September 24, 2018

Amos Oz: Alone among friends

I believe Amos Oz desperately wanted to become a better man than his father was.  It feels as if he has spent his lifetime trying to nurture inside himself an empathy that he believed his father lacked.  The famous, 73-year-old Israeli author of more than 30 books, including his newly published “Between Friends” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24.00, translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston) speaks frequently in interviews about his compassion for others, as well as his ability to imagine their inner lives.  He believes this talent was nourished while he was just a small boy.  His parents would often take him to cafes in Jerusalem, where he would be promised ice cream in exchange for his silence while his parents socialized with other couples.  Oz made good use of his time and would carefully study the faces that surrounded him.  He felt immediately empowered by his ability to see behind the masks they presented to the world.  Only 10 or 11 at the time, his imagination was already in high gear.

Oz was born in Jerusalem in 1939, the only child of a stern and scholarly father, and a melancholy mother who took her own life when he was only 13.  His father refused to speak about it, and within a year Oz fled to Kibbutz Hilda, where he would remain for more than 30 years, eventually marrying and raising three children there.  Born Amos Klausner, he changed his name upon arriving at the kibbutz, a decisive act of defiance that speaks to his desire to hurt his father, whom he blamed for deserting his mother, who suffered greatly from depression.  His father had sometimes found solace during their marriage in the arms of other women, and it would take Oz more than 50 years to confront his parent’s tumultuous marriage and his mother’s gruesome death.  He tackled it head-on with his acclaimed masterpiece “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” 

Oz has admitted, “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, humor and endless wonder.  I could now write about my parents as if they were children, as if I were my parent’s parent.  I was almost 60 when I started writing ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness.’  I could look at them from a father’s perspective.  This is why I believe it has not an ounce of hatred or bitterness, anger or resentment.”

But the lonesome characters that flood his stories say otherwise.  They repeatedly show us the emotional fall-out Oz endured and its lingering effects on his psyche.  The small boy forced to swallow his sadness after his mother’s death seems to keep reliving this trauma over and over again in compelling stories about all sorts of desolate souls whose crucial hurts remain hidden from the world.  In many of Oz’s fictional universes, families show little compassion for one another and often turn a blind eye.  There is little humor or vitality, and people vanish suddenly without a trace and are silently mourned or simply forgotten.  Oz’s stories usually aren’t violent, but they contain an undercurrent of aggression that mars most of the relationships he portrays. 

There is also none of the zany exuberance one finds in fellow author David Grossman’s work, particularly in the latter’s recent masterpiece “To the End of the Land,” where Grossman places family relationships, even those fraught with dysfunction, as perhaps all anybody should really live for.  Not so for Oz.  It feels as if his emotional inheritance of neglect remains knotted up in his gut, a piercing pain that no amount of success can mitigate.

In “Between Friends,” Oz’s new collection of eight interlinked stories about life on a kibbutz during the 1950s, Oz plunges us into the world of a close-knit community — at least what appears to be one at first glance.  People are familiar with one another’s mannerisms and peculiarities, even the rhythms of each other’s speech.  But the ghosts that haunt many of them remain hidden.  The story centers on a 55-year-old bachelor named Zvi Provisor, who works as the chief gardener of their collective.  He greets neighbors each day with stories of the catastrophes that have unfolded the night before, which he has heard about on his tiny radio.  One day he begins taking walks with Luna Blank, an attractive widower who welcomes his attention. 

They offer each other small kindnesses, and she waits for his advance; one that never comes.  One evening in frustration, she takes his hand and gently places it on her breast and he recoils in disgust.  Oz writes, “His eyes blinked frantically.  He never in his adult life intentionally touched another person, and he stiffened whenever he was touched.”  Luna Blank soon leaves the kibbutz for America, and Zvi Provisor returns to his daily gardening, stopping occasionally by her now empty cottage to tend to her withering plants.  Oz’s mastery resides in his ability to know intuitively what to leave unsaid, and his story touches us with its muted grief and eloquent restraint.

Oz demonstrates a similar restrained eloquence when speaking and writing about his own life.  He remembers vividly the cramped Jerusalem apartment he lived in as a child.  He recalls the siege of Jerusalem in 1948, when his parents sheltered refuges from more vulnerable neighborhoods in their apartment.  He can still remember strangers stepping over him and his sleeping parents on the way to toilets that wouldn’t flush due to the lack of water.  His father’s alliance was with the Revisionist Zionism of Vladimir Jabotinsky.  He opposed the Jews who were more socialist in their orientation, like young Oz would eventually become.

Between them, Oz’s parents spoke 16 languages, but only Hebrew to him.  His mother came from a wealthy family in Rovco, a city in western Ukraine, and had once harbored fantasies of becoming an artist.  The Nazis killed her brother and sister-in-law, as well as most of her childhood friends, and she barely escaped.  Oz’s father left Lithuania with dreams of becoming a great Hebrew scholar, dreams that never materialized.  He worked as a librarian. 

Oz’s parents must have seen their family unit as fragile and destructible; each one of them had seen much of their own families destroyed.  And they may have turned their helplessness onto one another, leaving the young and impressionable Oz to scramble between them.  When you look at pictures of Amoz Oz throughout his long and prolific career, you can almost see the warring impulses of both parents etched upon his handsome face.  Oz can look tender and severe, trusting and suspicious, earnest and artificial all at the same time.  David Grossman has described Amos Oz as “the offspring of all the contradictory urges and pains within the Israeli psyche,” and the characters that make up so many of Oz’s stories seem filled with similar inconsistencies combined with a sadness that is pervasive.  Always, in Oz’s world, there is a all-encompassing sense of aloneness.

The second story in Oz’s collection is about a childless couple who have grown bored with one another.  The husband has moved in with another woman named Ariella and left his wife Osnat in their family home.  One day, Ariella receives a letter from Osnat pleading with her to make sure her husband takes his high-blood-pressure pills.  Ariella writes back to Osnat promising she will try, but also complaining about her new lover’s mood swings and obstinate nature.

She apologizes to Osnat for taking her husband and tells her that, “Not a day goes by when I don’t think about you, Osnat, and despise myself and wonder if there can be any forgiveness for what I did to you.  Sometimes I tell myself that maybe Osnat didn’t really care so much, maybe she didn’t love him?  It’s hard to know…And what about him?  How does he actually feel?  How can anybody tell?  You know so well what he should and shouldn’t eat.  But do you know what he feels?  Or whether he feels at all?”

Oz surprises the reader with the growing intimacy that seems to crop up between the two women, as their shared lover fades from view.  Osnat finally decides to stop answering Ariella’s letters and ignores her requests to meet in person, and finds a strange contentment in her own home.  She feels at peace alone.

In yet another tale, the kibbutz electrician Nahum Ashervov abruptly discovers his 17-year-old daughter has moved in with a 50-year-old man who is one of the founders of their kibbutz and an old acquaintance of Nahum.  At first he is determined to mind his business and prides himself on his progressive views, but eventually he finds himself overcome by shame and goes to retrieve his daughter.  His other child, a son, was killed a few years back in a retaliatory raid, and his wife is already dead.  When he arrives at the home where his daughter is now living, he thinks to himself confusedly “What had he actually wanted?  To vanquish love?  A fleeting glimpse of light from the lamp reflected off his glasses.  Love suddenly seemed to him to be another of life’s obstacles; when you confront it you have to duck your head and wait until it passes.”

Oz remains fascinated with the distances that remain between people; barriers that often can’t be overcome.  In 2009, he wrote “Rhyming Life and Death,” which told the story of an accomplished author in his forties who has grown fatigued from the endless book readings he is forced to attend.  He is bored and irritated with the same questions that are asked over and over again.  What drives him? Why does he write?  What is his creative process?  The author in Oz’s story wonders why he even bothers to keep doing it.  What does he get from it?  He is uncomfortable with the constant scrutiny and the endless psychological evaluations of his work.  The spotlight disturbs him.  He attempts to explain what keeps him engaged in the writing life, even with all of its irritating interruptions and admits that he does it  “so as to touch [people] without touching, and so that they touch him without really touching him.”  That sounds about right.

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal and other publications.