Amos Oz

by Amos Klausner

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Introduction

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Oz, Amos 1939–

Oz is an Israeli novelist, short story writer, editor, and essayist. His work is rich in symbolic and allegorical overtones: the geographic characteristics of modern-day Jerusalem become in his fiction a symbol of human isolation; the persecution of the Jews at the hands of the Christians during the Crusades alludes to the current crisis in the Middle East. Both the depth of his thematic concerns and the consistent high quality of his prose mark him as one of the finest writers in Israel. (See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)

Hana Wirth-Nesher

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The development of the novel and the rise of modern cities have taken place concurrently. As society has tended more and more to become concentrated in what we call cities, the novel has been a major literary response, concerning itself with the complex interaction among individuals in groups and between individuals and society. (p. 91)

Because the city as a dense heterogeneous society tends to instill in its inhabitants the sense of a threatening "other," the modern Jewish novel becomes a classic example of how the city functions symbolically in modern literature. Like Leopold Bloom in Joyce's Ulysses, who roams the streets of Dublin as an outsider because he is a Jew, the characters … [in] Amos Oz's My Michael,… never lose their sense of strangeness in the urban environment. (p. 93)

[In] Jerusalem, despite its centuries of civilizations, it is the hills that always dominate, that appear ready to envelop and crush the city at will, and that outlast each layer of shards and stone. The winds of the Judean hills, sweeping over the city like God's whirlwind in the book of Job, overawe man's pretensions and dwarf even the most bold and brilliant of his structures.

In this setting of gold and silver domes and stone bulwarks and in this meeting place of the Levant and the West,… Oz has situated the events of his novel, My Michael…. [The] novel is the first person narrative of Hannah Gonen, an Israeli born young woman who leaves her studies in literature to marry an aspiring geologist, Michael. The rest is a tale of frustration. Michael, Hannah soon discovers, is a sterile, excessively earnest academic whose obsession with identifying rocks she finds incomprehensible and his goals for scholarly publication and university advancement petty. Hannah can find no outlet for her sensual longings—her husband seems distant and dull, and the city treats her with stony indifference. The novel is a record of her disappointments, neuroses, and fantasies. (p. 100)

The city of Jerusalem is not merely background in this novel; it plays a dominant role in that its characteristics are intertwined with the psychology of the central consciousness. It is important to note here the geography and terrain that Hannah Gonen inhabits in the Jerusalem of the 1950's. First, it is a divided city…. Surrounding the city topographically are the Judean hills, vast stretches of bare, dramatic hills that bring cool winds to the city and are covered, for the most part, with shadows and rock, not forest…. The city itself in its totality is heterogeneous, a mixture of Jew, Moslem, and Christian. (pp. 100-01)

What all of this means is that Hannah Gonen lives in a city that may be fairly homogeneous as a section but is heterogeneous organically. Unlike the "other" of ethnic neighborhoods accessible to all in a city like New York, Jerusalem has an invisible hostile area hidden behind hills and walls. But it clearly remains a threatening "other" whose presence is felt even in the parts it does not inhabit,...

(This entire section contains 1083 words.)

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by the force of memory, guilt, and fear. And even in the modern Jewish city of Jerusalem, a variety of cultures dwell side by side. (pp. 101-02)

In Jerusalem, social and spatial features will overlap even more dramatically than in other cities, chiefly because the layout of the city is a constant reminder that its inhabitants are at war and that one group is physically almost completely surrounded by the other…. The hills themselves are indeed dominant in all of Hannah's meditations about her life…. For Hannah, "In the after glow of sunset the Jerusalem hills seemed to be plotting some mischief."… At nightfall in Jerusalem, "at the ends of the streets you can glimpse the brooding hills waiting for darkness to fall on the shuttered city."… In her fantasies, these hills are brooding not only as natural phenomena but as enemy territory: "Worn commando uniforms with creases. A blue vein stands out on Halil's forehead…. Aziz uncurls and throws. The dry shimmer of the explosion. The hills echo and re-echo…"….

But there are other meaningful spatial dimensions of the city. Hannah Gonen lives in an urban area where dwellings are visible miles away, because they cling to bare hills, but at close range they are mysterious, because Middle Eastern architecture frequently means inner courtyards and outer walls…. She also lives in a city that, because of its ancient roots, has a visible modern outer layer and centuries of hidden layers beneath the surface. That her husband Michael is a geologist adds a note of irony to Hannah's predicament: he too is seeking mysteries beneath the earth's surface, but they are the secrets of natural materials, not of the needs and forces of man. Furthermore, Michael is incapable of translating his work metaphorically to search for the inner needs of humans, in this case of his wife's mind. (pp. 102-03)

But the outstanding emotion that Jerusalem elicits from Hannah is that of being lost…. (p. 103)

Nor is she able to see her small region, modern Jerusalem in the State of Israel, as part of a visible whole. Spread over a number of hills, some of which reach into Arab territory, Jerusalem seems infinite, a borderless city…. The paradox about the city for Hannah is that on the one hand the section of it that she inhabits is too familiar—"Maybe it's a pity that Jerusalem is such a small city that you can't get lost in it," she says to Michael as they immediately identify their location after a taxi ride in the rain—while on the other hand, as a total city in her mind, it contains so much that is unknown that she feels immeasurably lost. (pp. 103-04)

It is clear that Oz is using Hannah to depict the isolation and fear that many Israelis feel partially as a country in a state of siege and partially as a small enclave of Western culture in a vast area of cultures and landscapes unlike what they have known….

Both the social and spatial aspects of Jerusalem in this novel express symbolically the awe and insecurity of its inhabitants, particularly during the period during which the novel takes place. Hannah Gonen continually asks existential questions that finally lead her to imagine self-annihilation. Jerusalem, as a Biblical visionary city and as a modern metropolis with borders and neighborhoods, serves as a perfect image for that frame of mind. (p. 104)

Hana Wirth-Nesher, in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1978, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Spring, 1978.

John Bayley

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Amos Oz has no alternative in his novels but to tell us what it means to be an Israeli. The Hill of Evil Counsel is a trio of interlinked narratives set in Jerusalem at the time just before the founding of the Israeli state. The third story—"Longing"—is told in the form of letters from a bacteriologist to a woman doctor in New York….

Oz is a writer of great humanity and sensitivity. He conveys with a kind of light exactitude the atmosphere of the time; the physical feel of the town, and above all the consciousness of his narrator correspondent, and his reluctance to lose the Europeanness which is all he has, and the modes of understanding that go with it…. So effectively skillful and tactful is the composition that its symbolic overtones are only present in a complex mixture of excitement and disquiet, just as the title itself—"Longing"—suggests an ironic query the more potent for being uninsistent….

In each of the three narratives a boy is present who is loosely identified with the author himself at that age, and his vision of things—solipsistic, romantic, historically innocent—exercises an effect of liberation, in itself slightly ironic, on the claustrophobic dedication of the scene; even though the child himself is of course dedicated, he hardly knows to what. One of the admirable things about Oz's novels is the humor in them, a humor which formulates itself in having taken, and accepted, the narrow measure of the Israeli scene. Unlike much ethnic writing his does not seek to masquerade as Weltliteratur. It is Jewish literature acquiescing amusedly in its new militantly provincial status. The symbolic needs humor to keep it sweet, and Oz is a master of the kind of ludicrousness deployed so effectively in [Bellow's] Mr. Sammler's Planet…. (p. 35)

John Bayley, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1978 Nyrev, Inc.), July 20, 1978.

Lis Harris

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[Oz's novels and novellas] are studded with interesting details about Jewish life in general and Israeli immigrant life in particular, but they share a peculiar emotional flatness and shed a curiously dim light on lives that on the surface are all excitement…. "The Hill of Evil Counsel,"… a collection of three long stories with interwoven themes and characters, is of a piece with the rest of his work, though the last story, "Longing," gets a bit deeper, below the skin of the main character than the others do.

All three stories take place during the last days of the British Mandate, in a ragged, sun-bleached, lower-middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem. In the first (and title) story, it is May, 1946. The full-scale war that will erupt two years later is a shadowy threat that the neighborhood's mostly Polish and Russian immigrants (who want at all costs to avoid more disruption in their lives) prefer not to contemplate…. [The family Oz writes about consists of] Dr. Kipnis, a diffident, middle-aged veterinarian; his bitter, bleakly hysterical wife, Ruth, who constantly taunts her husband with idealized memories of her haute-bourgeoise Warsaw childhood; and their sensitive, dreamy son, Hillel (who turns up under another name in the other stories)…. Typically, Oz drops the wife just when she starts to get interesting. [He has her run off with an admiral, a well-known roué]. Plot development seems to bore him, and it is not unusual for him simply to abandon his characters when their lives threaten to become too complicated.

In the second story, "Mr. Levi," which appears to take place some months after the first, the tension of a prewar national state of mind is palpable…. Mr. Levi is an unpleasant but believably authoritative middle-aged resistance fighter (about whom we learn almost nothing), who is smuggled into the house of what seems to be the family that we have just read about in the previous story, now miraculously reunited. No mention whatever is made of the mother's nocturnal escapade…. It is a bit disconcerting … to see the mother calmly setting the family tea cart and passing bowls of oranges when just a few pages earlier we have witnessed her doppelgänger "racing deep into the desert, across mountains and valleys, and onward, to Baghdad, Bombay, Calcutta" with the belching admiral in his silver Rolls-Royce. (pp. 79-80)

"Longing" is about a middle-aged Viennese-born doctor named Emanuel Nussbaum, who is dying of cancer. Nussbaum lives next door to the (or a) veterinarian. The story is written as a series of confessional letters that Nussbaum sends to his former mistress, a doggedly unsentimental, blunt psychologist (from Nussbaum's descriptions of her, she seems rather heartless, but I'm not sure Oz intends that) who has emigrated recently to New York. In the first two stories, Oz captures a strong sense of place and mood but conveys little of what anyone is feeling, except for the not particularly riveting yearnings of the young boy. In this one, the main character is at least given the chance to recall the strong currents of his life, although in a kind of epistolatory-résumé style. (p. 80)

[Oz] seems unwilling or unable to come to grips with his characters' feelings about the fragility of either their past lives or their present ones. It is as if he were writing a war play in which no one exhibited fear or terror or ever mentioned guns, blood, or death. Perhaps, being a Sabra, he simply takes those things for granted. But when the closest he can come to describing fear is to anthropomorphize nature, as he does in "Mr. Levi" … it trivializes both the depth and the magnitude of the collective national recovery that all his work strains to convey. (p. 81)

Lis Harris, "O Pioneers!" in The New Yorker (© 1978 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), August 7, 1978, pp. 79-81.

A. S. Byatt

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[Amos Oz] can write with delicate realism about small lives, or tell fables about large issues, but his writing, even in translation, gains vitality simply from his subject matter.

The Hill of Evil Counsel contains three long tales about the last two years of the British Mandate in Palestine, the uncertain, shifting, hopeful, terror-ridden years before the war, and the declaration of the independent Jewish State…. If Israel is to become both rubble and flowering desert, the fate of Jerusalem is even more problematic: Amos Oz shows us this only obliquely through the histories, hopes, extravagant dreams and anxieties of his families….

Amos Oz's translator, Nicholas de Lange, works closely with him, and it is possible, even in translation to gauge how the shifting style betrays the shifting composition of the thoughts, fears, weak and powerful hopes of the isolated people in Jerusalem. The language shifts from Old Testament grandeur to Old Testament diatribe; from composed Yiddish humour to that peculiar claustrophobic chatter that one gets in Jewish novels which come from Europe and America as well…. It is a book about contradictions and an unkind climate and it is, like the society it prefigures, ferociously alive.

A. S. Byatt, "Yearning for Jerusalem," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 6, 1978, p. 1110.

J. Justin Gustainis

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As a seamstress who takes different pieces of cloth and sews them into a quilt, Amos Oz writes short pieces of fiction which together form a quilt in the reader's consciousness. Just as the quilt may be of many colors but still one garment, Oz's stories speak of many things but still pay homage to one central idea: universal redemption through suffering. Although the concept is hardly unique to either Judaism or Zionism (two perspectives influencing Oz's writing), the point may be made that the Jews have the longest history of suffering as a people and therefore have one of the stronger claims to the redemption which suffering is alleged to bring. (p. 224)

Without belaboring the point, it seems to me that Oz shows in all his work that the people who endure the suffering imposed by others and by themselves will triumph, will be redeemed. The damned are those who forsake their burden. Oz's work would be valuable for this alone, but it contains much more. He writes in a spare, simple style which masks the great complexity of thought. He writes from both the head and the heart. (p. 225)

J. Justin Gustainis, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1978 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), October, 1978.

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