Review: Rhyming Life and Death
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Amos Oz: verbal gems shine out
By Amos Oz
Chatto & Windus, £12.99
Writing in the Dark (David Grossman’s anthology of elegiac essays) contains the following definition of inspiration: “If asked to describe the qualities that motivate someone to become an author,” the famous author writes, “the first I’d name would be a strong urge to invent stories: to organise reality, which is frequently chaotic and unintelligible, within a structure of storytelling; to find the visible and hidden contexts that load every event with its particular meaning; to accentuate the shades of ‘plot’ within each such event and coax out its ‘heroes’.”
These multiple urges, according to Grossman, dwell along untrodden paths, well below the level of consci-ousness, down among the instincts.
As if he had snatched up the baton from his younger colleague, Amos Oz’s new novel begins with a synchronised gait: “These are the most commonly asked questions. Why do you write? Why do you write the way you do?… Do you draw the material for your stories from your imagination or directly from life?” And so on. The person on the receiving end of these questions is not named Oz, however. He is a man with no name, being known only as “the Author” throughout.
The novel opens with this unnamed scribe ordering an omelette at a café around the corner from “the Shunia Shor and the Seven Victims of the Quarry Attack Cultural Centre”, where an evening devoted to his oeuvre is soon to commence. It closes at 4am as the new day dawns. What fills the hours between demonstrates that Oz (acting through “the Author”), no less than Grossman, is a slave to his instincts, cannot desist from inventing stories.
Take, for example, the waitress who serves the Author his omelette. First, the Author examines her outward appearance, then sketches her inner life, naming her and providing her with a never-to-be-forgotten first love; Charlie, reserve goalie of Bnei-Yehuda football team. Having set Ricky (the waitress) in motion, the Author turns his attention to his fellow diners. Later he does no less for the inquisitors who fill the Shunia Shor and the Seven Victims of the Quarry Attack Cultural Centre (he compares this compulsive behaviour to picking their pockets).
The one who eventually receives the most attention is Rochele Reznik, the shy woman who reads extracts from the Author’s latest book to the assembled host, and is rewarded (as midnight strikes) with the most profound orgasm of her life (though this, like the words she has read, may simply be a figment of the Author’s imagination).
Perhaps “the Author” is speaking for the author when — as the hour of the wolf approaches — he muses upon the apparent futility of his vocation: “Who, if you will excuse the question, needs your shabby fantasies about all kinds of worn-out sex scenes with frustrated waitresses, lonely readers…?” What, he asks of himself, is the Author trying to tell us here? He demands a brief answer, in his own words. Of course, the book itself is the real answer. Until you read it for yourself (and if you don’t you’ll be missing a treat), you’ll have to make do with my precis.
The book’s title is taken from the work of an Oz-invented poet named Tsefania Beit Halachmi, a loud voice in Zionism’s idealistic heyday, but now only a faint echo. One of the poet’s lesser known works is entitled, Clearing out the Leaven, which speaks of the tendency of all things — treasured objects and great loves alike — to turn to dust.
Oz’s book may sound like an exercise in postmodernism, in which a conjurer performs his tricks without disguising the trickery. But the magic works regardless. Reality is organised in such a way that characters who were mere extras (like Ricky the waitress), become essential and interlocking parts of Oz’s collective, people about whom the reader suddenly cares deeply.
Why does the Author write (other than because he can’t help himself)? Because he wants to stop tomorrow from becoming today, because he wants to pull a few fireflies of memory from the pit of oblivion. Because — like a true humanist — he wants to enlighten the reader’s darkness.
Clive Sinclair’s latest book is ‘Clive Sinclair’s True Tales of the Wild West’. Amos Oz will be appearing at JBW 2009 on February 21 and 22