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Amos Oz: Israel’s Melancholy Visionary

This article originally appeared in the Yiddish Forverts.

I only had the opportunity to meet Amos Oz, the distinguished Israeli author who passed away on December 28 at the age of 79, on one occasion.

It was in 2004, in Philadelphia. I was then on a Jewish Studies fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania, having shortly before earned my doctorate in comparative literature. A literary reception had been organized there to honor the brand new translation of Oz’s autobiographical novel “Sipur al ahava v’hoshekh,” or “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” After a reading by the author, everyone gathered for a celebration with covered tables, a dance band, and the finest kosher catering available in all of Philadelphia. But because of a fight I had had with one of my best friends, I wasn’t in the mood for celebrations, so I sat at a nearly empty table with hopes of spending the evening in silence. As it turns out, the first person who tried to speak to me that night was none other than the man of the hour himself.

“May I sit here?” he asked.

“Elijah’s chair,” I said, in an unconvincing imitation of nonchalance.

“Elijah the prophet?”

He smiled. And so began our conversation, conducted in a mixture of my halting Hebrew and his elegantly accented English. We didn’t get far, however, in our consideration of the world’s problems before a colleague of mine asked that I switch seats so that a scholar better versed in Israeli literature could have the opportunity to discuss the fine print of Oz’s writings with him. And so my one chance at connecting with a favorite writer vanished almost as soon as it had begun.

Although I can’t be certain why Oz decided to sit next to me in that crowded banquet hall, I have always had the impression that he could sense my melancholy mood that evening. Melancholy is the most pervasive mood in his writing, and few are the writers in our time who have written more, or better, on the subject than he did.

Already at the beginning of his career, Oz devoted himself to a precise description of the many aspects of despair. His third — and perhaps best — novel, “Michael sheli” or “My Michael” (1968), is a moving portrait of a young, idealistic Israeli couple and the collapse of their marriage. Published amid the sudden eruption of Israeli patriotism in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, Oz wrote not about Israeli unity and victory, but about the divisions separating men and women, the older generation of immigrants and the younger generation of native-born Israelis, and Arabs and Jews.

In my line of work it is popular to discuss the concept of Late Style, an idea originating from the German-Jewish thinker Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), who observed how artists in the last period of their careers develop a tendency toward broken structures, fragments, sparse dramatic situations, and ghostly imagery. This thesis applies to Beethoven’s late string quartets — Adorno’s primary example — the last four novels of Philip Roth, who also died last year, and the recent series of monochromatic drawings by the American artist Jasper Johns. But if this concept fails entirely to account for Oz’s development, it’s because he had already begun his career in a Late Style.

In terms of technique and chronology, at the polar opposite of “My Michael” is “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” which is devoted to memories of the author’s Jerusalem childhood, which he spent among intellectuals, writers and a cultural elite that had come to Mandatory Palestine from Eastern Europe. “A Tale of Love and Darkness” makes clear that Oz’s sense of melancholy was well-earned; the novel’s most dramatic moment is a description of Oz’s mother’s suicide in 1953, when Oz himself was still a young teenager. Parallel to the drama of Oz’s family dynamics, however, is a three-dimensional image of his parents’ generation, which had not only physically relocated from Eastern Europe, but had also carried with them a culture of Russian literature, socialist and nationalist ideologies. Despair was more than a little deeply-rooted in their nature.

Notwithstanding the author’s own decision to change his name from Klausner — his grand-uncle was the notable literary historian Joseph Klausner — to Oz, he never ceased to acknowledge his Eastern European roots, long before describing them in loving detail in “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” Oz’s early stories began appearing in Yiddish translation in _ Di Goldene keyt_, Israel’s leading Yiddish-language journal, and the most important literary journal in Yiddish after the Holocaust, in the mid-1960s. He also gave Di Goldene keyt an interview in which he honored Yiddish as a significant heritage language for Israel, in an era in which the public use of Yiddish in Israel was still frowned upon.

Over the course of his long, productive and celebrated life, Oz became famous as a political activist, thinker and novelist. In truth, there was never a distinction between these roles: Oz’s writing is thoroughly political, as all great literature must necessarily be. At its most political, its achievement has been to remind Israel, and the wider world observing it, that the nation has never been monolingual or monocultural, but a society of Jews and Arabs, immigrants and native-born, religious and secular. Fundamental to Oz’s writing is the acknowledgment that in a political culture built on the triumph of a monolingual ideology, melancholy can provide a mode of resistance for all the voices that cannot receive expression in the official jargons of State. May his memory be for blessing.

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