Robert Alter is one of the leading translators and literary critics of our time. He is probably best known for his acclaimed translation of the Hebrew Bible and for such books as The Art of Biblical Narrative, The Art of Bible Translation and The World of Biblical Literature.
Alter first met Amos Oz in 1970 and they were close friends for almost 50 years. He has now written a superb book on Oz, part-biography, part-literary criticism. It begins with a deeply moving chapter on Oz’s childhood in Jerusalem. Oz was born in 1939 and grew up in a cramped apartment with his parents, Arieh and Fania Klausner. His father was born in Odessa, moved to Vilna and emigrated to Palestine in 1933. He was “competent in 16 or more ancient and modern languages” but never seems to have fulfilled his extraordinary potential, perhaps because he was so difficult, “bookish, relentlessly pedantic, a constant talker seeking to cover his social awkwardness with words”.
Fania was born in Rovno, then in Poland, and also emigrated to Palestine in the 1930s where she married Arieh. It was a deeply unhappy marriage and she increasingly suffered from depression before committing suicide in 1952 when her son was only 12, a story powerfully told by Oz in his masterpiece, A Tale of Love and Darkness. Alter’s opening chapter, on Oz’s childhood, perhaps the best in the book, asks all the right questions: Is A Tale of Love and Darkness a novel or an autobiography? What is its real subject? And why did Oz wait till he was in his sixties before writing about his mother’s suicide?
Alter follows Oz from Jerusalem to the kibbutz at Hulda, where he met his longtime wife, Nily, to Arad, their desert home, and finally, Tel Aviv, where he lived until dying of cancer at 79 in 2018. But Alter’s real focus is on Oz’s extraordinary literary career, his passion for Israel and his years as a political activist, during which he argued passionately for a two-state solution and peace with the Palestinians. Reviled by the far right and the far left, Oz became “the poster child of liberal Zionism”. Alter is good on Oz the activist, but at times the book seems a little old-fashioned. There is only one reference to Netanyahu and two to Hamas. Perhaps this explains Alter’s confidence in Oz’s liberal optimism.
Oz was a prolific writer, the author of 20 works of fiction and almost a dozen works of non-fiction in almost 50 years. He wrote his first novel at 26. Along with his friends AB Yehoshua and David Grossman, he became one of the great Israeli writers of his time. “As a Hebrew writer,” Alter tells us, “he remained resolutely Israeli,” and yet “the characters and the dilemmas with which [Israelis] struggle resonated with readers in far-flung places.”
Alter is a fine biographer, but he is at his best as a critic, explaining why Oz was never attracted to Modernism, how he preferred plain and simple writing and why adjectives were always so important in his writing, “repeatedly fashioned to convey the feel of things”. In a talk Oz gave, he likened his work as a writer to “the delicate procedure of a watchmaker”, each word picked up with great care and checked to see if it will fit precisely into the larger work. His subjects were always Israel and the family, in particular, unhappy families.
At the end, Oz emerges as ‘a tragic figure,’ haunted by his mother’s suicide. “His was not an easy life,” Alter concludes, “but finally it was a fulfilled life, not only artistically but morally.”
Amos Oz: Writer, Activist, Icon by Robert Alter
Yale University Press, £16.99