Amos Oz, who died in December, once laid to rest the difficult definition of literary fiction. A thriller, he said, might be a day in the life of a Mossad agent, but literary fiction concerned itself with the Mossad agent’s first day of retirement. So it was galling to find his own life condensed by the obituaries to that of a peace activist. For Oz, ordinary life was not to be found in petitions and demonstrations and open letters but in the internal landscape of fantasy, boredom, desire, self-deception, memory and loss. He was often asked by foreign readers how he could write in such a febrile political atmosphere, where war might break out at any moment and where injustices were crowding close to his own front door. He replied that even in a village on the slopes of an active volcano, someone will be having an extra-marital affair.
Oz published 20 novels between 1965 and 2014, all slim volumes. He had begun to write about the people all around him on the kibbutz to which he had fled from the tyrannical grip of his father. He assumed his writing would be considered provincial, even by Israeli standards: the small-town liars pretending to be heroic freedom fighters and unhappy bookbinders inventing formulas for universal salvation. It was reading the American novelist Sherwood Anderson which taught him to write what he knew. His prose, in Hebrew, was magnificent, spare, lean, muscular, and even translated into English it retained its sinew. Oz’s theme was the nature of love and everyone, all over the world, is interested in that. He was magnificent writing about a child’s perspective and misunderstanding of the political forces around him. InThe Panther in the Basement set in 1947, 12-year-old Proffy has formed an underground cell to blow up Buckingham Palace.
Which brings us to what many consider his masterpiece, A Tale of Love and Darkness, published in 2002, in which he broke the brevity rule. Is it autobiography, is it fiction – or is it that new literary category, autofiction? Who knows what really happened? Could he really reproduce – in word-perfect detail – conversations that took place before he was born? Were some of the stories too metaphorically perfect to be true? Reviewing it for the Guardian at the time of publication, I wrote: ‘It is one of the funniest, most tragic and most touching books I have ever read. . . . Here, in this long book, he reveals a huge talent for the big narrative picture, for Dickensian character portraits and an expert fusion of history and personal life.’ Oz tells the story of his mother’s unexplained suicide, his tormented love and longing for her, his father’s embittered attempts to adapt to life in Israel: ‘a sort of rootless, short-sighted intellectual with two left hands.’ He reproduces the diaspora world the family had fled from, one in which every tribe of Europe had become besotted by nationalism and the only Jewish response was to invent a nationalism for itself, outside the continent.
The book was the biggest selling work in Israeli literary history. Abroad it sold over a million copies and was published during one of the country’s historic low ebbs in world opinion. It made its author a kind of default spokesman for his country. Regarded at home as a traitor, abroad he was either a sentinel of peace or a Zionist apologist. If the dust ever settles, readers will go back to those 20 novels in which love and darkness always coexist, and a Mossad agent makes his third cup of coffee of the day, wondering how to fill in the long hours till bedtime.
This article appears in the Winter 2019 issue of Jewish Quarterly.