The long and short of it
Amos Oz's new novel, which deals with the experience of writing, contains the longest sex scene in his oeuvre. At its center is a character called 'the Author.' Are the writer and his character alike? Perhaps not, says Oz - but neither of them likes to be asked personal questions.
"What is true is that in photographs he looks completely different. He's aged a little, the kid. How old is he meant to be? Something like forty-five. The truth? I was sure - more than sure: convinced - that he's a lot taller." - Amos Oz, "Rhyming Life and Death"
As Amos Oz finished reading passages from his new novel, the hall packed full of salespeople, mostly women, from the Steimatzky bookstore chain, responded with a short, powerful burst of applause. Powerful, because this was, after all, Amos Oz, and his charm cast its spell, particularly when he skillfully played the part of one of the male characters in an accent that was a cross between Polish and Russian. Short, because Oz's just-published short novel, "Rhyming Life and Death," (Keter Books, Hebrew), which deals with writing and has at its center a character called "the Author," is complex, not easy to take in on first reading. The salespeople were not given time to ask questions, and he has other engagements to attend to during the day, and now he's already leaving the hall, hustling up the stairs, his body angled slightly forward.
Later, when we have breakfast together at a nearby restaurant, I observe that maybe the salespeople will have a harder time selling a book about writing than they would a conventionally plotted novel. Oz, who has perfect manners, a warm, pleasant handshake and a direct gaze, doesn't agree but doesn't disagree, either, saying he thought the public reading had been a success.
Ronit Weiss Berkovich, the book's editor, also thought the reading had gone well. Introducing Oz to the audience, she spoke fondly about working with him. She likened her excitement at their working together to that of the female protagonist of the new novel, Ruchele Reznick, who meets the Author at a public reading from his works. Weiss Berkovich related that when she first met him, "Amos was wearing the same sweater he is wearing today, in this hall." And Oz, who was sitting in the first row, said in a loud voice, "Well, that's what there is," and his face reddened as the audience broke into laughter.
Oz, who will soon turn 68, says he has no interest in writing "Son of Love and Darkness," as readers perhaps expected as a follow-up to his phenomenally successful "A Tale of Love and Darkness." And, indeed, "Rhyming Life and Death," his 31st book (including essay collections and other compositions), is not the book people expected from him. It's a novella covering eight hours on a Tel Aviv night in the 1980s, for the most part in the mind and imagination of the Author, a man in his forties who has earned literary recognition, but makes a living from his work in an accounting firm, is twice divorced and apparently has no children. The climax of the plot is a long sexual encounter, described in much detail, between him and Ruchele Reznick.
"Rhyming Life and Death" is rich in short scenes that portray more than two dozen characters. Among them are an expert in literature named Yakir Bar-Orion Zhitomirsky, who has come to ridicule the Author; a party hack named Arnold Bartok, who sleeps in the same bed with his 86-year-old mother; and a poet, Zephaniah Beit Halahmi, whose optimistic poems gained him the public's love in the 1950s but who has since been forgotten (and whose work provides the novel's title).
The new work, then, is rife with familiar elements of language and poetics from Oz's earlier works, and of course there is the prodigious writing, now in its fifth decade; but this is also very much a theoretical book, fraught with literary and intellectual games.
Oz definitely does not think that readers will need previous knowledge of his work or literary knowledge of any kind to read "Rhyming Life and Death." The book, he maintains, is open to everyone, its sophistication does not prevent it from being accessible, and there is no contradiction here. He explains that he wrote from the stance of a "solitary dialogue," his term for the dialogues each of us conducts in our mind with other people, be they close or strangers.
We converse about the question of the author's status, when, as though to prove a principle, a woman of about 50, who had been chatting with a young man a few tables away, comes over and, with the understandable embarrassment of one who has made her decision, says, "You're Amos Oz, right? I want to thank you very much for all your books, which I have enjoyed all these years." Oz thanks her briefly and gives her that look of focused, concentrated and rationed attention, which both attracts and creates a distance. She backs off, as though from royalty, without turning around.
At the gathering of salespeople just now, you chose to read a scene containing three Mizrahi characters [Jews of Middle Eastern origin]: Mr. Leon, his friend and retainer Shlomo Hogi, and the rich and generous Ovadia Hazzam, who is dying in Ichilov Hospital. Did you possibly choose this passage because it ends with a joke, when they conjecture how people get cancer - "Today scientists have already found that it comes either from dirt or nerves"?
"That was part of it, but I didn't choose the passage because of the joke. I chose it in order to show how everything is a story. You sit in a restaurant, you steal a conversation, that's a story. People ask me where I get my stories from. From everything. Everything is a story. There is nothing that is not a story. Chekhov once boasted that he could write a story about anything. So someone stuck an ashtray under his nose and said: Write about this ashtray. He went into another room, sat for an hour, and wrote a short story about the ashtray."
Can you do that, too?
"I wouldn't be able to do that, but I constantly have that story in mind."
Are you concerned about a readers' revolt against the parodic and bitter tone of the new book?
"It's possible. I am very, very much in the fog about how readers will accept this book. I have no idea, and I am afraid."
Afraid with the same fear that attends every new book?
"Because this is not a regular book, this is an exceptional book. It's a book about a book, a book about how a book is born and about how a book is written. It's a book about the writing process. And I don't know whether people will find it easy, difficult, strange, alluring or repulsive to read a book about how books are written."
Why do you think it might be repulsive?
"Because it's possible that what the reader wants is to be handed a prepared dish and not to be invited into the kitchen."
There are those you obviously do not fear, namely the literature experts, who are the victims of a trenchant parody and are embodied in the character of Bar-Orion Zhitomirsky, who analyzes the work of the Author to the point where he draws blood. You are saying to the readers, "Forget about the critics, they don't know anything."
"I am afraid of myself, too, because I have been a literature teacher for many years - a high-school teacher and a university teacher: I have been teaching in university for 20 years already. The words Bar-Orion uses there are the same words I use. They are not words that I boycott. So, yes - yes, you are right that there is something a bit subversive here."
You call it subversive. Maybe there is something here that works against itself?
"It's democratic. All the characters are allotted the same mix of warmth and mockery. All the characters. I hope it's that way; I can't tell you that it came out like that. I can tell you that that's what I wanted. There is the same mix of compassion, ridicule, warmth, a dollop of misanthropy in regard to all the characters, more or less. Possibly not in the exact same dosages, but don't forget that later in the book this expert on literature receives the dose of compassion that he deserves, too. He is also one of the characters. It's not some caricature."
This seems to be a story in which there is very little love. Let's say that there is no love for the Author. He doesn't feel love, and his relations with people are not grounded in love but in scorn.
"This author is cold and disconnected. I don't know about cold, but disconnected. In contrast to me, by the way - I am far from disconnected. At least, that's how I feel myself. The author who appears in this book is not me; he is not identical to me. He is disconnected, and the disconnection is his curse. Actually, throughout the whole of 'Rhyming Life and Death' he tries to breach this disconnection, tries with all his might to breach it, but it's a bit like a turtle trying to get out of its shell."
Oz says of "Rhyming Life and Death" that it's part of what began in "The Same Sea," (1998), and notwithstanding the difference in genres, is common to what he has written since then, including "A Tale of Love and Darkness."
Oz: "It involves moving a bit away from a conventional novel with characters and a plot and all the conventions of a commercial novel."
Do you agree that "Rhyming Life and Death" is not a commercial book?
"I suppose it isn't."
The critic Dan Daor wrote of "A Tale of Love and Darkness" that one of the surprising things about that important autobiographical novel is its sheer scale, because Oz is really an artist of the novella, of relatively short novels and of short stories. One way Oz demonstrates his ability to work on a small scale in "Rhyming Life and Death" is through the shaping of the morose character Ruchele Reznick, a woman of 35, with the same fusion of misanthropy and compassion he talks about in our continuing conversation, as he urges me to drink my tea, because it's getting cold. At one point, for example, she asks herself what interest a person like the Author could possibly have in her collection of matchboxes from around the world, and even as this thought continues to resonate, Oz writes immediately that the Author lit another cigarette.
So lacking in self-confidence is Ruchele that she can't even see the connection between a cigarette and a match. Oz smiles a deep smile at this observation, and suddenly looks young. And yes, he stopped smoking a few years ago on his own, and yes, it was rough going.
The scene between Ruchele Reznick and the Author is very long, almost 10 pages. How does one manage a scene like this?
"This is the longest intimate scene I have ever written, the most detailed sexual description I have ever written in any of my books. It was highly microscopic."
Microscopic, but lacking certain things.
"What does it lack?"
The Author is impotent when things reach that stage. Yet the scene doesn't stop there, and the contact between them is extremely long.
"That scene is written so the reader will be there, and read it as though he or she is invited to take part. I wanted to write it with the greatest possible precision and accuracy and truth that I could put into that scene. The important thing for me was not that the scene be sexy, but that it be truthful."
Reznick is described as a submissive girl. At one stage in this tour de force of 10 pages, there is a moment in which she sucks a thumb. Why can't she be a woman who knows what she wants?
"First of all, no statement of any kind is being made here - no statement about the female sex - because that would be ridiculous. She herself is a girlish woman. Possibly the unripe quality in her is what attracts the Author to her. Add to this also the fact that she herself, although she is submissive, actually knows very well what she wants. There is no situation in which she is deceived, or dizzied, or infatuated, or in which she is seduced."
But he does whatever he wants with her. He is the one who decides what the relations between them will be like, and she is submissive. Until it turns around, and suddenly he has to find ways to make her become fond of him when they are together.
"It's a good thing you said 'until it turns around.' There is definitely a game here between a man and a woman, each of whom fulfills for the other, to some degree consciously, the role he is expected to fulfill. It's a moment of truth, when it emerges that each of them played a part, which is not a completely authentic part. She is not wholly the submissive, undeveloped girl, and he is not wholly the omnipotent assertive male. In bed, he is not the big hero he is out of bed."
The scene contains metaphors such as " ... led him to skim with her, hand in hand, across a zone of different texture, silkier and more tenuous by far than the stuff of the nightgown, a warm texture that to his fingers' touch yielded intimations of hollows and covert crannies by the sea until swollen again by the tide ... "
"It's written with the greatest precision I was able to achieve. The word 'precision' was my mantra. If I needed images, there are images. If I need direct speech without images, totally physical, there is totally physical representation."
Yes, there is, but not physical in the sense, say, in which physical writing is done nowadays.
"No. It's not a butcher's shop. There is no butcher's shop here."
There is a sexual ideology in the book: an emphasis on her enjoyment, which causes him enjoyment. That is mature and fine, but I have to admit that it surprised me in relation to his character, because he doesn't seem to be the kind of person who would care about that.
"Apparently there is more to him than first meets the eye. Don't forget that this man lives others all the time. So it's not surprising that in bed, too, he lives others. His heart is constantly probing the hearts of others and entering the hearts of others, so he constantly lives his life through other people as well."
His being a writer is supposed to protect him from the difficulties of sexual maturity. Yet just when he is thinking about his characters, while he is with the woman, on the one hand it excites him, because he thinks about a waitress he saw, and on the other hand it completely paralyzes him, causes him what he experiences as impotence. The writing cannot actually replace the experience.
"What happens is that in bed, it would be better for him if he could disconnect himself completely from his characters. But he cannot. Even if we do not know whether this act took place in reality, or in his imagination, in the act itself it is clear that some of the characters excite him and some of them interfere. The waitress excites him, and this what's-his-name, I forgot ... "
Ovadia Hazzam, who is dying in Ichilov.
"Yes. The dying Ovadia Hazzam paralyzes him. This is the kind of thing that is actually part of my ambition for this scene, for the whole book: to be absolutely precise. Definitely, the ability to disconnect from the world completely during lovemaking. That is a wish, it doesn't always succeed."
In this case it is an abject failure.
"It's not possible. In this case it's not possible."
Oz has been married for 47 years to Nili, whom he met in Kibbutz Hulda, where he was sent at the age of 15 from Jerusalem. He describes his early childhood in "A Tale of Love and Darkness": his being the only child of Yehuda Arieh and Fania Klausner (nee Mussman); the visits to his father's famous uncle, Prof. Joseph Klausner, who was the object of S.Y. Agnon's caustic ridicule; the unrealized ambitions of his father, who worked in the National Archives as a librarian; his mother, who called everything by a name, as though she were the first person in the Garden of Eden, and who committed suicide in the home of her sister in Tel Aviv when Amos Oz was 12; the fact that he was not allowed to attend her funeral; his sense of mission and of a strong obligation to achieve everything that his parents did not. Oz is the father of three children and the grandfather of four, with whom he spends time when he is in Tel Aviv, he said.
He published "My Michael," the novel that brought him world fame, when he was only 28 and with three successful books already behind him. Until 1986 he was a member of Kibbutz Hulda, not far from Jerusalem, and taught in the regional school; since then he has lived in the Negev town of Arad. Among the many prizes he has won are the Israel Prize, in 1998, the state's highest honor, and the prestigious Goethe Prize (awarded by the city of Frankfurt) in 2005. He is a professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva, holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a visiting professor at Princeton and other leading universities, and is a member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. His work is the subject of literary research, most recently in a book by Prof. Nitza Ben Dov about Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and Agnon (the only Israeli to win the Nobel Prize for Literature).
So that when Amos Oz the person, sitting at the table in the restaurant in a striped sweater that's no longer new and a blue shirt, his glasses slipping momentarily down his nose as he tilts his head, is asked about the opening chapter of his new book, which is filled with readers' questions of which the Author is heartily sick, his reply does not really come as a surprise: "That author," he says, "and I as well, both of us don't very much like to be asked personal questions."
The politico Arnold Bartok, who is 60, sleeps in the same bed with his mother, as in the story with the fantastic ending that you published last year in a literary journal. Why does Bartok sleep in the same bed with his mother? Why doesn't he leave her?
"This son - it's not that he doesn't want to leave his mother, it's that she doesn't leave him. She doesn't leave him alone. Metaphorically, at least, she keeps him in her bed, with her chamber pot, and doesn't leave him and doesn't let go of him and doesn't let him live his life. This book is filled with such dependencies, people who are dependent on each other; you don't understand why, but they are dependent on each other. That's how it is."
Let's say it clearly, then: "Rhyming Life and Death" is suffused with a gloomy atmosphere.
"Yes, absolutely, and there is also a morbid element. It contains both erotica and death. This book, if you will, in just two words, is about eros and death."
That doesn't make for easy reading, and so when you asked me whether I found the book easy to read I said no. It's hard going.
"On the other hand, these are the most important things in life. What is more central, what is more essential than eros and death?"
Maybe everything in between.
"What's in between is also here - the trivia of everyday life. All the details, all the self-scratching, all this Yeruham Shadmati [the culture promoter who invites the Author to give a talk] whom I just read about in the hall, who is struck by the edge of a cupboard and spills his tea on himself and whose forehead is scratched by the chair. It's all here, everything between eros and death - all the trivia of day-to-day life, the blandness of everyday life fills this book. The flies in the restaurant - everything is here."
That's a hard message when it's conveyed so starkly. And it must also have been hard to write.
"It was hard to write, but I don't know if that was because of the messages. It was hard for me to write because it's a book that's not like other things I have written. I don't want to rewrite something I have already done successfully. I didn't want to write a second book about love and darkness, 'Son of Love and Darkness.' I wanted to do something I hadn't yet done."
The book is based on a story you published in the 1970s, "The Author Meets His Readers." What made you come back to it now?
"I suppose it didn't leave me alone. I wasn't satisfied with what I wrote then, and it continued to occupy me, and it came back to me. I didn't go back to it - it came back to me. I must have been waiting for it. I didn't know I was waiting for it, but I must have been."
There is another hint of an affair in the book, between Yeruham Shadmati and Miriam Nehorait, and there is a description of how he washes himself in the morning, including how he cleans his nose. That is physical and arouses repulsion to a point where it arouses compassion.
"I hope so."
Why is it important for you now, at this stage of life, to be physical?
"Because life arouses repulsion and compassion. There, I said the kind of thing I don't like to say, but I said it. It arouses repulsion and compassion in me, and therefore my characters also arouse repulsion and compassion, without any contradiction between them. I want to do what doesn't usually happen in life; usually in life there is more repulsion than compassion."
One way or the other, they are all fading away in this city, lost and forgotten.
"Everyone will die in the end. Sholem Aleichem said it, Tevye the Dairyman: A Jew is like a tailor. A tailor lives and in the end dies, and a Jew the same thing."
What are you more afraid of - death, or losing the ability to write?
"Of losing the ability to write. More than of death. And I write all the time, because I have to."
"A vast system of brainwashing, of media, batters us relentlessly and tells us: The old is no good, the new is good, get rid of the old, buy the new. Replace the software, replace the hardware, replace the furniture, replace the wife, replace the neighborhood, replace the house, replace the objects, buy something new ..." - Amos Oz in his talk to the booksellers.
You talked about a consumer culture, which equates material products with happiness. Do you abstain from consumer products?
"I don't like to buy. I buy only books."
How many do you have?
"I have a good few thousand. I can tell you where each one is on the shelf. It's not for nothing that I am the son of a librarian and the husband of an archivist."
You also give books.
Do you use the Internet?
"We don't have Internet. I know I'm a caveman: I don't have Internet, I don't have e-mail, I'm not plugged in. I have time, but I need it for other things."
There is music in the book in several senses. There is a man named Bartok, though he is not a composer, and Uncle Ossia is a piano tuner, not a pianist; on the other hand, the book is constructed like a musical work in the sense that each chapter is a counterpoint to the previous one.
"It's a contrapuntal book, constructed entirely on counterpoints. The different episodes in the book also interrelate contrapuntally. Well, now I'm talking like Zhitomirsky, the expert on literature, and the moment I say this I am also already mocking myself for saying that each scene is the counterpoint to another, because that is incidental to the book, not its essence. Which isn't to say that people shouldn't read the book."
My questions weren't hinting at that.
"I love music passionately, but I'm not sure that it loves me back. Because I can't sing a note without going off-key, because my whole life I wasn't capable of playing an instrument, not even a whistle."
What kind of music do you like? And your son is a musician.
"He composes jazz. He wouldn't even like it to be defined as jazz, because even though it's similar to jazz, it's Daniel's music. He gets that from his mother, not from me. There's a lot of musicality there."
Did you listen to jazz before he started playing jazz?
"My taste in music depends very much on my mood. I can be thirsty for Baroque music in the evening and listen to jazz the next morning. It's very much of a mood thing, but it doesn't include rock. It's something like food: now you need this, next time you need something else."
The Author has bad thoughts about the reading public, but also needs the public very much. Can one become addicted to being liked by the public?
"It's true that he needs this. I try very much not to become addicted. Whether I am successful is not for me to judge. Not to become addicted means not writing what I think people expect me to write. I am not the person to judge this, but I think I have not written the book I was expected to write."
Do you write every day?
"I try to write every day. I am at my desk every day at 5:30 in the morning. I sit until midday. I used to have terrible guilt feelings if I didn't write. When I lived in the kibbutz I used to feel deeply ashamed. I would come to the dining room for lunch and say: You should be ashamed of yourself - that guy milked 50 sheep and that one plowed 220 dunams [55 acres] and this one added six more layers to the building, and you wrote six words today and twelve yesterday. So why are you coming to eat?
"Over the years I developed a kind of mantra, in which I tell myself that I am like a merchant. I show up, open the store on time and wait for customers. If customers come, it's a good day; if not, I am still doing my work by sitting and waiting. So there are situations when I sit and wait and hardly anything happens. But I don't read the newspaper. I sit and wait. I know where I want to progress to, but I don't find the right tune, the melody I am looking for."
You travel a lot, though.
"I try not to travel so much. I have many invitations, but I try not to travel more than four-five times a year. Because at my age it's already possible to live on planes, to travel all the time. Wherever one of my books is published, I get invited."
Your Author wanders through Tel Aviv. What's your attitude toward this city?
"Simple. I really love Tel Aviv. Almost none of my books is set in Tel Aviv, but I love it and I live here on weekends - I have a place in the city for weekends. I love its vitality, I love the way it's occupied with itself, almost like a young girl making herself up, who is constantly busy with herself, and I also love its curiosity about the world. It is so ugly that it's almost beautiful, Tel Aviv. My grandmother used to say of people: He's so stupid that he's almost smart, or so ugly he's almost handsome. And Tel Aviv is so ugly that it's almost beautiful. And it's sexy."
"I wrote about it in 'The Same Sea' - a tattered and sexy city. I feel good in Tel Aviv."
You're not thinking of moving here?
"Not for the time being. For the time being, Arad is still important to me."
Are you working on a new book?
"Yes. I will not tell you anything about it. Let it be in total darkness for the time being. If I talk about it, I won't write it."
Can you tell me about a response from readers that stuck in your memory?
"I received letters from many readers about 'A Tale of Love and Darkness.' One woman wrote that her elderly mother had read the book and liked it very much, and afterward lost consciousness and went into a coma. She had a stroke. They read her chapters from the book, and the doctors said it helped her wake up. She came back to life. Of which my son said that 'A Tale of Love and Darkness' can be sold in drugstores as well as bookstores."
Where can "Rhyming Life and Death" be sold?
Translated by Ralph Mandel
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