Dipping a Pen in the Inkwell of Life

A. B. Yehoshua
A.B. Yehoshua
A. B. Yehoshua
A.B. Yehoshua

Our first encounter was brief and rushed. After the death of his mother and his father's hasty marriage, Amos chose a new path and moved to Kibbutz Hulda. Although he was young, the word "choice" in this regard seems more suitable than "escape" or "exile." After all, during the many years of life on the kibbutz, he proved, both to himself and to his surroundings, that this had been a significant and conscious choice, not just the whim of a hurt and insulted young boy.

He severed himself from the Hebrew Gymnasia high school in Jerusalem and from the Scouts, and switched over to the total, captivating experience of the kibbutz as it was in the 1950s. But occasionally, on weekends, he would come to visit his father's home in Jerusalem and then he would on rare occasions meet up with his former friends.

That year, 1955, I was serving as a counselor-emissary for the Scouts, and once or twice, during an activity I organized on Friday or after Shabbat, I noticed among the troop members a different sort of boy, a stranger, who had left and moved to the kibbutz. We didn't connect at the time, but I remembered his glances, which expressed a mixture of attentiveness and fear, amazement and perhaps even slight irony.

In addition to imparting the philosophy of socialism, the foundations of Zionism and the other social messages, I would occasionally enliven the activities with literature and poetry. Although my charges were only three years younger than I, I would assume the authority of a teacher of literature and bring them passages from plays by Ibsen, or short stories by Gogol and Tolstoy - as well as, of course, excerpts from the stories of Yizhar and Agnon. Actually, Agnon would help me, with the archaic tone and the humor of his style, to control and silence even the wildest kids. According to Amos' recollection, he took part in an activity I ran about Agnon, and perhaps that was the spark that several years later ignited our friendship.

I mentioned Agnon, and I can also add Gnessin and Brenner and Berdichevsky and Mendele and other classical authors who have been forgotten. Because many of the writers of that period were also students in the Hebrew literature department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which at the time filled large auditoriums on the Givat Ram campus. And in those years, after the tensions surrounding the "state in the making" and the War of Independence had dissipated, we became connected, out of curiosity and love, to earlier generations of Hebrew literature, and each of us chose a link of his own in the chain.

Amos chose as a source of inspiration, or as a starting point, the complex and tortured prose of Micah Joseph Berdichevsky. The traces of that prose are evident throughout his entire career, beginning with the stories of "Where the Jackals Howl" up until his last book of short stories, "Scenes From a Village Life." But Amos, of course, could not have been indifferent to the large and profound shadow that loomed over all of us: the shadow of Agnon.

Amos wrote a complex and rich book of commentary, "The Silence of Heaven: Agnon's Fear of God," about Agnon's works, a subject taught a great deal in high schools and later at the university. It turns out that that book was even purchased by ultra-Orthodox Jews, who were interested in learning what about God amazed Agnon. But Agnon also appeared as a literary figure - as the neighbor of Amos' grandfather's brother Joseph Klausner, in his marvelous Romanesque autobiography "A Tale of Love and Darkness," in a vibrant and colorful description that reflected admiration of Agnon, but was ironic and mocking as well. As befits a major writer for whom irony is an essential part of his repertory.

For years we could not discuss Amos' missing mother, the mother who abandoned her only son on the threshold of adolescence. Even in the longest and most profound friendships there are painful or ambiguous areas that cannot be touched. In his literary works, his mother hovered prominently, an ambiguous and elusive shadow behind the female characters: as in "My Michael," in which there was a young heroine who was captivating in her unhappy neurosis, or as a treasonous character in "The Hill of Evil Counsel," or as a woman killed in a strange accident already at the start of the novel "To Know a Woman," or as totally absent in "Fima" [called "The Third Condition," in Hebrew].

But as friends we knew and sensed that as effective as she may be as an elusive shadow in these literary works, it would not be possible to evade her or ignore her forever. And, in fact, when the time came, she appeared in her full psychological and social concreteness, along with her family and the generations that preceded her, almost without camouflage, in "A Tale of Love and Darkness." The autobiographical trauma gave rise to a novel of great literary value, whose title should perhaps have been "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," had not James Joyce appropriated it over nearly 100 years ago.

The same ink

Amos sometimes claims that he writes with two different pens, one for literature and the other for political and ideological essays. I completely understand his need and that of others (including myself) to protect literary writing from the turbulent political and ideological sphere, just because of that sphere's public nature. In the heat of polemics and conflict, there is a tendency, on the part of both advocates and opponents, to flatten the literary writing by turning it into political formulas, allegories or metaphors. But from the history of literature and from a perusal of the works of Amos and of others - including mine - I know that these are not two separate pens.

For the purpose of metaphor, I am willing to agree to the image of a fountain pen (of the old type, with a large container that can be filled from the inkwell of life), in which the nib can be replaced from time to time. Thin and sharpened for political writing, and broad and full for literary writing. But the reservoir is the same reservoir, and the ink is the same ink. Yulek's letter to Eshkol in "A Perfect Peace," Shraga's stormy monologue in "Late Love," the nighttime conversations of the author on guard duty with Ephraim Avneri on the kibbutz in "A Tale of Love and Darkness" and, of course, Fima's arguments with the taxi drivers in "Fima," and many more examples - these do not divorce the words of politics and ideology from their psychological and literary essence.

Everything also stems from political and ideological sources as well, and from the writer's worldview, even if it has complex ironic refractions and contradictions, such as in the ideological monologue that Dostoyevsky implants in the mouth of the bridegroom in "The Idiot," before he breaks the flowerpot and falls to the floor in an epileptic fit before everyone.

I am often asked by journalists and literary people, especially abroad, about the secret of the friendships and the profound relationships that exist among Israeli writers: Is there really no envy and competition among you, they ask. No petty calculations about honors? And the answer is: Of course, there are. After all, we are human beings, and competition among writers may increase wisdom, but it is a source of pain as well. And still, perhaps because most of us stand behind the same political and ideological barricade on many issues, even if we sometimes differ regarding our forecasts and interpretations, and because Israeli reality demands not words, but an ethical struggle over crucial issues as well - we are obliged to cooperate rather than to seclude ourselves. And thus, as a result of this cooperation, friendship and brotherhood deepens.

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