My Michael

by Amos Klausner

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Themes and Meanings

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Oz has said that “one should present the great and simple things, like desire and death,” in fiction writing, and My Michael follows that statement in its treatment of Hannah and the Israeli culture in which she is immersed. While on the surface My Michael deals with the mundane details of middle-class life in postwar Jerusalem and the disintegrating marriage of a disillusioned young woman, Hannah’s experiences clearly become a metaphor for the dualistic lives many contemporary Israelis feel compelled to lead. Several American critics have thus read it as an Israeli version of Madame Bovary, the elaborate depiction of a private life amid great social turmoil. Read as such, My Michael is one of the more remarkable evocations of a protagonist’s psychological disintegration in contemporary literature.

Still, it is important to point out that Oz’s characters rarely escape a close identification with their environment, and in My Michael the problems of Hannah and Michael are clearly interwoven with the heterogeneity of Jerusalem. During one early encounter with Michael, Hannah observes, “Maybe it’s a pity that Jerusalem is such a small city that you can’t get lost in it.” The reader presumes this to mean that one can never escape Jerusalem’s paradoxes and tensions; one either learns to live with them or chooses to merge with them. As the critic Hana Wirth-Nesher has remarked, “It is clear that Oz is using Hannah to depict the isolation and alienation 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.”

Thus, My Michael also can be read as a diagnosis of the malaise in Israeli culture following its statehood and years of military triumph in the late 1960’s: a clash between post-independence militarism and the newer generation’s ambivalence toward such a stance. Despite Michael’s blithe optimism and willingness to fight in the Six Day War, Hannah remains skeptical, wondering if the loss of her husband and the father of her son is worth the price of the victory. This more political reading, in fact, has been characteristic of Israeli critics, who regarded My Michael as “little short of seditious” when it first appeared, citing its implication that the new, inordinately militaristic Israel is at least as responsible for Middle Eastern instability as the peoples it has displaced. Despite Hannah’s waking fantasies, the reality of Jerusalem’s divisiveness cannot be wished away. This attitude would simply condemn its residents to a city that is both native to them and strangely alien.

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