Interview: Amos Oz

The grand old man of the Israeli literary scene talks about Gaza, family and why Zionism’s founding fathers would barely recognise the modern Jewish state

By Gerald Jacobs, February 26, 2009
Amos Oz was in favour only of a “48-hour concentrated assault” in Gaza, and then critical of the war that Israel waged against Hamas

Amos Oz was in favour only of a “48-hour concentrated assault” in Gaza, and then critical of the war that Israel waged against Hamas

Israel’s most famous writer gazes reflectively at the majestic sight of the Thames at Limehouse, from which he is separated by a panoramic window. “I was angry with my mother for killing herself,” Amos Oz recalls. “It was as if she had run off with a lover without leaving us a letter.” He is explaining the genesis of A Tale of Love and Death, about his childhood, which appeared in English in 2004 and cemented his reputation as an outstanding literary talent.

He is at the London home of Deborah Owen, Oz’s literary agent, and her husband David Owen, the former Foreign Secretary. It was from here, more than a quarter of a century ago, that the now Lord Owen, along with the three other members of the “Gang of Four”, launched the Social Democratic Party.

The mix of literature and politics is appropriate. Oz was one of the founders of Peace Now and is a constant pricker of Israeli governmental consciences. While he supported his country’s retaliation against Hamas in Gaza at the end of last year, he was bitterly critical of its extension beyond a “48-hour concentrated assault not involving a land war, and the deaths of hundreds of civilians and destruction of buildings”.

In the 1980s, the then Labour party leader Shimon Peres asked Oz to stand for political office, as has the left-wing Meretz party on more than one occasion. He was not to be persuaded, however. “I think I am unfit for politics,” he says.

Certainly, his finely wrought wisdom is far removed from the daily hurly-burly and hypocrisy of the political world. Literature is his medium, from journalistic essays to novels — though one should be wary of categorisation. While, for instance, most people read A Tale of Love and Darkness as a family memoir, the author himself insists it should be read as a tale.

“The definition is in the title,” he says. “A tale is a very old literary form, older than the novel and older than memoir, autobiography, history. Tales are what people have been telling each other since the dawn of speech. It erases the line between fiction and non-fiction. You throw in everything — what you have seen and what you have known; what you have invented and what you have fantasised about.

“There is a lot of invention in A Tale of Love and Darkness. There was no way I could reconstruct a dialogue that took place 60 years earlier, or the contents of a room that I hadn’t seen for 60 years. Above all, the structure is an invention. It is not chronological. The orchestration of the different sections is a work of the imagination, not of the memory.”

It was also a work which, its author says, he could not write until he had overcome his anger, not just at his mother, who committed suicide at the age of 36, but also “with my father for losing her; there must have been something wrong with him for such a perfect woman to have deserted him. And I was angry with myself, thinking that if I was a good little boy, my mother would have stayed and, because she left me, there must have been something very wrong with me.

“For decades, I censored the entire story… I just wouldn’t discuss my parents, my childhood. This was taboo. Over the course of years, anger gradually gave way to curiosity, compassion, humour and endless wonder. I could now write about my parents as if they were my children, as if I was my parents’ parent. I was almost 60 when I started writing A Tale of Love and Darkness. I could look at them from a fatherly perspective. That is why I believe it has not an ounce of hatred or bitterness, anger or resentment.”

All of his books, Oz says, are in some way about “unhappy families”. The family is, he suggests, “the most mysterious institution in the universe; the most paradoxical, most ridiculous, most illogical… because most of us are not born monogamous. And we have been hearing predictions about the death of the family since the time of Plato and Jesus. Yet, somehow, this flawed institution limps its way from one generation to the next. It is alive and kicking in the ayatollahs’ Iran, in Greenwich Village, in London, and among the Eskimos and the Africans. It has a strange, fascinating vitality.”

Oz exercises this fascination professionally by exploring the dynamics of relationships, which he describes as “subtle and complicated in the way in which initial expectations and stereotypes are often shattered in the actual encounter between a man and a woman”.

This is intriguingly evident in Oz’s latest book, Rhyming Life and Death. Its protagonist is an anonymous “Author” who is speaking at a literary evening in the 1980s to an assembly of old-style Israeli clerks and trade unionists. Before the event, he has a meal in a cafe, where he invents life-stories for the waitress and the other customers. Later, he invents situations and plots involving his audience and indeed himself. He describes alternative encounters between himself and the nervous young woman who reads extracts from the Author’s work to the audience. Which, if any, of these is “real” is left to the reader’s own imagination.

It is, says Oz, “a playful book about a man who is strongly attracted to the limelight and at the same time never feels good in the limelight.” It highlights the interplay of public and private life, something that has long affected Oz, and for which he was shaped by three decades of living on a kibbutz. “It was a very intimate society and in the course of 30 years I got to know almost everything about the 400 people in it — their secrets, their subdued hopes… The penalty I have had to pay of course is that they have come to know a lot more about me than I would like them to have known.” Throughout his years in Israel, stretching back to the pre-state period of the British mandate, Jerusalem-born Oz — who will be 70 this year — has registered many changes. And he points out that the often uncomfortable, and continuing, process of transforming the Zionist dream into everyday reality began much earlier than statehood.

“I have in my possession,” he reveals, “a 1924 edition of the Labour paper Davar, which has a headline about ‘the first Jewish burglar’ caught in Tel Aviv. There is an editorial describing this as a symptom of normalisation, as well as an interview with the policeman who caught the burglar, and an interview with the burglar himself — who claims to be ‘a pioneer’.

“Israel has evolved from a very small society of a few hundred thousand Jews — a voluntary, egalitarian society — into a culturally, ideologically, religiously and generationally diverse nation of millions of citizens.

“The Israel you see in the media consists 80 per cent of fanatical, medieval, West Bank settlers screaming slogans; 19 per cent ruthless soldiers tormenting Palestinians at roadblocks; and one per cent wonderful intellectuals like myself who criticise the government and struggle for peace. This is, of course, not the real Israel. Some 70 or 80 per cent of Israelis live on the coastal plain. They are very Mediterranean. Secular to the bone. Noisy, passionate, materialistic, hedonistic, selfish.

“Coastal plain Israel — containing the bulk of the Israeli population — is like Piraeus, like Naples, like Barcelona. A warm-hearted, noisy Mediterranean community. This is a far cry from Herzl’s dream of an Austria-Hungary in the heart of the Middle East, with peace and quiet between two and four o’clock; people calling each other Herr Doktor and Herr Direktor; good manners and a lot of Gemütlichkeit and Bavaria cream. It is also a far cry from the dream of reviving the biblical kingdom of David and Solomon, or replicating the Eastern European shtetl. Israel is a ferociously argumentative society that is secretly anarchistic…”

Many of these developments are reflected in the country’s literature. “I detect fascinating changes in the use of Hebrew among younger Israeli writers,” Oz says. “It’s more relaxed, informal and natural than how it was used among my generation of writers. The present literary scene is fascinating because it reflects so many love-hate relationships with the literary traditions of the countries of origin of the young writers’ parents.

“The Hebrew language, a powerful container of many traditions and sensibilities, is my link to Jewish heritage. I am not a religious man. For me, it is almost enough that I can open the text and not need a translation to read it as it was written 1,000, 2,000 or 3,000 years ago.

“I was influenced by the giants of Hebrew literature in the first half of the 20th century: Berdichevsky, Brenner, Agnon… and by the giants of Russian literature in the 19th century — Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol.

“But I was exposed to many different influences. I described in A Tale of Love and Darkness how a half-forgotten American writer, Sherwood Anderson, had a tremendous impact on my writing. He liberated me from the idea that I needed to live in some metropolis in order to be a writer. It was Anderson who taught me that wherever you have your desk and your piece of paper and pen will be the centre of the universe.

“I have some very warm and close friendships with other writers — A B Yehoshua, Yehoshua Kenaz, David Grossman. We don’t see each other every week because each of us is confined to his study. But we speak over the telephone twice a week and we are in close contact over political and literary issues and sometimes some of us show each other our drafts. I also have Palestinian friends — secular writers and thinkers — with whom I am on good conversational, arguing terms.”

Oz also delights in having four grandchildren: “The difference between raising kids and raising grandchildren is like the difference between marriage and honeymoon. I am on honeymoon.” It is a nice, domestic thought for a man of such broad, international vistas, whose books have been translated into 39 languages.

While the international flavour of Oz’s life is somehow exemplified by the Venetian-like view through the Owens’ East London window, his international standing may be even higher than imagined, if a visit to the Far East in 2007 is any guide.

“When I was in China,” says a smiling Oz, “the first question I was asked by a young Chinese journalist was: ‘Excuse me, Mr Oz, what is Western civilisation?’ I asked him if he wanted the short answer or the long answer.”

Rhyming Life and Death is published by Chatto & Windus at £12.99

Last updated: 2:59pm, August 28 2014