Literature was once more at the forefront of Israel’s national conversation when I met Amos Oz during the first week of January. The Education Ministry had decided to remove Dorit Rabinyan’s novel “Borderlife” from the national curriculum, on the basis that an Israeli-Palestinian love story would confuse young people’s sense of identity. Print sales skyrocketed. Only a deadly terror attack at a bar on Dizengoff Street in the center of Tel Aviv took the story off the front pages.
“It’s very flattering that literature still matters that much,” Oz told me as we sipped coffee in his study at his home in north Tel Aviv, “that literature can still matter to so many people in such a gutsy way. It’s a nice thing that the whole country is arguing about a novel that 95% of the arguers haven’t read.”
Oz is no stranger to the headlines himself. Last November, Yediot Aharonot reported that Oz would no longer participate in official events sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Doesn’t this give succor to those who wish to boycott Israel? I asked him about it.
“I’m not part of any boycott against Israel,” he said. That “would be and is a crude mistake and a harmful step.” Rather, his disagreement is with the present government, one he calls “the most militant, right-wing government Israel ever had.”
A month prior, Oz had found himself in hot water for labeling the Hilltop Youth and those who commit price tag attacks “Hebrew neo-Nazis.” “I’m very cautious with my words,” he told me when I asked if “neo-Nazi” was quite the correct term. “They’re not Nazis, but they have a great deal in common with neo-Nazi hooligans all over the world: desecrating churches and mosques, synagogues and cemeteries; violently attacking foreigners; filled with hatred and xenophobia; aspiring for some despotic central regime to replace what they regard as anarchy. These are the syndromes of neo-Nazism.”
Oz, 76, moved around two and a half years ago with his wife, Nily Oz, from their house in Arad on the edge of the Judean Desert to their new apartment in order to be closer to their children and grandchildren. In his profile of Oz for The New Yorker, David Remnick noted that “every morning at around dawn, he leaves his modest house and makes his way to the desert” on foot before work, to commune with nature and history. Now that he’s in Tel Aviv, a typical writing day begins in much the same way, the bare hills and sounds of the wolf and jackal replaced by the occasional sighting of the newspaper deliveryman, “nightbirds and some cats, very few lights, and deep silence.”
His study has large windows that grant views northward up the coastal plain, toward Herzliya, the sand and the Mediterranean Sea. The room is appointed with two low-slung armchairs, a coffee table, floor-to-ceiling bookcases and a desk along one side of the study, which faces the windows. On this desk is a fairly old laptop computer and pages upon pages of handwritten notes. Oz usually begins writing each day at around 5 a.m., finishing before 9 a.m., sometimes returning in the afternoon “to destroy what I have written in the morning.”
Also on his desk are two recent foreign language editions of his latest novel, “Judas.” Set in Jerusalem in the late 1950s, “Judas” explores what it means to be a traitor. The first draft of the English translation has just been completed by his longtime interpreter, Nicholas de Lange, and is due in American bookstores in November.
“Judas” takes Oz back to the city of his birth, the primary setting for his most significant and popular literary work, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” That work, which tells the story of his family and childhood, was recently adapted into a movie by Natalie Portman, who served as actor, writer, director and producer on the project. Oz calls the movie “a labor of love,” although the critical reception since it premiered at the Cannes festival in May 2015 has been mixed. The film has yet to receive an American cinematic release.
Oz, as those who have read “A Tale of Love and Darkness” will know, was born Amos Klausner to a Revisionist Zionist family who lived in Jerusalem in the 1940s and ’50s. Revisionist Zionism was a political movement, founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, whose goal was the foundation of a Jewish state on both sides of Jordan River. This milieu “enriched me with a combination of 19th-century liberalism and nationalism — a combination that no longer exists really,” Oz told me, except perhaps in Israel’s current president, Reuven Rivlin, with whom Oz went to school in Rehavia. “He and I, as far as I remember, were the only Revisionists in our class, so we had a lot in common,” he said. “The difference was that he was the best dancer in the group and I was the worst, so he was the idol of the girls and the envy of little me.”
His parents, Yehuda Klausner and Fania Mussman, “fled in the nick of time from Europe to Jerusalem.” The Holocaust is present throughout “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” what Oz called “the most significant event in my life — more significant than the creation of the State of Israel.” The midnight of Jewish history is there up front in “Touch the Water, Touch the Wind” and beneath the surface in “Unto Death,” which, via two thematically connected novellas, offers, Oz said, “a certain perspective on fanaticism, anti-Semitism, Jew-hatred, prejudice, which I wouldn’t have ever reached were it not for the Holocaust in the background.”
As a child, Oz was very hawkish and wrote “ecstatically chauvinistic little poems about heroism and dying on the battlefield, about the glorious history of the kingdoms of David and Solomon, which we are soon going to restore.” This is far removed from the novels and stories to come, but Oz says his childhood is what turned him into a storyteller. “From very early on, I have been a kind of double agent. I had one very solid foot in the more conservative, right-wing part of the young Israeli civilization, and the other one in the socialist left.”
Oz left Jerusalem when he was 14, for Kibbutz Hulda. It is not just that the city has changed since then, but also that it has changed many times over. The Jerusalem of “A Tale of Love and Darkness” no longer exists, at all. “When Natalie Portman consulted with me about locations for her film, the first thing I told her was, you cannot go to the actual neighborhood in which the story is set, because it’s no longer the same.” Kerem Avraham, once a working-class secular neighborhood, is now mostly Haredi, and the people who live there are not predisposed to women, cameras or women with cameras.
Jerusalem “is still an unsafe city and a divided city,” Oz said. “The immediate, existential dread that hovered over me and my family when I was a little child may have eased a little bit. The dread of an impending calamity, which existed in the Jerusalem of the 1940s, probably no longer exists, but there are other fears and other dreads.”
One of the reasons Oz continues to write about Jerusalem relates to this disappearance. “I suppose I have a very strong urge to remember it, to write about it and to capture it in words,” he said. “Writers are crippled, really. They are all born with their necks and heads turned backwards.” But if it is so that novels come from our subconscious or deeper mind as opposed to the forefront, then his novels are also related to the nature of his dreams: “Half my dreams at night are about Jerusalem, and the other are about Kibbutz Hulda. I don’t get the chance to choose what I dream about when I go to sleep.”
Indeed, when one examines Oz’s corpus in full, it becomes clear that two settings are utilized more than any other. The first is Jerusalem: “My Michael,” “The Hill of Evil Counsel,” “Fima,” “Panther in the Basement” and now “Judas.” The second is the kibbutz: “Where the Jackals Howl,” “Elsewhere, Perhaps,” “A Perfect Peace” and his most recent novel to be published in English, the superb “Between Friends.”
Kibbutz Hulda was founded on the non-Marxist, semi-religious, almost anarchistic ideas of Aaron David Gordon, which presaged that Israel would “evolve into a very loose confederation of cooperative rural communities.” For the writing of novels, decades spent on Kibbutz Hulda meant gaining an intimate knowledge of the lives of others in a way that cannot be achieved in New York or Tel Aviv. “Kibbutz life is an everlasting striptease. People get to know a hell of a lot about each other: the secrets, the gossip. This is a marvelous university for a novelist,” Oz said.
In a 1974 essay, “The Kibbutz at the Present Time,” Oz argued that there is no such thing as kibbutz literature, a position he maintains today despite what one might characterize as his own contributions to the field.
Still, the kibbutz continues to shape Oz’s work, in terms of the use of parochial settings, an intimate cast of characters, people are who restless and are confronting the disappointment of unfulfilled dreams. “Yes, except that this is not only the kibbutz — this is my whole life experience,” Oz told me. “I was born in an age of great dreams and I am the child and grandchild of great dreamers, not only kibbutz dreams but Revisionist Zionist ones, and I have seen the dreams and I have seen them unfulfilled.”
In assessing his own work, however, it is interesting that the novel Oz considers his best has nothing to do with Jerusalem or the kibbutz. “The Same Sea” is unlike anything he has written before or since. Moving between the coastal plain and the hills of Nepal, it mixes poetry and prose, utilizing biblical Hebrew and allusions to the Torah and Talmud. Oz is also present in the novel, in a kind of meta-fictional turn, as The Narrator.
“It’s the only one of my books that I reread from time to time,” he said. As a professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Beersheba, “I even taught a course about this book, which I’ll never do about any of my other books, and the reason I could do it is that, deep down in my heart of hearts, I really don’t believe I wrote it. I look at it like a cow that had given birth to a sea gull.”
Oz was also taken aback by the international success of “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” believing that it was “only going to be read by Jerusalemites who are of the same vintage more or less as I am. I thought no one in Tel Aviv would understand it or care to read the whole thing — maybe a few pages.” On the other hand, “when I wrote ‘To Know a Woman’ and ‘Don’t Call It Night,’ I had a hunch that those books are going to do better than others, and they did not. Well, they did in some countries, but not everywhere — certainly not in Israel.”
In recent novels like “Scenes From Village Life” and “Between Friends,” there has been, Oz acknowledged, a perceptible evolution in his prose style: “more sparse, more economical in some ways.” Oz continues to work and write every day, but the prose does not come as easily to him as it once did. He has become more self-aware, conscious of not wanting to write the same book again, and more critical of every word and sentence.
“Writing prose is more or less like driving a car with one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake all the time. It’s very unhealthy for the engine,” he described. “With the years, the foot on the accelerator becomes more and more hesitant, and the foot on the brake pedal becomes heavier and heavier, and that’s why it’s becoming harder and harder.”
Beyond his novels and stories, essays and articles, Oz has made one other important contribution to Israel and the Hebrew language: the invention of the verb l’hitkarnef, to rhinocerize. It’s a family story, his great-uncle Joseph Klausner having invented the word karnaf, rhino, from the words keren, meaning horn, and af, nose. L’hitkarnef — related to Eugene Ionesco’s play “The Rhinoceros,” about herd mentality — means to become a conformist, to sell out, to adjust to the general mood in order to get ahead.
“My books will be forgotten one day sooner or later,” Oz concluded, “but this word may remain in the blood cycle of the language for God knows how long.”
Liam Hoare is a freelance writer based in the United Kingdom.
Amos Oz Looks Forward — and Back