Deep in the midst of writing my new book, I seem only to surface in this blog whenever a favourite writer with whom I have had the pleasure of sharing a conversation dies.
Sadly, the subject of the following conversations is Israeli novelist, essayist, short story writer and peace activist, Amos Oz, who died of cancer in his sleep aged 79.
Here are two conversations I recorded with him, the most recent one in 2004 at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on his acclaimed memoire A Tale of Love and Darkness a brilliant and harrowing work of memory and imagination, set in the Jerusalem of his birth, a world full of contradictions. Amos Oz writes about his family, politics, history, language and the suicide of his mother. The other was recorded in Edinburgh two years earlier, about politics and different ways of writing and language.
Born in Jerusalem, Oz’s work has been translated into more than 30 languages in over 35 countries. He writes about universal themes. He once said that if he had to describe his literary work, it would be about unhappy families. He said the family being the most A Tale of Love and Darkness, is a kind of memoir, a work of imagination at times, a chant-and even a prayer. It describes what it was like to be Amos Oz growing up in Jerusalem in a world shaped by the history of the European destruction of the Jews, but very much not Europe-a world of new hopes and new Jews.
There was Amos and his father and his mother in this little world-a world that would be shattered with his mother’s suicide when he was twelve and a half. When we met in Edinburgh, we began by hearing a short reading by Amos Oz in his beloved language of Hebrew, a language that had been revitalised from the ancient Bible, and in which Amos Oz says he dreams and makes love.
Amos Oz: Thank you, Ramona, for this lovely introduction. Ladies and gentlemen, friends; good evening, shalom, erev tov. I’m going to read you a very short bit in Hebrew because I don’t want to put too much strain on one or two of you who are not yet fluent in Hebrew. And then Ramona will read the same and more in English, and then of course we’ll have a debate and a discussion. I just wanted to say, at the very beginning of this reading, that there has been a little argument, whether A Tale of Love and Darkness should be defined as an autobiography or a memoir or a history or a book of fiction, or a sing-song-or what. The definition of this book is in its title. It’s called ‘a tale’ of love and darkness, and for me at least, a tale it is; which means a combination of memory and invention and variation and repetition and recollection-and yes, fiction as well.
[reads in Hebrew … ]
Ramona Koval: [ reads in English from … For years we had a regular arrangement for a telephonic link with the family in Tel Aviv … to … virtually everything was forbidden, or not done, or not very nice. ]
Ramona Koval: They were uneasy about what they said, but they were also uneasy about talking in Hebrew. But they were committed to it, weren’t they, as a language?
Amos Oz: Before I answer that, permit me just to thank Nicholas De Lange, to whom we owe this fluent and marvellous translation into English, which hardly sounds like a translation. He is not hear tonight, but I think we are all indebted to him. Yes, language-my parents were great polyglots. They use to chat between themselves in Polish and Russian for me not to understand. And about 95 per cent of the time they wanted me not to understand what they were saying. Then they used to read books in German, English, and sometimes in French, for culture. They dreamed their dreams, I presume-I never know-but I think they dreamed their dreams in Yiddish. Me, they taught Hebrew and only Hebrew, because they somehow feared-I presume; we never discussed it; I presume. They only taught me Hebrew, they did not want me to fit any European language for fear that if I knew a single European language, I will eventually be seduced by the deadly charms of Europe; I’ll go back to Europe and catch my death. That’s where I come from. I come from people who survived Europe by the skin of their teeth and loved it none the less.
Yes, they were refugees, immigrants, regarding themselves as Zionist idealists who came to the country to build it and be rebuilt by it. But essentially they were humiliated refugees who were kicked out of their places. Now of course, all those emotions were censored, because there was a huge contradiction between their outspoken beliefs-we are building a new nation, we are building a new country, we are optimistic, we face the future, we are going to do great things. And the internal world of insult, humiliation, insecurity, fear and a lasting dread of a second Holocaust-impending second Holocaust-which of course they will not share with a small child like myself.
So we talked culture, we talked literature, we talked world politics. I used to discuss Stalin and Churchill with my father when I was 5 or 6. We used to phrase letters to the Pope in Rome. But we never talked about our feelings; neither him nor me nor my mother. There was a wholesome censorship on everything to do with feelings.
Ramona Koval: We talked about Europe and the new country. But if we look at the country itself; and just before this passage there’s a discussion about how you felt about Tel Aviv, living in Jerusalem. And there’s a sense that there’s this huge gap; that you thought of yourselves somehow as provincial living in Jerusalem compared with Tel Aviv. Anyone who’s been to Israel knows that it’s a couple of hours drive; it’s not exactly a huge gap, physically, geographically. What did Tel Aviv mean to you; what did Jerusalem mean to you?
Amos Oz: Well the whole of Israel, then and now, is the size of a handkerchief, more or less. But Jerusalem was out-of-the-way, although it was the historical, eternal capital and so on and so forth, and the location of the university. Jerusalem was still out-of-the-way. The great and exciting things apparently happened beyond the mountains in Galilee, in the kibbutzim, on the coastal plain and in young, dynamic, bohemian, self-assured, optimistic, cheerful Tel Aviv. We Jerusalem-ites were kind of marginalised by Tel Aviv. The newspapers came from Tel Aviv, the theatre came from Tel Aviv, the big political arguments and diversities came from Tel Aviv. Even the Gothic came from Tel Aviv. So I actually grew up into a somewhat Chekhovian experience of people craving for Europe; and if not Europe, then at least-if not Moscow, Moscow in the Three Sisters, then at least Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv in our own. And you couldn’t even say that Tel Aviv was just one telephone call away from us, because a telephone call was a major military operation, as you have just heard.
Ramona Koval: But what about the characters that you lived amongst-they’re out of Russian novels and plays, aren’t they? Describe some of those characters.
Amos Oz: I grew up in a neighbourhood full of self-fashioned ideologists. We had more ideologies than individuals. We had, in those everlasting arguments in our little yard, we had more opinions than participants, because everyone had a divided mind and soul on each issue. There was a dentist who claimed that he knew personally Stalin and maintained a long correspondence with Stalin and was on the verge of converting Stalin to humanism. He needed a little more time. There was another one who was a bookbinder and a self-fashioned world authority on Jewish mysticism. A third one knew the precise nuances of the different trends within the Russian nihilist movement in the 19th century. Everyone was an expert on something. They were all great talkers. They all maintained, by the way, that talking is no good for the Jews: we have talked long enough. Time to go back to physical work and silence. We need to toil the land. We need to become labourers, we need to become totalitarians, we need to change. And this was a subject of endless talking. They talked day and night and day an night and day and night about the need to stop talking.
You know, in a strange way, although now I can see how funny they were, my heart goes out to them. They were unwanted people. Refugees who were thrown out of their original countries. Moreover they were people who believed in language, believed in words and believed in ideas. Every one of them in his or her own way was deeply devoted to something. Perhaps something different each day-including some very eccentric idea on redeeming the world by converting everybody to drinking goat milk and nothing else. Or redeeming the world by growing food in flowerpots and thus having enough food for the entire population. Not that they succeeded in dealing with our little flower pots.
So I grew up in a rather Russian, Chekhovian atmosphere. Although the neighbourhood was full of Tolstoyans. Many people who believed in Tolstoy’s ideas. Some of them even looked exactly like Tolstoy, with a Russian shirt and the boots, and looking like a Russian peasant with the impressive white beard and shock of white hair like a Biblical patriarch. When I first saw a picture of Tolstoy in a book, I knew him from the neighbourhood. I knew several of the type. He was not original; he was imitating the people in our neighbourhood. So they were Tolstoyans, but I take it a little further; they were Tolstoyans with a tormented Dostoyevskian soul. But those Tolstoyans who had tormented Dostoyevskian souls, they lived in a Chekhovian provincial condition and in a Gregorian political realism. That’s the Russian message.
Ramona Koval: I want us to shrink further into this little apartment; a basement apartment that your parents lived in, because the book begins with a bed, a bed in a small flat, a small apartment; a bed that can be concealed during the day but takes up all the space at night. Your parents’ bed. In this cramped flat-you describe the cramped flat many times in the book, but when we visit it through this boy’s eye, it seems enormous. As big as the world.
Amos Oz: Well I was born and I grew up in this submarine. The size of that flat, the basement flat in which I was born, was roughly the size of this stage. I’m not exaggerating. It was divided into four or five very small spaces, very much like a submarine. Fairly dark, because it only had two front windows and two lattices looking into a yard. But this was my world. You have to bear in mind, at this time children were not allowed to run out except in very limited hours. Seven o’clock each night, Jerusalem went under a British-imposed military curfew. On the few nights when the British have not imposed curfew, people were used to it, and kind of self-imposed a curfew upon themselves. So the city will shut down at 7 o’clock. If you promise to take the following with a big grain of salt, I’ll tell you that the former British mandate governor of Jerusalem, a Scotsman, I forget his name, came to visit Jerusalem forty years later. He was a very old man, and he was shown around by Mayor Teddy Kollek and was hugely impressed by the evolution and the development of Jerusalem, but he had a little question to the Mayor. He said, ‘Mayor, why haven’t you lifted the curfew which I imposed forty years ago?’ Because it’s still a very sleepy city and very little of nightlife.
So life was introversive and the submarine of the apartment was my world. This is where I virtually spent most of the hours of the first ten or eleven years of my life. Most of the time, like in the submarine or a jail, I was inside the apartment: father, mother, myself, and thousands of books in 16 or 17 languages-everywhere. Under the bed, in the kitchen, in the lavatory, in the long, winding, dark corridor; in every possible and impossible corner: books, pamphlets and leaflets. This was the landscape of my childhood. Where other children had the sports or the yard or the woods or the fields; I grew up in this bookish, claustrophobic basement.
Ramona Koval: And you say that wherever you had a box of dominoes or matches or buttons, there was a battle. Tell me about those battles.
Amos Oz: Well I was, as a kid, a terrible chauvinist, militarist and warmonger. I loved fighting. I loved war-on the rug, where I would re-live not only world war two but all the historical defeats of the Jewish people in 3,000 years, and I will reverse those defeats into victories by simple means: when the Romans conquered, smashed and destroyed Jerusalem in the first century AD, I would re-conduct the battle, but this time provide the Jewish side with a couple of machineguns. That was sufficient to bring the entire Roman empire down on its knees and wave an Israeli flag on the Imperial Palace in Rome and on the Seven Hills of Rome. Hence the Israeli quest for building settlements everywhere outside our homeland. So I was a militarist, I was a chauvinist, I was a lover of fighting and of war, and I seeked revenge for a history of lasting humiliations. I know one or two people maintain that I haven’t changed much-but I have.
Ramona Koval: But this warmonger, this young warmonger at five years old makes a card for his little room, or the part of the flat that is his own, and the card says ‘Amos Klausner, writer’.
Amos Oz: Yes. In fact I thought to become a writer was the only thing to do because everyone around me was a writer of sorts. Including the dentist who corresponded with Stalin or the expert on Russian nihilism. Everybody wrote, day and night. People wrote books, articles, essays, letters to the editor, letters to each other; memoirs, private diaries. There was not a single living soul in the neighbourhood or in my family who was not writing something. So I thought, how else can anyone in the world make a living? How little I knew, in those days. But it was my childhood fantasy. Not to become the kind of writer I am today, but to become a very militant, political writer of nationalistic [unsense ?] or [marches?] rather than a writer teller of stories.
At the same time, I was addicted to storytelling both as a teller and as a recipient of stories, especially from my mother, who was a born storyteller. And very often in the long winter nights when my father would sit with his endless scholarly research, she and I will sit in the kitchen and she will tell me her invented-I think-very unusual stories. Not the kind of stories mothers normally tell children. Some of them very scary. Some of them very bizarre, esoteric, surreal-or even diabolical. And her stories inspired me in a very deep and dark way. They went into my dreams and they went into-obviously, into my subconscious-and they went into my desire to tell a story in a way no one ever told it before. Not just to tell a story.
Ramona Koval: You wanted to rescue people, too, in those stories.
Amos Oz: Yes. It was my other ambition. I wanted to be a fireman. I wanted to rescue people. I wanted to rescue my own mother so that she will marry. I am very little and very simple. I felt, next to writing-or even ahead of writing-the best thing to do is to have this marvellous smart uniform of a fireman. That will be my way of impressing the girls. I’ll save them all and they will love me for it.
Ramona Koval: What did you learn about memory when you wrote this book?
Amos Oz: There was a postman in our neighbourhood whom I remember very vividly, although it’s more than fifty years ago. And this postman had a strange habit. Before he delivered the envelopes, the letters, into our mailboxes, he would add a little note of his own on the outside of the envelope. Sometimes he will write: ‘never trust the British-remember Perfidious Albion-they are not to be trusted on anything.’ Other times he will write: ‘You are too permissive and too easygoing with your children. You are not doing them a favour by allowing everything.’ Sometimes he will simply write on the outside of an envelope: ‘Your washing has been hanging on the line for 3 or 4 days now and the pigeons …’
You know when I wrote A Tale of Love and Darkness, I likened myself many times to this postman, Mr Meilleur, because as I was digging back in time, going into the intimate world of my parents and then of my grandparents and then even my great-grandparents-I was sensing that I was actually carrying a letter from my parents to my children, who did not really know my parents. From my grandparents to my grandchildren. And perhaps-I don’t know-from my ancestors to those who are not yet born. And even as I carry this letter from the bygone generations to the young generations, I was on the outside of the envelope writing some of my own life. On the outside of the envelope.
But I have also discovered that there is no such thing as memory. There is a memory of a memory. There is a scene or an event or an occurrence which had become part of the family folklore: repeated, told many times by my parents in order to boast, or in order to impress other people. And I remember their version. Then some vague glimmer of a different version of the same occurrence was flickering underneath the version of my parents’. And something even different underneath. So what you really have-not just me, in writing A Tale of Love and Darkness-every one of us, every one of you; what we often have is not a memory, but a memory of a memory. Or a memory of a remembered version. Of a memory not of something that happened, but something that we have told many times and we are telling again and again. And with all this interplay between many shadows and reflections-like the moon caught in a pool, reflected from the pool, not from the heaven, in a windowpane. And what you see, really, is not the moon in the heaven, but the reflection of a reflection of a reflection.
Memory plays funny games, and I went with this game. You know, I didn’t care about the documentary value of this or that particular episode in the story. I never wanted to accept the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, because I think it’s a very artificial distinction.
Ramona Koval: And in fact you as the writer appear in the story, and you say-you know, there is self-reflection-you say you wonder if you should write about your teacher Isabella and her army of cats, because you say they were amusing, but they don’t contribute anything to the progress of the story. And then you go on, ‘Contribute? Progress? I don’t know what can contribute to the progress of the story because as yet I have no idea where this story wants to go, and in fact why it needs contributions or progress.’ And that made me stop, and I thought, could it really be that you didn’t know the destination of your story? Because the destination would seem to be the only one-for a man with your history and the fact that your mother died with you such a young boy-as there would be only one destination.
Amos Oz: You are partly right, Ramona, in posing this question. All the different-the many different parts of this book-they all lead to the cataclysmic event of my mother’s death, which is really told and retold and retold, and finally told in great detail at the very end of the book. And yet the hardest, here, was the composition, the structure. Hence the sense of, where am I going? Does it contribute, where does it take me? Because it is not a linear memoir in any way. If anything, it moves in circles around itself like a fugue. And it’s looking for many devious parts, to kind of postpone the cataclysmic event of my mother’s actual death. And yet it is there right from the beginning. So it is not chronological. It is not linear. The structure or the composition tormented me for a very long time. And in fact the hardest thing-people ask me, was it hard for you to recall those traumatic experiences? No, it was not, because I have been there before, writing this book. Was it hard for you to remember the details? No, it was not, because where I couldn’t remember, I invented.
What was hard; almost impossible, was to find the kind of structure or composition for this ocean of details. This almost Homeric, I would say-not in quality but in scope-Homeric scope of detail and detail and detail, when each detail is on the one hand independent; and on the other hand part of a structure, part of a symphony, a note in a symphony.
Ramona Koval: And this, the repetition, the way family stories are repeated, told in many situations, recounted, rephrased-and the circles you talk about, the tales that circle the moment of your mother’s death, getting closer like a moth to a flame. And throughout there is a single bird, singing the opening five notes of ‘Für Elise’, like a prayer. Tell me about those five notes.
Amos Oz: There is nothing I can tell you about this bird which the book itself doesn’t tell you. It’s just some kind of a refrain, if you wish, of a mourning refrain, which is like a lamentation. And it keeps coming back and back through this book, this bird singing the five opening notes of ‘Für Elise’ in very different moments in my life and in this book. And yes, indeed-I don’t know. I don’t know what to say. It’s just there.
Ramona Koval: There’s also something kind of Old Testament about this book, too; recounting this person who begat this person, who begat this person … it’s from a big tradition of the story of the Jews.
Amos Oz: That is a great need, to tell my children and my grandchildren-where do we really come from. Precisely that which my parents tried to censor from me for their embarrassment and humiliation and uneasiness. They were ashamed. they were ashamed to tell their child how unwanted they were. Now that’s universally true, not only of European Jews or east European Jews. This is true of my Iraqi-Jewish friends who are embarrassed or were embarrassed for decades to talk about the circumstances of their expulsion from Iraq. Or those who were expelled by the Arabs from north Africa or from Egypt. It’s coming out recently, not only in this book, but in various different suburbs or outskirts of contemporary Hebrew literature. We are getting more and more family tales which are amazingly similar, not in anything but in this one respect: some kind of longstanding censorship is being banned and the true character of Israel as a multi-background refugee camp, or a life-raft-is surfacing now that gone is the need to pretend that we are the macho of the world or we are the mightiest-at least in literature-or we are the new kind of careless, unworried, un-neurotic, uncomplicated Jews. This need to present this façade is gone in the literature. And it’s gone in various parts of the literature and it opens up the family stories which were suppressed for so long in so many Israeli families.
Ramona Koval: There’s a moment which is truly shocking, I think, for me to read, about the survivors who came back after the war and tried to make a life in Israel. And you describe a neighbour of yours, who is a survivor, who’s a very horrific kind of character who’s a feared character. Can you talk about that-because it seems to me there’s such pity in that story.
Amos Oz: There was a man who must have been the only survivor of his family. Very scary-looking man. Perhaps not entirely sane after all the horrors he must have been through. And he had a little hole in the wall which in daytime was a drycleaning and a laundrette. In nighttime he unfolded his mattress and he slept, and lived and cooked there. That was his place. And most of the day he would sit on a little stool in front of his hole in the wall, waiting for customers. And each time he will see us children, he will not say, but almost spit at us, in a Polish accent, with hatred: ‘A million children. A million children died, like you. They’re butchers.’ We kids, who did not even know what he was talking about, we called him ‘a million children’. That was his nickname. But he was always pointing his finger at us, accusing us of being alive. What have you kids done to deserve to be alive when a million other kids like you were killed? How dare you be alive. Why do you deserve to be alive? What do you have to say to justify the fact that you are alive? All of this we couldn’t understand, or decipher. But the vibrations, the anger, the bitterness, the despair. The, if you wish, the psychopathology-this was in the air.
Ramona Koval: And not just him, but others like him, didn’t really find a comfortable place in the new country. They weren’t the new Jews, were they?
Amos Oz: The new Jews, yes. The new Jews existed beyond the horizon. they were in the kibbutzim, they were in the moshavim, they were suntanned, they were uncomplicated, they were driving tractors, they were repelling our Arab captors, they were supermen, and they came right out of the wild west. they were the John Wayne type of a Jew. I believed in them. We all believed that they existed. Until I finally moved to a kibbutz and discovered that they are as argumentative, as talkative, as quarrelsome-as my parents. Except they were suntanned. And the subjects of the arguments were slightly different, but they were still in the business of finding a verbal combination for instant universal solution and for resolving everything. They were forever resolving, in the kibbutz as well as in Jerusalem. The Jewish-Arab question, the Zionist question, the male-female question-everything. They were resolving. Except they couldn’t even tie their shoelaces properly. And when they had to pronounce the word ‘woman’, the men would blush. Just because they pronounced ‘woman’ or ‘legs’ or ‘breastfeeding’. They would blush. They would say ‘legs’ and blush. The world reformers who make speeches about free love and the need to reconsider the entire institution of marriage and perhaps reopen the relationship between the sexes-but they couldn’t pronounce the Hebrew word ‘legs’ [ragleim ?], without blushing immediately.
Ramona Koval: You tell a couple of stories about relationships with Arabs in Jerusalem in your neighbourhood. The first story is about being lost in a shop and being rescued.
Amos Oz: Yes, it was an Arab shop, an Arab clothing shop. I was taken there by my minder, who was a measuring freak. I never saw her buying any clothes, but she would measure. She would take me and measure and measure and measure, and I had to wait for her. Like a fat Aphrodite, she would come out of the measuring box wearing this or that and asking for my little judgment, whether this dress or this fur coat or this … So one day I got-it’s a long story; I’ll cut it short-I got lost in the huge jungle of treetrunks of clothes in the store. Revolving treetrunks. It was a jungle; exotic. Full of unknown odours and flavours. Full of lingerie the such of which I’ve never seen before and not for many years after. It was a very exotic place, and I couldn’t find my way, and I saw a midget, which gave me a terrible scare, and I just got lost and hid in a space under some fur capes, couldn’t get out and was rescued by a very fatherly Arab employee, who I’ll never forget, and who to this very day-I don’t know his name, I don’t know his destiny-but his existence brings tears to my eyes, not because he was an Arab and I was a little Jewish boy, but because he was fatherly in a way in which my own father had never been. I cannot repeat the entire description in the book. But for years and years and years, the question, what happened to this man-is he rotting in one of those dreadful refugee camps after ’48? Has he lost his home and everything? What have I to do with this? Is it true that in 1948 it was either him or us? Did it have to happen the way it did happen, or not? So I implied guilt but not necessarily sin. We Jews are the world champions in suffering the agonies of guilt without enjoying the delights of sin first.
I am not going, right now, into the Israeli-Arab issues. We have talked about this and we will talk about this, but tonight we are focusing around this book. It is not a black-and-white issue in this novel. It is not a black-and-white issue in politics. It’s not a black-and-white issue in my own emotion. I have not entirely sorted it out in a way many ideologists have sorted it out by taking sides and happily going to sleep afterwards. I think it is a dreadful, tragic clash between two very powerful, very convincing claims, which are almost mutually exclusive. Such a tragic clash can either be resolved by a painful, clenched-teeth compromise, or by a terrible bloodbath. And I have been opting for a compromise. I am a man of compromises. This is a book about the need to compromise.
Ramona Koval: So … there are many things in a life. You’re getting more mature now. You’re almost grown up, probably, and there are many things you could have selected from your life to write about. So this was an important thing for you to select. In a literary vein, too.
Amos Oz: You know, I didn’t write this novel as a kind of self therapy. I have written it when I came to be past the point of being angry-with my parents or with myself or with my background or with my world. It’s a book of reconciliation. I said this yesterday morning and I still agree with myself today, although it’s not always the case with me. This book is a part of a peace process with myself. For years and years and years I was furiously angry with my mother for just walking away like this. Without even saying goodbye. Without leaving me an explanatory note. She who always, always insisted that if I go out of the house for more than half an hour, I leave a note in a set place, under the flower vase, always telling where I am and when am I coming back. And that was a rule of the house. My father, my mother, myself-anyone who walks for more than half an hour leaves a note. Suddenly she walks out. She says nothing and she walks out, not for half an hour, but for longer and longer. I could not initially digest for how long. So I was hugely angry, on my behalf and on behalf of my father. I felt as if she ran away with another man. As if she betrayed my father and me and she ran away with a lover. I didn’t have the slightest compassion for her suffering. I had all the compassion in the world for the sufferings of my father; but not for hers. Then it changed. I grew angry with my father. This idiot lost the best woman in the world. How could he lose my love? He must have done something terrible enough to cause her to walk away. Then the anger switched and was turned against myself. There must be something very, very terrible with me, if my mother just walked out and walked away from me. Every mother, not only in the human world, even in the realm of the living, among animals-loves its pets or its cubs or its babies. Except for me. So something must have been terribly wrong with me. If I had only remembered to properly hang my shirt on the hanger, she’d still be here. If I’d taken my dishes to the socket. If I’ll take the garbage out she will still be here. It’s just me, because I have been unruly and difficult. So years and years of rotating anger. And then despair, and then disbelief. And then a certain urge to think about other things.
When all of this was over, and I could think about both of them with empathy and I could think or write about my parents in a ‘parently’ way, I could write this book. Beyond the anger, beyond the disbelief, with a certain curiosity and without any urge to point my finger at him or at her or at me-without looking for the guilty party.
Ramona Koval: You turned yourself into another person when you were angry with your mother; you were angry with your father-so Amos Klausner becomes Amos Oz. You chose this name. Tell me why you chose that last name.
Amos Oz: Oz means courage, strength and determination. Everything I needed very badly and didn’t really possess. When I decided to rebel against my father’s world and move to live in kibbutz school at the age of fourteen-and-a-half or fifteen. So I decided to get born anew. I will be everything that my parents were not, and I will not be anything that they were. In fact I came to the kibbutz with three cardinal decisions about my life. One, I’ll never write again. Not a single line. Two, I’ll never masturbate again. Never. Not once. Three, I’ll get suntanned in three days. Suntanned like those bronzed kibbutz boys. All three decisions turned out to be either a disaster, or an impossibility.
But the name Oz came to really whistle in the dark and encourage myself. You can make it. You can do it. You can overcome. You can be born anew. You can become someone else. You can become someone else. Now this is ironic, because in a sense, when my parents came from Europe to Jerusalem, they wanted to become different. They even internalised some of the European spite and hatred for Jews. They said something must be wrong with us, we have to change. Shut up and work on the land. Years later, I said something must be wrong with my parents. I have to change. I have to be born again. I have to be different. Now I look at all of this, and this is really the tune of this book, with compassion, with humour, and with endless curiosity. Endless curiosity. Because in a sense this is a universal comedy of immigrants wherever they are. Whether they are Jewish, European Jews or Middle Eastern Jews in Jerusalem. Or West Indies or Pakistanis here in Britain. Or Hispanos in the United States-any immigrants. People who leave behind the language they would like to forget but they will never forget. They come to a promised land where they expect to find paradise but they will never find a paradise. Very soon they discover that their own hopes are not going to be fulfilled, and they place the entire yoke, weight, of their frustrated hopes on the children. And so the immigrant family becomes a kind of Cape Canaveral and the children-in my case the one child-becomes the missile, the rocket, which will have to take the family ambitions sky-high. And the whole family is no more than the launching pad. The whole immigrant family. This is universal, not local. And this is both comic and tragic, the same. And as I said yesterday, in writing this book, I wrote from the perspective that the comic and the tragic are not two planets. they are not two worlds. they are not even two attitudes. They are just two different windows through which we can observe the same landscape, the same backyards of our lives. And so I write A Tale of Love and Darkness, hoping not to make my readers smile on one page and perhaps shed a tear or empathise on the next; but both at the same time. It’s a non-judgmental book. It’s a book about the human comi-tragedy, or tragi-comedy.
Ramona Koval: Well, I must tell you that I laughed and cried when I read this book. It’s a very wonderful, moving book. And I could talk to you for another five hours about all the things that I haven’t mentioned yet, but I think we just might have time for a couple of questions. Perhaps we could put the lights up and if there’s a question that you have, put your hand up. Yes, sir, just wait for the mic …
audience question: Good evening. Shalom. You said at one stage tonight that part of what you felt you were doing was carrying a letter from your grandparents to your grandchildren, or from your parents to your children. What do feel that you would like that letter to be saying to that generation in the book that you’ve written?
Amos Oz: Are you asking me what is the message I am trying to convey from one generation to another?
audience member: I was trying not to use the word ‘message’, but I guess so, yes.
Amos Oz: No, it’s not about carrying a message. It’s about telling a story which had been suppressed and hushed down and censored for embarrassment. I want to tell my children and my grandchildren that their parents and grandparents were neither super-men nor human chaff. They were shattered, in some cases humiliated, very embarrassed human beings. Not unlike the present generation of Israelis who are embarrassed, divided, unhappy, sorting out their identity. So no, my urge was not to convey a message, my urge was to tell and to carry as many details as I could. As if I was carrying heavy family albums and saying, look at those people, just look at them. Look at this funny kind of bicycle. Look at this heavy flannel suit in the Jerusalem 38 Centigrade degree heat. You know why they are wearing this heavy flannel suit? and then I tell the story. So I needed to tell, not to prove, not to convince, not to persuade, not to score points, but to tell. I think the need to tell is as elementary as our sexual urges. We all tell stories. Not only the novelists among us. We need to tell. We cannot live without telling, and we need to take stories. We need to be both on the giving and the receiving end of storytelling. So storytelling, telling stories, cannot be reduced into anything-not even into carrying important ethical, ideological or political messages. It is storytelling.
Ramona Koval: Yes, sir, just here on the aisle, and you have to …
audience question: I’m interested in your … I believe you’re right and that there is an inherent necessity to tell. But do you think it would not be better for our future generations if we waited for them to ask.
Amos Oz: Better for future generations …
audience member: If we waited for them to ask, rather than telling them?
Amos Oz: You know, they do ask sometimes. In fact when I asked questions, my parents would very often say to me, ‘You better don’t ask’, or they would say, ‘You will never understand it anyway.’ Or they will explain to me the kind of more ideological, political message-y side of things. If I asked my parents, ‘Why are you here and not there? Why do you speak a language different to the language that your own parents spoke?’ They will give me the ideological Zionist line: we are here because we have to be born anew, we have to build a country … blah, blah. Now I thought, in writing this book, that I am trying to satisfy a certain question first which existed for a long time. Of course I am not the only one. I think by and large Hebrew literature at its best has been doing just this in many ways for several years now. But, of course, we all answer sometimes questions we have not even been asked. This is again part of the human comedy. We answer questions that nobody asks us. And we answer because we cannot wait until we are asked. And we answer because we need to answer before they ask. And we need to answer even if they meant to ask.
Ramona Koval: I think you’ll agree with me that there are many, many questions that have arisen and answers that might be possible. Tonight the Spiegel tent is open now, and you could go there and have a drink and debate amongst yourselves some of the things you’ve heard. Or you could go next door and buy this wonderful book, A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz’s book, which I would recommend to you. And he will sign it for you. And I’ve had a lovely time. I’m sure you have too. Please thank Amos Oz.
Recorded in Edinburgh in 2002
And here is the conversation from 2002:
Amos Oz is known for his writing depicting all kinds of struggles: the human ones between flesh and spirit, between fantasy and reality; and the political and social struggles of his Israeli protagonists.
The Same Sea is Amos Oz’s new book. It’s a mixture of prose poem and verse novel, a departure of form for Oz. The Same Sea is a haunting evocation of a family, a widower and his son, the son’s girlfriend, the widower’s lady friend, the girlfriend’s other connections, the son’s temporary mistress. And all through the heat of Israel and the cold of the mountains in which the son is trying to find himself, through changing timezones, moves the ghost of the dead wife and mother-and the ghost of the Old Testament, especially The Song of Songs.
Nadia Danon has died of cancer. Her husband Albert and their grown son Enrico David are struggling to adjust to their loss. Rico has decided to go in quest of mountains and peace of mind in Tibet, leaving his father to struggle with loneliness on his own. At the beginning of the novel, Albert, a tax accountant, sits night after night at his computer looking for loopholes in the tax laws, convinced that everyone is condemned to wait for their own death, locked in a separate cage.
It’s also a playful novel, in which the author, the narrator, Amos Oz himself, walks in and out as a minor character, giving some of his other characters a dressing down and sometimes receiving a dressing down in return. To begin our conversation in Edinburgh, Amos Oz read from his novel, a scene in which the narrator, Oz, goes to extend his condolences to Albert Danon and have a glass of tea. Danon gives Oz a political lecture.
As Amos Oz told the packed audience in Edinburgh, he’s a hopeless chauvinist for his language, Hebrew, which he regards as the best musical instrument in the world. So Amos Oz began reading in Hebrew.
Amos Oz: I guess I have to switch into English now, or into what I take for English, come what might.
The narrator drops in for a glass of tea and Albert says to him
I read an article of yours. Fire and brimstone in yesterday’s Yediot. Rico showed it to me, he said, Read this, Dad, and don’t get worked up, just try to grasp where we are living and where all this lunacy is leading us. That’s what he said, more or less. I think he is even further to the left than you, this repressive state and so on. I’m not such a moral person as either of you, but I don’t like the present situation much either. Mostly I say nothing, from a deep-seated fear that in responding to this or that wrong even I may come out with things that are not exactly right. Anger sends out secondaries. Naturally I have every respect for the brave child who shouts that the Emperor is naked when the crowd is cheering Long live the emperor. But the situation today is that the crowd is yelling that the emperor is naked and maybe for that reason the child ought to find something new to shout, or else he should say what he has to say without shouting. As it is, there is so much noise, even here, the whole country is full of screaming, incantations, amulets, trumpets, fifes and drums. Or else the opposite, biting sarcasm: everyone denouncing everyone else. Personally, I’m of the opinion that any criticism of public affairs ought to contain shall we say up to twenty per cent sarcasm, twenty per cent pain, and sixty per cent clinical seriousness, otherwise everyone is mocking and jeering at each other, everyone starts making false noises and everything is filled with malice. Help yourself, try some of the other one, Nadia’s sister-in-law baked them for me so I’d have something to offer people who come to pay their condolences. Try the cheesecake, whichever you like, they’re both very good. When you write for the papers, of course you must write whatever you wish, even harsh things, but don’t forget that the human voice may have been created to express both protest and ridicule, but essentially it contains a considerable percentage of quiet, precise speech which is meant to come out in measured words. It may seem that in the midst of all the hubbub such a voice has no chance, but nevertheless it’s worth using it, even in a small room among three or four listeners. There are still some people in this country who maintain that the Emperor is usually neither naked nor fully dressed, but for example wearing clothes that do not suit him. He may even be excellently dressed but every bit as foolish as the cheering crowd, or the other crowd that is no longer cheering but jeering, or shouting that the emperor is dead, or deserves to be. And anyway, who says that a naked emperor is such a bad thing? After all, aren’t the crowd also naked, and the tailor and the little boy? Perhaps the best thing for you is to steer clear of the procession altogether. Stay put in your house in Arad and try to write in a quiet way if you can. At times like these, quiet is the most precious commodity in the country. And let there be no misunderstanding, I am talking about quiet, definitely not about silence.
Ramona Koval: Amos Oz, this book, as you mentioned, is in verse novel form and there are some prose parts. Why did you choose this form for this book?
Amos Oz: It will be very pretentious of me to say that I chose it. In fact I travelled about ten years ago to a small mountain village in Cyprus to work on what I assumed will evolve into a fairly traditional novel-long lines, cast of characters, plot and so on. I worked in total solitude for several weeks on a balcony overlooking the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea-the Same Sea. And at the end of each working day I prepared for the next working day some notes and sketches, which I did in rhymes. In verse, just to disperse my solitude or to amuse myself or to stay awake.
After a while, I discovered that this is how this work wants to be written. It wants to sing and dance; not just to tell a story. It wants to be a work of music as much as it is a work of literature. It wants to erase the line between story-telling and music; between fiction and confession; between characters and the author-and if you wish, even the lines between the living and the dead, because in this novel the dead mingle with the living on an every day basis.
Ramona Koval: It’s a book of erotic images, lusts, sadnesses and communication with people that is possible over long distances without the use of modern forms of communication technology. The hearts of these characters are speaking to each other, aren’t they?
Amos Oz: They keep each other on their radar screens all the time. There is one particular example, when the prodigal son takes a prostitute to bed with him somewhere in Nepal, I think. His father knows about it in real time, back in Bat Yam, five thousand or six thousand miles away; and gives him a thundering dressing down in wrathful Biblical Hebrew, while his mother immediately defend s him. She has been dead for a few months, but since when is being dead a problem for a Jewish mother defending her boy? [laughter]
So there are no secrets. Every one of those characters-including the narrator-everyone knows what everyone else is doing in real time. I haven’t written a novel, I have written an orgy. They all are ideally not only in the same room together, but even in the same bed together all the time. Parents and children and lovers and strangers and the narrator. One big orgy.
Ramona Koval: Except, at the beginning of the novel, Albert, this tax accountant, ‘sits night after night at his computer looking for loopholes, convinced that everyone is condemned to wait for their own death, locked in a separate cage.’
Amos Oz: That’s why the novel tries to break the cage and create this basic experience-which I think some of you people in the audience may share. It’s the kind of conversations we often conduct in total solitude with someone who is not there in the room any longer. You know what I’m talking about. She and he had a terrible fight last night, but now it’s the next morning. She is driving to work. He is clearing the dishes from the breakfast table and talking to her. And now miraculously he manages to explain everything he failed to tell her last night. And now he even makes sense. Yesterday he was mad. Now he makes sense. He is so convincing. He is so touching, he is so moving, she must not only forgive him, she must love him. Except she is not there in the room; she is driving her car to work talking to him. And she is so just now, unlike last night. And she is so fair and she is so honest that he cannot but love her-except he is not there. He is clearing the dishes. That’s what we do most of the time. We talk to people who are no longer there. That’s what we do in our dreams. In fact that’s the way in which we communicate with the dead. And it’s a very good way, because you’ll never get interrupted in mid-sentence. You always get to say what you like to say.
So I tried to create a novel where in the depth of solitude, everyone actually has everyone else. There is an episode where the prodigal son knows that his father is now taking the son’s girlfriend to bed with him. He is not angry. He knows it in real time and he says to his Dad, from thousands of miles away, That’s only fair, Dad. that’s quite all right. After all, when I was a babe, your woman entertained me on her breast and breast-fed me, and now that you are about to become a babe it’s only fair that my woman will give you the same thing.
Ramona Koval: Albert must be the most dreamy, poetic accountant of all of literature. Why is he an accountant?
Amos Oz: Because this is a book, in a sense, about accountancy. Every one of the characters is accounting, including myself. It’s a book about my life. It’s a book about my dead mother, who killed herself when I was twelve. It’s a book about how I became a story-teller. It’s a book of how I relate to my own so-called characters and how they relate to me. So this is accountancy. This is bookkeeping. I needed to make him a bookkeeper. Besides, a tax adviser is probably as crucial in Israel as he is here in Scotland and perhaps even more. So this book is very popular with tax advisers-which helps. [laughter]
Ramona Koval: The dead wife, Nadia; I thought the use of poetry for this book was a really good way of blurring that line between the dead and the living. You get away with so much more in poetry, don’t you think?
Amos Oz: I never succeeded to draw the exact line between prose and poetry, although I’ve been a professor of literature for many years and I give classes on how to distinguish between poetry and prose, I don’t know where the line is. I think this book is meant to be somewhere in the twilight zone, as I said, between prose and poetry, but also between music and story-telling. It is a book about erasing lines. Some of my reviewers and critics in Israel described this one as post-modern. In fact it is not a post-modern book, it is a pre-archaic book. I call it pre-archaic because it takes the novel right to where it had actually begun, with the troubadour, those wandering storytellers and singers who will pour their tales-or sing their tales-on random audiences in different inns at night, telling a story, mixing fact and fiction and confession, sometimes singing, sometimes accompanying themselves with a musical instrument, telling a story, singing again.
So this is taking the novel back to where it had been when it still was a vagabond creature, before it became a very middle-class creature with a Freudian basement and a Marxist kitchen and a sociological living room and a post-modern attic and a libidian bedroom. So this is back to the open. By the way, much of it takes place not inside the rooms but among the elements: the ocean, the desert, the mountains are active characters in this novel, they speak.
Ramona Koval: One of the underpinnings of course is The Song of Songs, from the Old Testament, which in Christian theology, I suppose, is described as a song between the Church and Jesus or the priests. In Hebrew I think it is a very erotic poem.
Amos Oz: It’s a sexy poem, but even the ancient Hebrews interpreted it as a theological fable because it was too sexy for the Rabbis to take at face value.
Ramona Koval: So what’s a sexy poem doing in the Old Testament, in the middle of things.
Amos Oz: It is a fierce love song. Very physical, very direct. With all due respect to either Christian or Jewish theological interpretations-and I’m sure Jesus had never read the Christian theological interpretation, he only knew the Jewish one for the Song of Songs-it is such a vibrant window into the way our ancestors really lived in the land of Israel three thousand years ago in the days of King Solomon.
What’s more significant to me, it is an assembly of voices. It is an exchange between a man and a woman and sometimes even an exchange between a group of men and a group of women-a chorus, a choir. And it is about the direct-very un-Christian, I’m afraid-direct relationship between emotional and physical love. In the Song of Songs the physical and the emotional are one. No wonder that when I was developing my orgy, everyone making love or having a relationship with everyone else, I resorted-I leaned heavily on-the Song of Songs. But to some extent also on the Psalms and the Ecclesiastes.
Ramona Koval: The Narrator, as you say, is very much like you. He lives in Arad, he is indeed the author of a book that you have written, To Know a Woman. What is the idea of placing him there?
Amos Oz: You know when I wear my cap of a Professor of Literature, I teach my students that they should cautiously draw the line between the author, narrator, the fictitious narrator, the implied author, the autobiographical writer and myself. In this novel I erase those lines completely. There is a specific episode here where early one morning everyone comes to work for me in my garden. The characters, the implied author, the fictitious narrator, the autobiographical writer and myself. We all work in the garden together with some of the fictitious characters and some of my family. After all those characters, I have worked for them five years; why can’t they work for me one morning in my garden?
So it is in this novel, it’s me. Directly me and I ignore the erudite literary distinction between various degrees of fictitious author. It’s me.
Ramona Koval: As you said, music moves through the book: the names of classical pieces, some talk of silences, allowing the landscape to speak to you through listening. What are you saying with these references to sound and no sound?
Amos Oz: Well, I wrote this book about the silences in between the words-or the silences in between the noises-as much as about words. I mentioned to you earlier that the ocean and the desert where I live and the mountains are among my cast of characters. They have different-what do you call it in English-longwaves-of silence. Different frequencies of silence. And I tried to capture the various silences here. but also sections in this novel are titled ‘Nocturno’, ‘Adagio’, and such musical names. It is a novel about the furthest ends of language. And of course where language ends we either scream or shut up. And when we shut up, we sometimes hear one or two things-provided we really shut up-even inside our heads. If we don’t, we’ll never hear anything. We have to switch off.
Ramona Koval: You once said that reading a book in translation is like making love to someone through a window. And presumably Nicholas de Lange makes the glass very, very transparent here. But he’s been translating your work for a long time, but I imagine this book, considering the poetic form, is even more important to translate accurately if there is ever a way of translating poetic things.
Amos Oz: I think what I initially said was that reading a work of literature, particularly a work of poetry, in translation is more like making love through a blanket. For despair I will do even this, but it’s not the same. Now to be kinder to the art of translation, I will say that it is perhaps like playing a violin concerto on the piano. It can be done. It can be done successfully on one strict condition. Never, ever try to force the piano to produce the sounds of the violin. this will be grotesque.
So in translating The Same Sea, I told Nicholas de Lange, as I always tell him, for God’s sake be unfaithful in order to be loyal. And I think he has done an awesome job. Because poetry is so difficult to travel. Because poetry depends so deeply on the most intimate codes of the language and the culture. I sometimes think poetry is a bit like a family joke. You say inside the family a sentence such as, ‘Aunt Jenny’s eggplants.’ The whole family immediately explodes with laughter. If you are not of the family, you don’t even know what they are laughing about. Poetry is a bit like this, because it is full of intimate codes. Nicholas de Lange succeeded to transform some of those codes into the codes of English poetry and English poetic traditions-which I think is a miracle. Translating Hebrew into English is travelling a very long way.
Ramona Koval: What are the elements of Hebrew that you find untranslatable? The actual kinds of things that you can say in that language that you feel you can’t say in other languages?
Amos Oz: Don’t let me get going on this, because as I told you, I may not be at all a chauvinist for the country or the nation-on the contrary, I am very critical of it. When it comes to the Hebrew language, I am the worst chauvinist in the world, so-
Ramona Koval: Be my guest.
Amos Oz: -control me; contain me. I’ll say this: Hebrew is an extremely algebraic musical instrument, very concise, almost symbolic. Every Hebrew text, whether it is the Old Testament or the New Testament, or The Same Sea, it becomes about thirty per cent longer when it travels into English, and fifty per cent longer when it travels into German.
I many years ago wrote a novella about the Crusaders, which began with a three-word opening sentence in Hebrew: T’/Rila Rag/shu Akfarim. It is rendered-honestly-into English, with the following sentence: It all began with outbreaks of discontent in the villages. Well just count the syllables. There is something about the conciseness of Hebrew, the almost tight capacity of this language, which I do not find in English. I don’t know any other languages; very little.
There is also in Hebrew a different concept of time, a different idea of time, a different system of tenses. As a result, perhaps, a different idea of reality altogether. To give you but one example before I get carried away, there is no Hebrew verb for ‘to have’. If you want to say in Hebrew ‘I have’, you say Yesh-Li-two syllables-but what they mean is ‘there is with me,’ which is totally different than ‘I have’. If I think of the English connotation of ‘I have a wife,’ or ‘I have a child,’ or ‘I have a friend,’ it sounds, to me as a native Hebrew thinker, extremely rude and possessive. What do you mean, ‘you have?’ You cannot have another person. Whatever it is, it may be with you today; it may be with someone else tomorrow. A very nomadic attitude. Different conception of reality. Different idea and notion of reality. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Ramona Koval: Except I want to ask about time, because this is very important in a novel, the idea of time. Tell me about Hebrew and time.
Amos Oz: Modern Hebrew has a present tense, although it is a very shaky tense. Biblical Hebrew has no present tense at all. Everything in Biblical Hebrew is either past or future, which is philosophically right. Bergsonian. In the spirit of Henri Bergson. By the time we pronounce the word ‘present’, it’s past. And as long as we just intend to say ‘the present’, it’s still the future. The present tense is an obstruction. Now modern Hebrew has it, under the influence of other languages, but it is still a very fluid tense and you can switch in mid-sentence from present to various degrees of forms of past and into future-without the squeaky change of gears which it takes when you want to switch tenses in English. You have to use half a dozen grammatical words if you want to do this in English, and I cannot even imitate it. In Hebrew you can very elegantly switch from one tense to another, which is very close to my heart and my soul and my feelings, because I think we live simultaneously in various layers of time. Even as you, hopefully, are sitting here and listening to me, you probably recall things in your past or in your ‘memoir’ or in your experience. And perhaps you plan, or part of you plans what you will do when this is finally over, what you will do next. So we all exist and live various layers of time simultaneously.
In The Same Sea I put a strong sense of this fluidity of the tenses. Nadia, the wife, the mother. She is alive in one section; she is dead in the next section. She is a sixteen year old girl back in Bulgaria where she was born and grew up before she migrated to Israel in the next section, and finally in an earlier section, she might be an old woman. So various layers of existence are interwoven and time itself becomes what I think it really is-a river. A river that carries with it old wood and new things-various things.
Ramona Koval: Another very difficult task for the translator I think was dealing with the many references to Biblical sources. In the Hebrew version, do you have to do a lot of footnotes, or do people know the Biblical sources-or have they forgotten them?
Amos Oz: There are no footnotes and there is no glossary in the Hebrew edition, partly because I am very optimistic; partly because a lot of it is simply absorbed into the modern Hebrew blood cycle. People use Biblical or post-Biblical Hebrew expressions without even thinking twice that these expressions initially belonged to the Psalms or to the Prophets or to King David or to the Torah-to the Five Books of Moses. In English, Nicholas, who is perhaps more cautious than I am, added a modest glossary with some suggestions. But the good news is that you can, I think, read the book, follow the plot, follow the characters, enjoy the playfulness I think of this novel without giving a second thought to where this or that particular connotation originates from.
Ramona Koval: How does it feel to be writing in a language in which you could have spoken to your forebears three thousand years ago?
Amos Oz: I could. I am not sure they would understand every word I say, but I would understand everything they say. Unlike ancient Greek or Latin. Hebrew-precisely because it slept, it was not dead, it slept for seventeen centuries in a glass case and was woken up by a princely kiss-the changes are not as extreme as they are between ancient Greek and modern Greek; or between Latin and Italian. It is the same language with an extra two floors, two stories added to an ancient foundation. Hebrew in fact had been revived as a spoken language barely one hundred years ago, as a result of the encounter of the indigenous Sephardic Jewish population in Jerusalem, which always lived there, with the influx of new immigrants, new Jewish immigrants from eastern and central Europe. The native Jews could speak Arabic, sometimes Turkish, Persian-or Ladino, which is a medieval Spanish dialect. The newcomers, the Jews from Russia or Poland, they could speak Yiddish, Russian, Polish; in some cases Hungarian or German. The only way to ask directions to the Wailing Wall or rent an apartment or a business was to resort to the prayerbook Hebrew. If you put on a desert island one thousand well educated, church-going Roman Catholic Irish people, along with one thousand well educated Roman Catholic, church-going Polish people; Latin may have been revived for the same reason-for very practical reasons-which is exactly what happened in Jerusalem one hundred years ago.
If you wish, I can tell you the exact moment when Hebrew became a living language again. I know when this happened. It happened some time in the last decade of the nineteenth century when for the first time in seventeen centuries a boy said to a girl-or a girl to a boy-Ani ochev atah-I love you, in Hebrew. For the first time in seventeen centuries because in those centuries Hebrew was used in the Synagogue, it was used for scholarly writing, sometimes for artistic writing-but not in the bedroom or in the kitchen. The boy must have been an immigrant from Eastern Europe and the girl a native Sephardi, or vice-versa. The only way he could communicate his emotions to her or she to him was to use the common denominator, the Song of Songs Hebrew,Ani ochev atah-I love you. I hope they had their way with each other. I hope they lived a very long life, and if they lived to be a hundred and twenty, they may still be alive, this couple. They have revived Hebrew. They deserve the credit.
Ramona Koval: Your wonderful little book, The Story Begins, Essays on Literature as an exploration of the opening sections of novels and stories by such writers as Chekhov, Kafka, Gogol, Carver; it’s evidence of a very, very close reader in you, and argues for the pleasures of slow reading in fact. I wondered if it was with the same eye that you create your own opening sections or do you do that with a different part of your mind. Are you more intuitive with your own work?
Amos Oz: I obviously did the beginning of The Same Sea with a different part of my mind, but I hoped I learned something from myself. Or rather from the masters whose beginning opening sentences or opening sections or opening pages I described in this booklet, The Story Begins. It is again a playful little collection and it’s about the foreplay. It’s about the foreplay really. The way great novelists and artists of various languages and various cultures seduce the reader into the book. After all, it’s not a simple thing. An opening sentence, an opening section, an opening paragraph sometimes creates the tune of the relationship between reader and writer. And every one of you who had ever tried to write anything at all-even a private letter, not to mention prose or poetry-everyone knows the fierce, cold hostility of the blank page, which is like a blank wall. And you really need to start somewhere, start with something so that the beginning will not be too clich but also not too bizarre and not to start in the middle but not to start with the obvious and not to repeat what you have said in the previous letter. We have all been through this.
You know probably Chekhov’s wonderful little masterpiece, ‘The Lady With a Little Dog.’ To me, an opening section of any work of literature is a little bit like the beginning of ‘The Lady with a Dog’ You lure, you seduce the little dog with a bone so that the little dog gives you the pretext to start communicating with the lady. To make a pass to the lady. No little bone; no little dog. No little dog; no lady. No lady; no story. That’s the rule of the thumb. So you have to start from some kind of seduction. And I believe there is a lot in the comparison between reader-writer relationship and lovers’ relationship. It is after all a pass between total strangers, especially when you read a novel by someone whose work you have never read before. You have to make a pass. You have to create a certain note. Sometimes a false note. Sometimes the opening section is a total trap; sometimes it is misleading. But it is always a beginning of a relationship, something to be remembered.
Ramona Koval: This craft, this analytical craft-are you somebody who writes and rewrites and rewrites and hones it down like a sculptor, or is it more intuitive for you?
Amos Oz: It’s very intuitive, but then I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. Of course it is intuitive, yes. Though I do very many longhand drafts before I come to terms with what I’ve written, and even then very often I destroy them all. Though I’m not an easy writer, especially not in this book, which intended to be very sparse, very condensed, which is why it took me five whole years to write. It’s much easier to write a long, overflowing book, with tens of pages for a description of anything, than to write such a concise book.
Ramona Koval: When you write your journalism, do the same rules apply, say, to the beginning?
Amos Oz: No. No, no. Journalism, or essayism, I only write for rage. I only write an article or an essay when I want to tell the government what to do or where to go altogether. Which I do about once in two weeks, normally telling the government to go to hell and for some reason they never listen to me. They read my articles and they don’t go to hell-which means they are bad readers and they don’t understand what they read. But I write essays and articles when I find myself in a total agreement with myself. One hundred per cent. Sometimes I take Albert Danon’s advice and try to speak in a softer voice. Sometimes I forget his advice and I scream exactly-especially when the situation makes me scream-with rage.
But telling a story is a different business. I only tell a story when I hear several voices, not just one in me. When I can see different aspects, or different sides, to the same situation, then I know that I am at least pregnant with a story, not with an essay or a political article. It’s a different ball game. In fact I even have two different ball pens, very simple ones, which I replace-substitute every two weeks or so. I have two of them: one blue and one black. One for my articles; one for my stories. They are both sitting on my desk to remind me that I am doing a different thing when I write an angry article telling the government to go…whatever; and when I write a story, which is a totally different thing; I write a story because I want to tell a story.
rk” And yet, there is a tendency in critics to try and reinterpret your novels, your stories, in some kind of underlying political way because you come from where you do.
Amos Oz: What can I do? If I ever wrote a story about father, mother, daughter and pocket money; the critics everywhere, in my country and here, will immediately say, Aha, surely the father is the government, the mother is the religion, the daughter is the young generation and the pocket money is the inflation rate. What can I do? It should be against the law, but it isn’t. So I think this is the lot of every writer who comes from a troubled part of the world.
I write stories about the great and simple things. Mostly about desire and love and loneliness and death and desolation and ambition and yearning. Of course my stories and my novels are set against a political background, but just a background. When I told you earlier that even on the slope of an erupting volcano, life goes on. That’s where my stories occur. They occur in a-imagine a village on the slope of an erupting volcano, where a middle aged widow cannot sleep at night, not because of the volcano but because she can sense that across the wall from her, her young son cannot sleep either. She is worried about him. The sixteen year old boy cannot sleep, not because of the volcano but because he craves the woman next door-the middle aged woman next door. Who, for her part, cannot sleep because her daughter is dating a man twice her age, and this man, too isn’t asleep this night-not because of the volcano but because he wants to be re-elected mayor of the village, or alderman of the village and he’s about to lose. That’s the substance of life.
Ramona Koval: You said that you don’t write allegorical novels because you don’t live in a totalitarian regime.
Amos Oz: No. If I lived in a totalitarian regime, I’d probably migrate or go live in exile. But if I lived in a totalitarian regime and couldn’t write as I needed to write, then I would write clever allegories so that the censors will not be able to follow what I’m really saying but the audience will understand through the wink in my eye. Or the glimmer in my eye. In Israel I can scream whatever I like, it doesn’t help. I can scream and yell at the government day and night, so I don’t need to disguise my criticism in my novels.
Each time I write-or not each time but often-when I write these angry articles about the government having to go to hell, I get an invitation to have a cup of tea, a glass of tea, or coffee, with the Prime Minister. Or a drink. Not just me; all of us Israeli writers. We have all been through this procedure. We write that the government must burn alive, that they are sons of guns, and we get an invitation-not to the office-to the private quarters of the Prime Minister. And we are treated to a cup of coffee or to a drink and then the Prime Minister will say to the poet or to the writer that he, the Prime Minister, admires your work. And he admires your ideas and he admires your language and he admires your style but he disagrees with your politics.
I wish one day one of those Prime Ministers will say to me, Your style is lousy, your language is terrible, your stories are worthless-but you know what? You have a point. Once. Just once in my life. Normally they adore my ideas and ignore them completely. But I mean, the prophets in the Old Testament, in their day, they were not very successful in changing the minds of the rulers or the minds of the mob. You cannot expect our generation of Israeli novelists and poets to do better than the prophets did in their day. So we scream, and they go their way.
Ramona Koval: I read of your discussion about an anarchistic gene in Jews, and a resistance to and a suspicion of authority-that everyone in Israel is there to crucify or get crucified by others. Does this kind of thing seem as helpful in the Australian polity?
Amos Oz: I love it. I love it even when I don’t like it. I love it even when I cannot sell it. The whole country is like one big open air seminary. If you promise to take the following with a big grain of salt, I’ll tell you that Israel is neither a country nor a nation; it’s a fiery collection of arguments. In fifty years from now-I don’t like to make predictions but I’ll make one-in fifty years from now, people will still travel to England for the theatre, to Edinburgh for the book festival, to Paris for the art treasures, to Egypt for the pyramids and to Israel for the sake of a healthy argument. Plane-loads of argument lovers from all over the world will keep pouring into Israel. And you can start the argument with a taxi driver on your way from the airport. And you just put your things in the hotel and at four o’clock in the morning pick up the receiver, dial any number at all, pick up a subject and start an argument. It’s not an easy life, but I happen to like it. It’s a very argumentative society. People shout and scream-they don’t normally listen to each other-but they all shout and scream. The only exception is me. I listen sometimes. That’s how I make a living.
Ramona Koval: Are you hopeful for the near future?
Amos Oz: The near future. Well I said it’s very difficult to be a prophet, coming from the land of the prophets. There is too much competition. But let me tell you one piece of good news, because you all hear the bad news all the time. The good news is that almost everybody in Israel and in Palestine knows now what is going to happen in the end of the day. If you passed a public opinion survey or a referendum between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan, asking every Israeli Jew, Palestinian Arab, Palestinian, Israeli, Arab-whoever-not what would you hope for, not what would you personally regard as a just solution; but simply what do you think is going to happen in the end of the day?
I think you will get an answer, from about eighty per cent, that in the end of the day there will be two neighbouring states, two independent states roughly according to demographic realities. Jerusalem will be the site of two capital cities-not necessarily divided by barbed wire-but the site of two capital cities. The Jewish settlements in the occupied territories will have to go-at least most of them will have to go-away. There will be no massive resettlement of Palestinians inside Israel proper, and the country will become a semi-detached house I think you call it in English, a two-family unit. It’s very simple, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is almost painfully simple. The clash between Israeli Jew and Palestinian Arab is a dreadful tragedy. Not a wild west film with good guys and bad guys. It’s a clash between right and right, and recently I would say a clash between wrong and wrong. The Palestinian Arabs are in Palestine because there is no other country in the world which they can call home as a nation. The Israeli Jews are in Israel for exactly the same reason. There is no other country in the world which the Israeli Jews as a nation can call home. The country is very small. It’s about the size of Wales. And yet it is the one and only home of two nations. They cannot share it because they cannot become one happy family after one hundred years-not of solitude-but of hatred and bloodshed. They have to become neighbours. They cannot live like one happy family because Israelis and Palestinians are not one and they are certainly not happy-and they are not a family either, they are two families.
So we need the two family solution and everybody knows that this is going to happen. the bloodshed, the tears, the oppression, the terrorism, the cruelty, the fanaticism can not change the fact that no one of the two parties is going to go away. No one will disappear. They will have to divide the country and recognise one another. The reason why this solution is not ready for materialisation now is the lack of leadership on both sides. The leaderships of Mr Sharon or Mr Arafat or-as I often call them, Mr Sharafat-is a cowardly leadership. I say the patient-and when I say the patient I mean both Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews-the patient is about ready for the painful surgery. The doctors are cowards. That is what is delaying the unavoidable crucial solution. How much longer it will take, how much more bloodshed it will involve, I cannot tell you. But in the end of the day, there will be a two-state solution installed. There will be an Israeli embassy in Palestine-in east Jerusalem-a Palestinian embassy in Israel, in west Jerusalem, and these two embassies will probably be about five miles apart.
Ramona Koval: Perhaps now you would like to have a turn at asking Amos Oz a question, and we’ve got roving mics.
Amos Oz: These could be questions, protestations, allegations or cries of anger. Whichever.
Audience member: Or not even any of them. Mr Oz, you are a very seductive advocate for the language of Hebrew, and as a musician, when I hear you read it, I can see why that would be so. But your ideas, and what you’re trying to say is, on your own claim, universal ideas. These are things about family, sex, the nature of death etcetera. Why don’t you write some of your work in English in the first instance so there’s no need of a translator. You don’t make love through a blanket, but flesh to flesh.
Amos Oz: The personal answer is that I cannot even spell in English properly. And besides, I don’t dream in English and I don’t laugh and cry in English and I don’t make love in English. So naturally I write in my native tongue. Besides, I wouldn’t even like the idea that the whole world will speak in one language. To me, human civilisation is a wonderful orchestra of hundreds of different musical instruments. Why silence any of them? We have to harmonise them. There is no reason for the pianist to shoot the violinist, which is what is happening all the time. But essentially I would like to live in a world-and I’ve said this many times-where there are dozens of civilisations, hundreds of languages, and not one nation state.
Audience member: Let me just ask a question to bring to mind about the politics and so on and about your own position in Israeli society. There’s a book by Yuram Hasoni, I’m sure you’ll know of it, who claims that intellectual liberals like you are undermining the Jewishness of the Israeli state. Do you have a response to that?
Amos Oz: Yes. It’s an allegation from the Israeli right wing, distinctly the intellectual Yuram Hasoni, that I undermine the Jewishness of the Jewish State. Ladies and Gentlemen, in my perception, a state cannot be Jewish-or Christian, or Muslim, or Hispanic or whatever-a state is a vehicle. It can be a good vehicle or a bad vehicle or a lousy vehicle. It can be a vehicle that takes you where you want to go or it can be a vehicle that takes you some place you don’t want to go. But a state, a country, is an instrument. A vehicle. A culture can be Jewish. A language can be Jewish. A way of life can be Jewish. Certain values I recognise as Jewish values. A state I regard as an instrument. I don’t want-not only that I don’t aspire-I don’t want the State of Israel to be Jewish in any sense. I want it to be a democratic, open, tolerant, peaceful state in which I hope the Jews will be for a change and for once the majority culture without undermining minority cultures ever. This is my best offer for Israeli Jews and for Israeli Arabs who will live in Israel, not in future Palestine.
Ramona Koval: Amos Oz. His new novel, The Same Sea, is published by Vintage.