How my voice gained confidence with Israel’s

By Amos Oz, April 18, 2008

The accomplished novelist, born in Jerusalem in 1939, narrates a personal literary journey

On the hero in Israeli literature
Maybe it is still possible for some other countries and some other societies. I think it is probably possible in Palestinian society. I don’t think there have been heroes in Hebrew literature for the last 50 or 60 years. There have been small people, sometimes in crisis situations, but not heroic people. We won the struggle for our independence, and ever since we won this struggle, other people are struggling against us for their independence, so it is their turn to have heroes, not our turn. The classic protagonist, like the classic hero, still exists elsewhere, just not with me.

I have lost my faith in the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. I no longer believe that there are two planets, one called fiction and one called non-fiction. To me, at least in the last several years, everything I write is personal, not autobiographical and not confessional; and in this respect I find it more and more exciting to write about things that I have either experienced directly or indirectly, rather than try to invent them.

By the way, when I say things that happen to me, this includes my fantasies, as my fantasies also happen to me ‑— so when I write things that are complete fantasies, they are still non-fiction.

On the development of Israel and of my writing
I don’t think there is an analogy or a projection between the development and evolution of Israel and the development and evolution of my writing, except perhaps in one sense. When I was a young man, I still had this feeling that the language in which I wrote was a very tentative language, an unsafe language. This is why I tried to hold to the high mountains of the language, to its cliffs, because I thought the rest might be covered by the sea and washed away.

With the years I, and possibly Israeli society, see there is a certain analogy. I have gained more confidence in the language, and therefore I no longer have this need to stick to the high cliffs and the high mountains. I can write in the same language, or almost the same language, that I hear around me, which includes the high language only as part of it, not as the whole.

On Hebrew as a ‘normal’ language
Hebrew is now a normal language with all the dangers of normal language, which can easily be tainted and corrupted, deteriorate and degenerate or be taken over by English. All the dangers that threaten all normal languages also threaten Hebrew.

As for Israeli society, there is a growing sense of normality, especially in the centre of Israel, not so much in the periphery or in the far north or the far south. By normality, I mean westernisation, as if Israel is around the corner from London, New York and Paris, and that Tel Aviv is an extension of their cities — and perhaps it is. This is not an overall Israeli experience; it is a local experience. It is not entirely my experience, because I do not live in Tel Aviv. I live in Arad, in the Negev, in the desert where the sense of normality is much more tentative, fragile and insecure than it is in the centre of the country.

On the creative process
Writing a political essay and writing a story or a novel uses totally different faculties. I write in longhand with a pen. I don’t use a computer, and I have two pens on my desk: one which I use in order to write articles telling the government to go to hell, and another with which I write my stories. When I am in a certain disagreement with myself and hear three or four different voices inside me, I empathise with all of them. That is when I know I am pregnant with a story or a novel.

I think I stick to my pens for sentimental reasons. There is something very central about the link between my fingers and my pen, the writing on the page and the fact that I can literally cross out without erasing; not like using a computer, where you can erase it as if it never existed.

But if I can create a mess on the page and I can draw little cartoons on the side, make arrows and turn the page into something topographic, with hills and mountains and valleys, this is what is important for me, the need to write in longhand. I have never tried to compose anything on the computer, and I don’t think I would enjoy it as much.

On characterisation
The characters go into my dreams very often when I am involved in writing a novel, which is like a marriage; it takes a long time and is a long, long part of your life. I sometimes imitate their voices when nobody can hear me, because I really hear them inside me, and I become a bit of a medium for those characters.

I try not to write the same book twice. This is the one thing I have always tried not to do. I know some writers who write some wonderful variations of the same book, and I respect them. I can see the reason why a musician will write the same melody but with a slight variation all his life, and I will respect such a musician. It is not an ideological thing with me, it is a personal lack of interest to do a variation of something I have done before, and as a result I keep experimenting with form, content and method. What I will do in the future I am not sure; I have some ideas in my head, but whether they actually materialise or not I have no idea.

If I write for the theatre, I would depend on too many people and I would feel a little nervous to be totally dependent on the director, the actors and the performance. I depend on the reader — the reader is my performer and my actor. She or he will have to treat my writing like musical notes.

Last updated: 4:01pm, April 22 2008