Rhyming Life and Death
Amos Oz’s Rhyming Life and Death opens with a battery of twenty-six questions. The first are reasonable enough (“Why do you write? Why do you write the way you do?”), but the interrogation soon descends into the personal and impertinent: “Are your books autobiographical or completely fictional? Above all, how is it that, as a creative artist, you lead such a stolid, unexciting private life?” These are questions that an author of any prominence who dares venture out among readers might expect to encounter, and, reappearing twice elsewhere in the book, they frame and haunt the proceedings.
Oz himself is probably Israel’s most famous contemporary author; his books have been translated into thirty-six languages, more than those of any other living Hebrew writer. It is likely that, in a career that began more than forty years ago, he has been subjected to similar interrogations during hundreds of interviews and public appearances throughout the world. Thus, a reader’s curiosity about the autobiographical basis of Oz’s fiction is not entirely unnatural, especially given that the protagonist of Rhyming Life and Death is identified merely as the Author, a famous Israeli novelist in his forties. The story is set in the 1980’s, when Oz, too, was in his forties.
Unlike the actual author of this novel, though, the Author within the novel is a twice-divorced professional accountant whose father was a diplomat. Moreover, in this account of one long night in the writing life, biographical details are fluid, moot, and subordinate to Oz’s attempt at a general allegory about the process and consequences of making fiction. Invited to be the focus of a literary event in Tel Aviv at a scruffy community center awkwardly named “Shunia Shor and Seven Victims of the Quarry Attack,” the Author arrives early. While tarrying in a café a few blocks from the community center, he fantasizes about the waitress who serves him an omelet, a salad, and coffee. He assigns her a name, Ricky, and imagines that she had a love affair with a man named Charlie, the reserve goalkeeper of the Bnei-Yehuda football team, but that Charlie dumped her for Lucy, the runner-up in the Queen of the Waves contest. The fertility of the Author’s imagination is also evident in the way he eavesdrops on two men sitting at a nearby table and speculates that one is a gangster, the other a hairdryer salesman.
When he eventually shows up, about twenty minutes late, at the community center, the Author is greeted by Yerucham Shdemati, its aging cultural administrator. An impatient crowd has been awaiting the featured celebrity on this sweltering summer night. Following Shdemati’s officious introduction, a literary critic called Yakir Bar-Orian launches into an elaborate analysis of the Author’s new book, describing it as “a trap, as a hermetically sealed chamber of mirrors with no door or window.” Thus Oz anticipates how unsympathetic readers might respond to the intricate metafiction he himself has constructed in Rhyming Life and Death, a novel that reflects on its own devices.
During Bar-Orian’s exposition, the Author’s mind wanders. He mixes memories of his own childhood with speculation about the identities behind the faces peering at him in the room, devising lives for the people assembled for his literary evening. “It is,” we are told, “as though he were picking their pockets while the audience is immersed in the byways of his writing with the literary expert as their guide.”
Bar-Orian is followed on the program by Rochele Reznik, a professional reader of about thirty-five who, in her public recitation of four extracts from the Author’s book, transforms its vitriol into compassion and grace. While grateful for Reznik’s performance, the Author wonders why he agreed to participate in this event and acknowledges to himself that he has not prepared for it. When the time comes for him to speak, he mixes comments about his literary predecessors with personal...
(The entire section is 1,650 words.)