will be “a habitation of jackals” (Jer. x. 22), there used in parallel with “wasteland.” The jackal represents the threat constantly, in the wings, waiting to pounce and tear. In Oz's stories, the very landscape acquires the character of extreme emotion described. The onset of autumn in the title story makes the fields “tremor”.

But the character of the threat is ambivalent. It is dangerous but also fascinating. Pain is desired as well. In the story, Gelilah is both fascinated and terrified by Damkov. When she remembered his invitation “she was filled with revulsion and gaiety. She thought of his gripping ugliness …” Revulsion is paired with gaiety, ugliness with an exciting quality. And this is the dual nature ascribed to persons, animals and the general situation. The narrative description deliberately breaks down the borderline between the animate and the inanimate. Atmosphere is invested with a live quality, as the animal (jackal or snake) takes on a human colour. He writes here: “The tender violet light wraps the treetops with great mercy … removes the distance between mineral and animal.” The light has a transformative power, it gives everything “a cold seething tremor, a tremor of poison.” The thing that attracts is also deadly and, on certain occasions, as when this light prevails, “we cannot descry the jackals emerging from their burrows”. So even if the most terrible danger is close, one might be unaware of it. The animal parallel is brought out explicitly by Damkov to Gelilah, when he tells her of breeding horses: “At that moment, there is no difference between pleasure and pain. Copulation is very like castration.” Then comes a description of a trapped jackal. Caught by the trap, it begins to lick the metal “as though spreading warmth and love over the object.” These opposite poles might pose a confusion, so the author suggests a unifying element at the story's conclusion: “If you want a fixed point in the stream of time and seasons, you should listen to the sounds of the night which never change. These sounds come to us from there.”

The title story is not the only one in the volume which dwells on an ambivalent relationship of extremes. Similar images recur throughout. It takes its most dramatic form in “Navadim vazefa” (“The Nomad and the Viper”), when we have two encounters described on the part of the girl Geulah, one with a Bedouin Arab and the other with a viper. The Arab is described by her as possessing a “repulsive beauty.” The viper approaches Geulah after she is thinking of coming to terms with the Arab. The reasons for her flight are doubtful. She rests. Had she already been bitten that she needs to lie down? Is she bitten now? And what is the feeling? “The pain is dim, almost delightful.” And at the end of the story “her fingers caress the dust and her face is very tranquil, almost beautiful”. We assume that the worst has happened, and yet the climax seems to reverse normal expectations. The snake parallels the situation of the Arab who is dangerous particularly to her. (Did he rape her?) And both dangers are also alluring.

Threat is one of the chief elements in Mikhael sheli (My Michael) tool. As in Oz's stories, the pervasive sense of threat is awarded concrete reality in a specific image. Hannah, the narrator in the novel, is obscurely discontented, troubled by unarticulated disturbances and aspirations. The parallel to the snake/Arab of “The Nomad and the Viper” is the pair of twins whom she had apparently known from childhood. They are indeed very sinister: “and the dreams. Hard-things are intended for me each night.” Towards morning the twins “practise with hand grenades amongst the crags of the Judean desert …” This might be a threat to her personally, to Israel in general, or it might even be the universal danger that everyone carries around within himself. Certainly Jerusalem, where most of the story takes place, is so threatened: “Villages and suburbs close on Jerusalem a tight ring, like people standing curious around an injured woman cast to the ground: Nabi Samuel, Shaafat, Sheikh Jarah, Augusta-Victoria.” Jerusalem is like a woman, like Hannah. The hills are like the twins. What they inflict, as in Hannah's later fantasies of rape by the twins, is “trembling thrills of pain running down, igniting to the palms.” The novel concludes with one of the recurrent visions of the twins. The jackal is there too, “It breaks out, cries, and is silent,” and there is “a caress redolent of longing.” With the last phrase, “And over great expanses descends a cold tranquillity,” the author has continued to hold the reins of opposite qualities, suggesting the ambivalent view of the subject towards the source of danger.

III

Oz's fiction could be otherwise described as the fiction of extreme situations. Occasionally the author seems to break into the story in the guise of a narrator commenting on his own art. In “Navadim vazefa” the “I” of the narrative comments on Geulah's reactions to his (i.e. the narrator's) own stories: “She does not like my stories because of the extreme polarisation of situations, landscapes and figures: the intermediate shades between light and darkness are lacking.” This must be an ironic comment. The very person who is dismissive of such states then surrenders herself to them. She it is who courts the danger of the Bedouin and the snake and who then is ambiguously caught by both, trapped in the oxymoron of “the pain … almost delightful.” She it is too who noted “the repulsive beauty” of the Arab, and who then got involved with him. This could not be an accident. In Oz's work, the plot is the external exemplification of unconscious motivation. The story “Derekh haruakh” (“Way of the Wind”) recounts in considerable and gruesome detail the disastrous parachute jump of an inexperienced youngster, who gets caught in electric wires and fried. Paradoxically, the incident opens with an analysis of pleasure, the wonderful sensation involved in such a jump. Such pleasure is of two types, one is abandoned pleasure and the other is restrained pleasure. The first is gained initially at the moment of jumping when the body is totally surrendered to the elements. The second is achieved when the parachute is opened, and countervailing force is introduced against the elements, exercising some degree of control. Gideon is unprecedentedly excited by the total experience: “Never in his life had he tasted a love so strong and thrilling. All his muscles tensed, and a sort of spring of delight gushed in his strength and through his back up to the neck and the roots of his hair.” His courage fails him at the critical moment and his lack of experience and competence bring about disaster. His own father, who is also the spiritual father of the kibbutz (a common figure in Oz's stories) is also subject to a duality of emotion. His shame at the ineptitude of his son is modified by paternal grief in bereavement. The weather at this moment, a hamsin which will surely recur, reinforces the general mood. That mood is of the movement between extremes.

Another character that makes a frequent appearance in Oz's stories is the one who foresees disaster. The story “Tikun haolam” (“Repair of the World”) is a sort of memorial to such a person, extreme ideologue, on his death. As so often with our author, he is viewed ambivalently. The narrator introduces him as someone who “all his life has lived in hatred.” But we are assured that the members of the kibbutz view him rather as a fervent upholder of an uncompromising ideological position. The ironic view of kibbutzniks, also to come to the fore in Makom akher, is of people who do not believe in the negative; in this case, in hatred. Evil is generally explained away by such types as expressions of an imperfect system or of ideological extremism. These are people who would improve things, who repair the world; the subject of the story is the ultimate of this type. But we are reminded that the burial of such a person (and his death) does not differ in character from the burial of anyone else. It is the essential quality of the human condition that keeps coming through so insistently. The facts of life persist, whatever local conditions prevail, or whatever efforts are made to effect change. So we are presented with an account from three sides, from the point of view (as it were) of the deceased, from the point of view of his colleagues (he had no family or close friends) and from the point of view (implied) of the ironic observer/author. All suggest ambiguity.

But a whole novella is devoted to an account of the prophet of doom Avaha meukheret (Late Love), from the volume Ad mavet. There, the subject tells his own story in his own words, but the reader must draw his own conclusions. He, Shraga Ungar, is obsessed again with danger and, as we have observed in Oz's other stories, the danger must take on specific form. The...

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Esther Fuchs (essay date October 1984)

SOURCE: Fuchs, Esther. “The Beast Within: Women in Amos Oz's Early Fiction.” Modern Judaism 4, no. 3 (October 1984): 311-21.

[In the following essay, Fuchs provides a “gender-conscious” analysis of Oz's representations of women, concluding that Oz's female characters are stereotypes and are defined only in terms of their relationships to men.]

Although, as the title indicates, this study focuses on Amos Oz's first collection of short stories, Where the Jackals Howl (Artsot hatan [Artzot ha’ tan], 1965), it points up characteristics that underlie Amos Oz's later work as well. These characteristics revolve around Oz's fictional presentation...

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Avraham Balaban (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Balaban, Avraham. “Introduction to Oz: The Early Stories.” In Between God and Beast: An Examination of Amos Oz's Prose, pp. 33-77. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Balaban provides analysis of several of Oz's early stories, tracing the development of his characterization, symbolism, and central thematic concerns.]

Amos Oz's first book, Artsot hatan [Artzot ha’ tan] (Where the Jackals Howl, literally “The Lands of the Jackal” [1965]), consists of nine stories written between 1962 and 1965. The earliest of these stories, “Before His Time” (1962b), was preceded by two others,...

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Avraham Balaban (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Balaban, Avraham. “Between God and Beast: Religious Aspects of Oz's Work.” In Between God and Beast: An Examination of Amos Oz's Prose, pp. 79-136. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986.

[In the following excerpt, Balaban provides a religious interpretation of the stories in Where the Jackals Howl, and Other Stories and traces the influence of the philosophy of Spinoza, the psychoanalytic theory of Carl Jung, and the panentheism of Schelling on Oz's fiction.]

Oz describes the Jerusalem of his childhood as a highly religious city:

The Jerusalem of my youth was a city of sleepwalkers, awash with...

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Avraham Balaban (essay date spring 1990)

SOURCE: Balaban, Avraham. “Language and Reality in the Prose of Amos Oz.” Modern Language Studies 20, no. 2 (spring 1990): 79-97.

[In the following essay, Balaban discusses the tactics Oz uses to “bridge the gap between language and reality” in his short story “Before His Time.”]

1. INTRODUCTION

In an interview given in the late 1970s, Amos Oz talked about the effect of the books he has loved: “If the books I have loved did something to me … they broke all the distinctions for me, floor and window, window and door, positive and negative, good and evil. They opened up the world in front of me with all its unending complexity,...

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Joseph Cohen (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Cohen, Joseph. “Amos Oz.” In Voices of Israel: Essays on and Interviews with Yehuda Amichai, A. B. Yehoshua, T. Carmi, Aharon Appelfeld, and Amos Oz, pp. 141-91. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Cohen asserts that Oz makes use of “exotic realism” in his fiction, whereby he has “infused the reality of localized Israeli life with the exoticism of Romantic literature.”]

Among those Israeli writers to emerge in the post-Palmah New Wave generation, Amos Oz appears to have been peculiarly blessed. As the interview with him makes clear, he came from a family of intellectuals on his father's side, and in his...

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Avner Holtzman (essay date May 1995)

SOURCE: Holtzman, Avner. “Strange Fire and Secret Thunder: Between Micha Josef Berdyczewski and Amos Oz.” Prooftexts 15, no. 2 (May 1995): 145-62.

[In the following essay, Holtzman traces the influence of the writer Micha Josef Berdyczewski on the fiction of Oz through an analysis of “Strange Fire” and Berdyczewski's “Secret Thunder.”]

Speaking of the impact of Micha Josef Berdyczewski's literary work on later Hebrew writers, many critics have referred to Amos Oz, who is considered the most prominent heir to the “Berdyczewski style” in Israeli literature. However, no systematic attempt has ever been made to define the nature of the linkage between these...

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Chaya Schacham (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Schacham, Chaya. “Novellas under This Blazing Light: Transformations in the Novella Writing of Amos Oz.” Orbis Litterarum 53, no. 5 (1998): 318-35.

[In the following essay, Schacham asserts that Oz's novellas have developed over the course of his literary career from traditional to experimental to iconoclastic.]

I.

In a talk given in 1972 and later included in Amos Oz's first collection of essays entitled Under This Blazing Light (which was also the title of the collection), the author spoke of the possibilities of flowering of great literature. He stated that “the best works of literature are written in times of ending and...

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Nehama Aschkenasy (essay date fall 2001)

SOURCE: Aschkenasy, Nehama. “Deconstructing the Metanarrative: Amos Oz's Evolving Discourse with the Bible.” Symposium 55, no. 3 (fall 2001): 123-39.

[In the following essay, Aschkenasy examines the evolution of Oz's perspective on the Bible in relation to modern Israeli politics, as expressed in his fiction.]

Amos Oz's dialogue with the bible, polemical, dialectical, comical, and ultimately conciliatory, began with his early publications in the 1960s, in such stories as “The Way of the Wind” (1962) and “Upon This Evil Earth” (1966), and continued throughout his literary career. In some ways this dialogue reflects changing attitudes in Israeli culture...

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