Oz, Amos (Vol. 8)

Oz, Amos 1939–

An Israeli novelist and short story writer, Oz gained notice in the United States with the publication of his novel My Michael. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)

Amos Oz belongs to the post-independence generation of Israeli writers (he was born in Jerusalem …). In a country as young as Israel, "generations" are not counted in years but in periods of time they were born in. There is a difference between pre-state generation of writers, the "Palmach" and the "Post-Palmach" generation, and those whose outlook and make-up were shaped by the fact that they grew up in a country they could call their own, not knowing any other country, even though their parents and grandparents had come from "somewhere else". The mystique of "the return", which played such an important role in the works of the earlier generation (from Agnon onwards) became to them the mystery of being, of living in a land full of contrasts and divisions, with the ever-present threats looming from the mountains and hills on the other side of the borders. In Oz's short stories and novels the people are part of the landscape, and the landscape is part of the reality from which there is no escape. Moreover, what singles out this author from most others among his contemporaries is yet another fact: while many of them began their careers as members of Kibbutzim and later moved to the towns and cities, Oz, after completing his education in his native Jerusalem, has exchanged life in the city with that in a Kibbutz….

Life in the Kibbutz has been made the subject of a number of sociological studies of varying merits. Oz's novel [Elsewhere, Perhaps] is neither such a study nor is it the history of a particular Kibbutz, but I know of no other book that depicts life in the Kibbutz more vividly, more realistically or with greater insight. The narrator, of whom we know nothing, is obviously someone who is part of this life. He makes us look at it as he sees it, both from the inside and the outside. Occasionally he leaves us standing alone in the middle of the road, as it were, with the promise that he will return shortly to guide us on. This technique is not always successful but it lends the narrative a broader dimension.

There are no single heroes in the story. The characters are mostly ordinary, hard-working and remarkable people bound together by the vision of a new life, a new society, and the harsh reality of living in a world of wars and a hostile environment. Not that the Kibbutz has not had its heroes but, by now, they are dead and belong to the past; they are remembered on solemn occasions. Perhaps they were no heroes either, and only the need for legends makes them appear as heroic figures. Without a past there is no future. (p. 61)

The reader should not be deceived either by the complexity of the story or by the simplicity with which it is told…. Nor do I think that the author was aiming at presenting some kind of a new morality. Somewhere in the story someone says, referring to the battle around a stretch of soil in the no-man's land near the border: "There are more important things than land." Someone else agrees but he adds: "You're quite right, there are more important things than land. But without land they can't exist." (p. 62)

Jacob Sonntag, in The Jewish Quarterly (© The Jewish Quarterly 1974), Spring-Summer, 1974.

["Touch the Water Touch the Wind"] offers a profusion of delightful passages couched in unfailingly lovely language. Inadvertently, it also offers an elegant proof for the theorem that a novel as a whole can be less than the sum of its parts….

[In] this [third] novel, flying and diabolism remain poetic fancies rather than compelling fantasies, toys in the author's grab bag. The heroine is a femme fatale to whom all sorts of charismatic power and penetration are attributed—reported, not realized. her conversion to Communism and her rise to power are unpersuasive, not because in any way unbelievable, but because accomplished in the fiction by sleight-of-hand. We are given, for instance, a powerfully composed description of her rape at the hands of lascivious demons who, we are presently informed, are "really no more than twilight shades of a period of change." This, surely, is bathos, not symbolism. Even the hero Pomeranz, for all his melancholy profundity, amounts to hardly more than a twilight shade himself, a nebulous trick-star-genius, insufficiently rendered.

It seems querulous to suggest to an accomplished novelist that he show, not tell, especially when the voice that tells is as suffused with genuine poetry, as impeccable, as fascinating in its modulations, as this one. But scenes are treated with high-handed brevity, tangled relationships are snipped and summarized, interesting minor characters are inflated like balloons till they become pointlessly major, major figures are delineated like cartoons till they become interesting abstractions, flavorful thickenings in the plot are at once diluted, and the result, though beguiling, is an exquisite sketch for a grand novel. (p. 7)

Alan Friedman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 24, 1974.

Amos Oz is an extraordinarily gifted Israeli novelist who delights his readers with both verbal brilliance and the depiction of eternal struggles—between flesh and spirit, fantasy and reality, Jew and Gentile. Oz has tried his hand at various types of fiction: psychological realism in My Michael, social documentation in Elsewhere, Perhaps, historical narrative in "Crusade," one of two novellas making up [Unto Death]: but his carefully reconstructed worlds are invariably transformed into symbolic landscapes, vast arenas where primeval forces clash. Oz's is a generous, magic realism; in his tales concrete things are forever on the verge of shedding their physicality, and abstractions yearn for palpable form.

"Crusade," a haunting study of evil, shows how loathsome and maddeningly tentative the real world appears when seen in the distorting mirrors of perverted spirituality. (p. 36)

[This] novella is at once a remarkably successful evocation of a historical period and a powerful allegory, one in which naturalist details become natural symbols…. The grotesque realism of the narrative, as well as its tortured spirituality, is further enhanced by the highly imaginative use of language….

The companion piece to "Crusade," "Late Love," is gloomy without medieval trappings….

What makes both of these novellas so compelling is that the author fully understands his fanatics' paltry delusions and insecurities, and makes us realize that what all these people are really after is peace of mind. (p. 37)

Ivan Sanders, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 29, 1975.

English readers have been introduced to the works of the Israeli author Amos Oz in a haphazard fashion which prevents a coherent chronological appreciation of either the writer's concerns or his art. The novel, My Michael, Oz's first work to appear in English (1972), was actually his third published volume (1968), following the short story collection, Artsot haTan (Lands of the Jackal, 1965) and the novel, Makom Aher (1966; published as Elsewhere, Perhaps in 1973). This problem of chronology is not unusual in the publication of works by foreign authors, but the English reader should be aware of the actual sequence of original publications so as to achieve a proper perspective on the author's creative development as well as an appropriate interpretation of his works.

Unto Death consists of two novellas ["Crusade" and "Late Love"]…. Both works signalled a definite shift in artistic direction for Oz, especially in terms of genre; yet both develop in different ways certain stylistic and structural characteristics found in Oz's previous writings. The matter of chronology looms largest, however, in the very Sitz im Leben of these two novellas: written in the late sixties, each in its own way embodies Oz's artistic response to the Six-Day War of 1967. The time factor is crucial in interpreting the meanings of these works…. (p. 61)

Nearly all of Oz's writings before "Crusade," from the short stories of the early sixties to Elsewhere, Perhaps and My Michael (which was completed just prior to the 1967 War) had been of the "engagé" variety. This style of writing was a moralistic critique in fictional guise, aimed in particular at the kibbutz and in general at what Oz took to be Israel's militaristic bent.

In "Crusade," however, Oz is not really so very inconsistent [in his use, for the first time, of historical fiction]. In one of the stock traditions of historical fiction, Oz utilizes time distancing to comment on the contemporary scene. The story is presented as if it were an actual chronicle of a Crusade journey …; however, the story's central import, rendered obliquely through psycho-symbolic elements, relates directly to the very real fears for survival engendered by the traumas of May-June, 1967.

Two of the work's dramatic focal points depict in literally excruciating detail the cruel, gratuitous murder of Jews at the hands of the roaming Crusaders…. Both these dramatized scenes are rendered with purposefully graphic visual effect. (In general, "Crusade" seems much influenced, in both visual and conceptual terms, by Bergman's The Seventh Seal.) The Jews in the story from beginning to end, are the unambiguous victims of a manifestly whimsical and sadistic scapegoatism. Both plot and characters appear to exist only to exemplify and animate this syndrome of prejudicial hatred.

The story's third dramatic focal point reveals the tale's major theme.

Surely a Jew had mingled with the Christians in disguise, was walking along the way with us, and cursing us. And what is Jewish in a Jew—surely not any outward shape or form but some abstract quality…. Simply this: a terrible, a malignant presence…. There is a Jew in our midst….

The idea of the "secret Jew" (along with the motif of "signs") grows in intensity until the entire cast of characters becomes obsessed with uncovering the hidden Jew. For the Jew is responsible (so goes the extrinsic anti-Semitic libel, and the inner implication of "Crusade" as well) for all the ills in the world: suffering, fear, insanity, "unto death" itself. The search-and-destroy mission sharpens as the Crusaders, forced to spend the winter in an abandoned ruin, either go mad or wander off to die…. The "secret Jew" mystery is Oz's way of depicting the madness of Judeophobia which has underlain much of the civilized world, a madness which, as "Crusade" purports to tell, is so ingrained as to be inexplicable, uncontrollable, and hence ultimately self-destructive.

This rather allegorical interpretation, which casts Oz, in this particular work at least, as a kind of social historian in fiction-writer guise, is suggested by the narrator's musing on the nature of Jerusalem as an abstraction, not as an earthly goal.

Does Jerusalem really exist … or is she perhaps nothing but a pure idea …? [And, in fact, among these Crusaders] Jerusalem ceased to be regarded as a destination, as the arena of glorious deeds … the Jerusalem they were seeking was not a city but the last hope of a guttering vitality….

"Crusade" thus represents Oz's historical thinking rather than any fictional reality. The minimal plot, the character typology, even the style—a kind of "gothic lyricism" marked by Oz's verbal virtuosity in static background description—appear subservient to the story's central idea: Judeophobia is to this day a powerful, mysterious mania. In its continual attempts to cleanse itself of the Jews, to make it Judenrein, the world will stop at nothing, not even at abject lunacy and self-destruction.

The second novella, "Late Love," which appears here in translation for the first time, differs from "Crusade" in technical construction but not in theme. "Late Love" is energized by the rambling diatribes of Shraga Unger, an old self-taught bureaucrat-intellectual who has spent his life lecturing (usually to sparse audiences in Israel's rural settlements) on one pervasive issue: the Bolshevik terror. The Bolsheviks, he claims, aim to destroy the Jews. Their anti-Semitism, however, is merely the first stage of a Hitlerian scheme of world conquest which threatens to overturn and take control of the entire cosmic order. This extreme political viewpoint—or paranoia, if you will—is matched in hyperbole by Shraga's recommended solution: an all-out preemptive war against Bolshevism to be led by the Israeli Army, beginning with a Blitzkrieg of Eastern Europe (including the fantasized liberation of the still extant Warsaw Ghetto) and ending with the conquest of Moscow! The obvious irony is inflated by Shraga's repeated insistence (in mock tribute to Bellow's Herzogian depiction of intellectual frustration) that he will soon communicate this solution to Israel's Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan.

Both Shraga and his plans are ludicrous; yet the story effectively expresses the heightened feelings of anger, frustration and alienation which beset Israel's populace during the Six-Day War. The appalling actualities of late spring, 1967 are transformed in Shraga Unger's monologues into an overwrought, overstated philosophy of doom. As a political activist linked to leftish-dovish platforms, Oz himself surely does not hold to this philosophy. His aim is to project emotions and assertions which arouse the reader, not a willful didacticism. (pp. 61-3)

Though neither a tirade nor an apologia, Oz transmits his own ideas through Unger. This oblique communication occurs during the character's quieter, more meditative moments, when the feverish pitch is toned down and the reader is less reactive and more calmly attentive…. Oz is not ridiculing jingoist war fever in this story; nor is he presenting fantasies of super-Sabraism or senile chauvinism. He is expressing the breakdown of the myth of normalcy which has been at the center of Zionist longing for decades: the envisioned State of Israel, with its promise of autoemancipation, which would make of the Jewish people a nation among nations. For Oz it is still an impossible dream.

As in "Crusade," broad contemporary problems are seen through fictional narrative in "Late Love." Similar, too, is the use of a recurring motif of mysterious forces at work beneath the surface of events and ideas. Parallel to the "secret Jew" theme in "Crusade" is Shraga Unger's reflection on the world beyond visual perception, the outer, cosmic world of "eternal flux," which threatens perpetually to demolish the lower orb of human activity. Shraga is the only one able to perceive this "circling grip of strong bands, the forces of Earth and Sun, planets and comets, the galaxies, blindly erupting forces"; he is the watchman who has taken on the responsibility to warn all who will listen of the impending danger.

It is Shraga Unger's central role in "Late Love" which makes this story the more interesting of the two…. [At the end, Shraga] finds himself suddenly out of character, so to speak: he becomes singularly uncommunicative and no longer in control of the story's verbal action. Only the effete Hugo listens to him, so despite the passion of his notions, manner and purpose, for Shraga it is too late. Now it is Liuba's more mundane complaints about the polluted atmosphere of Tel Aviv—a cleverly ironic parallel to Shraga's cosmic-political vision of collapse—which takes center stage. The sense of dichotomous perdition heightens Oz's quasi-moralistic message of the post-1967 doldrums: beyond the fictive silence of alienation, where do we go from here? (pp. 63-4)

Warren Bargad, "Amos Oz and the Art of Fictional Response," in Midstream (copyright © 1976 by The Theodor Herzl Foundation, Inc.), November, 1976, pp. 61-4.