Oz, Amos (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Oz, Amos 1939–

Oz is an Israeli novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)

Amos Oz has emerged in recent years as the best known of the younger Israeli novelists and a leading spokesman for the generation of sabras who grew up along with the State of Israel. In a country where "sensational" novels, and certainly those with any pretense to seriousness, are a relative rarity, Oz's works have gained considerable popularity, even notoriety, for both the controversiality of their themes and the boldness of their presentation. This was especially true of My Michael, the novel which served to introduce Oz to American readers, and which Oz wrote when he was scarcely twenty-eight years old. A study of the personal disintegration of a young Israeli housewife, My Michael succeeded in transforming a political "fact"—the Arab-Israeli dilemma—into a genuine metaphor of the imagination. The violence of its heroine's erotic fantasies of abduction and rape by Arab twins with whom she had grown up before the War of Independence in 1948 suggested another violence even more disturbing to the Israeli psyche than the political one. Jerusalem, the setting of the novel and a still-divided city, was depicted as a dense, opaque landscape mirroring the heroine's inner conflict, an illusion of abstractions set upon a wilderness of suppressed violence, ever on the verge of upheaval by demiurgic powers.

Both in My Michael and in his later work, Oz has demonstrated a special talent for creating fiction out of the exigencies of Israel's political and historical legacy. It is a talent that is again evident, although to a considerably lesser degree, in Elsewhere, Perhaps, Oz's second novel—second, that is, to appear in English; actually, it is a reworked and truncated version of the author's first novel, published in Israel in 1966. Like My Michael, [this] work also purports to offer a critical glance at an aspect of Israeli society: the most sacrosanct of Israel's social institutions, the kibbutz…. The kibbutz, in short, [turns] into just another small town, an Israeli Peyton Place: one-third boredom, and two-thirds gossip…. Like all morality plays, this one deals in predictable dualities and opposites. (pp. 100-01)

Unfortunately, Oz's determination to force an allegory out of the implausible Zion-Diaspora conflict works at cross-purposes to and eventually defeats the novel's more interesting intention: the naturalistic exposé of the "other side" of kibbutz life. The members of Metzudat Ram [Oz's fictional settlement] never seem more than a bland force of personalized Goodness, while the Arabs and the Diaspora Jews are forever being straitjacketed into Oz's embodiment of the power of Evil. In a scheme as rigid and predetermined as this, little opportunity remains for specificity or nuance. There is, in fact, no essential difference between the "new" and "old" Jews in their Jewishness—neither are recognizably Jewish—except, perhaps, for the novel's "evil fairy," Siegfried Berger, who is embellished by Oz with all the grotesque flourishes that once marked the typical anti-Semitic caricature of the Jew.

Israeli literature, if it is ever to mature, will undoubtedly have to confront the critical issue of the relation of Diaspora Jewry to Israel, and the relation of Israel to Diaspora Jewry, in all its troubled complexity. That this issue has a special poignancy for the Israeli writer, whose own identity is forged in an ongoing dialectic between the secular values of Western culture and the religious-historical values of Judaism, should go without saying, But an allegory of the kind presented in Elsewhere, Perhaps is little more than a refusal to acknowledge the existence of the problem. The novel fails precisely where the imagination might have offered insight into the nexus of Zion and Diaspora. (p. 101)

David Stern, "Morality Tale" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1974 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, July, 1974, pp. 100-01.

[Touch the Water, Touch the Wind is a] lyrical, faintly allegorical novel [which] manages to sketch the life of a modest Jewish schoolteacher named Pomeranz, beginning with his persecution in Poland in 1939 and continuing to his sudden fame as a mathematician in Israel before the Six-Day War. If Pomeranz is an example of the wandering, wonder-struck Jew, his wife, who becomes separated from him and somehow rises to be the head of Soviet secret agencies, represents the conforming Jew who is comfortable with the established culture…. The book reverberates with motifs of recent Jewish history: the escape from terror, the commitment to a land, the persistent threat of a nemesis. It takes considerable risks with the fantastic and the supernatural. Though it never quite slows down enough to become very profound, its youthfulness and energy are exhilarating. (pp. 233-34)

The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 18, 1974.

Among those younger Israeli authors who have in recent years been published in the U.S.—Aharon Megged, Yoram Kaniuk, Yehuda Amichai, and A. B. Yehoshua—Amos Oz has won particularly extravagant praise: For two novels, Elsewhere, Perhaps and My Michael, and the novella Crusade, which appeared in Commentary three years ago, he has been proclaimed "a writer of international importance."… Elsewhere, Perhaps was a kaleidoscopic account of life on a kibbutz hazardously close to the frontier, endangered continually by Arab guns from without and the petty, exhausting human frictions of collective life from within. In common with other sabra novelists of his generation, Oz regards the older world of Zionist idealists—the patriarchal heroes of the Palmach and the Haganah—with ironic amusement, the characteristically rebellious disdain of children toward the ideology of parents. Yet what he principally offered in Elsewhere, Perhaps was a cross-section of the kibbutz world: young love, middle-aged adultery, brush fires of gossip, the not always successful efforts of well-meaning teachers and poets and farmers and intellectuals to live in productive harmony for the good of their beleaguered country. A gathering of separate conflicts and personalities bound loosely together by the institutional setting, the novel was rather like Grand Hotel set on a communal farm. It was well-written but conventional, and Oz's satiric detachment was too often short-circuited by sentimentality.

Of My Michael one American reviewer declared: "It's quite the last kind of book one expects from a young writer living in the midst of a melodramatic political situation … a modern Israeli Madame Bovary … that is also a critique of a superficial 'masculine' society." When in doubt, call on Flaubert and feminism. But neither of these wild reaches into left field was relevant to the work, remarkable only for the flawless plausibility of the feminine-first-person voice that Oz assumed. My Michael was the story of a discontented marriage, told by the very neurotic Hannah Gonen…. Unfortunately, Oz never persuaded us of the singular qualities he obviously believed her to have. Hannah was a tiresome and very familiar sort of narcissistic nudnik, and My Michael, far from offering what still another critic hailed as "a fresh insight into the makeup of modern Israel," was too naggingly limited to the narrow, uninteresting boundaries of its heroine's self-absorbed world to cast any light at all on the society she inhabits. (The novella Crusade, set in the 11th century, is far more effective than the novels because the historical framework kept both the prose and the ideas in requisite focus.)

Nothing in the earlier fiction of Amos Oz in any way adumbrates his dense and puzzling new book, Touch the Water, Touch the Wind…. It is at first glance a juggler's act of symbols and magic, less a novel than a series of vaguely dovetailed meditations on Poland and Israel, on philosophy and mysticism, on the Jews as a people in constant flight from a hostile world. Oz seems to be saying that only through the nontemporal, intellectual magic of the mind—through mathematics, philosophy and music—can the Jew elude his inimical reality and live beyond the threat of death. "Can any Jew worthy of the name," he writes, "lay claim to a genuine passport?" (pp. 15-16)

After several readings, I am still maddeningly bewildered by Touch the Water, Touch the Wind. Oz appears to have abandoned the conventions of realism not out of a deeply felt literary necessity but for the purpose of a technical stunt. There is an air of meretricious contrivance about the book's jagged discontinuities, its random incidents and inexplicable declarations, as though its author were trying to prove that he, too, can handle the fashionable obscurities of disorientation. To justify the strain on one's credulity and powers of poetic connection, such fiction must have a consonant richness of thought and suggestion. Yet Oz's metaphor of the Jew in perpetual flight is not profound, and his stuggle to impose an innovatory "experimental" texture on this image seems more capricious than genuinely committed. Some novels of strangeness, marvels and unreality, like Dan Jacobson's The Wonder Worker, in time disclose astonishing vistas of imaginative clarity; to read them is an act of discovery. But Touch the Water, Touch the Wind seems more a maze without an exit, a willful act of confusion. (p. 16)

Pearl K. Bell, "Lost in the Land of Oz," in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), January 6, 1975, pp. 15-16.

Touch the Water, Touch the Wind … is an attempt to present in fiction a representation of the European background and present situation of the Israelis….

Unfortunately, as it seems to me, Oz has chosen to write in that portentous baby talk of the profound but simple soul, one of the more off-putting literary conventions.

He was left to himself day and night. He thought about many different things….

He has some other stylistic devices: a mixed whimsy and fantasy, presumably to remind us of fables and folk tales; a gaudy overwriting…. Persistently Oz uses the rhetoric of the big statement followed by a cute little homely detail….

Amos Oz has elected to tell his story in the vein of fantasy…. Thus each crucial event of the story is fobbed off into what appear to me most inept bits of foolish and obscure legerdemain—to me this seems oddly and frivolously cruel, considering what was available to real people in similar circumstances. Many of these bits of fantasy, or "symbolism" if you will, are unbelievably tasteless, as is the irrelevant sadism, sexual at times, and also the attempts at humor, no better than tags. The presence or thought of Germans evokes always pork fried in pork fat, and so on….

Surely the subjects that the Master Race has given us in our century are so difficult and painful that they may well be, as many have said, impossible for art. We might almost concede this, were it not for Tadeusz Borowski, Elie Wiesel, and a few others. Many have failed and especially in fantasy and fable. There can be no doubt that Amos Oz's heart is in the right place, but in this book everything else seems miserably wrong. (p. 40)

John Thompson, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), January 23, 1975.