'To Our Great Misfortune, He Was Right': David Grossman Bids Farewell to Amos Oz

Two prominent writers and a translator say goodbye to friend and colleague Amos Oz, who with great prescience described the ills of occupation already in 1967

Israel’s literary trio (from left), David Grossman, A.b. Yehoshua and Amos Oz, in 2006.
Alon Ron

“We met 25 years ago. I sent him a book and he responded with a letter, as was his custom. Amos would send letters of reply in his very characteristic handwriting, filled with comments and observations. He suggested that we meet, and we met in Tel Aviv. We had a walking meeting: We walked and talked. That friendship grew closer over the years,” writer David Grossman told Haaretz in the wake of the death of Amos Oz, on December 28.

“We talked about everything,” Grossman continued. “Listening to Amos, I had the feeling that I was privileged and was being enriched. [In] the way he had of formulating things and the way he saw them. The way he formulated for so many in Israel and elsewhere Israel’s complexity and entanglement, all its impossible combinations, from the biggest to the most painful. I already feel that we have lost someone who was capable of expressing himself in the most precise way. Something in our contact with reality is diminished when an individual like that is wrenched from us.”

People usually related to Oz, yourself and A.B. Yehoshua as a trio. A close friendship existed among the three of you, Israel’s leading writers.

Grossman: “We called ourselves ‘the three tenors.’ I’ve never encountered a phenomenon like this anywhere, where this sort of dialogue and this sort of mutual admiration existed among a number of writers – three or more: We had additional friends. That deep friendship will no longer be what it was, and that is very painful.”

And the three of you shared the same trait – commenting on and expressing Israel’s situation.

“There are a number of writers here in Israel who, by their nature and their character, are inclined to take the external situation personally and to try to describe it minutely, precisely because it is so convenient to turn the situation into a cliché – verbally, perceptually and politically. Amos was first and foremost among us. You know, three weeks after the end of the Six-Day War, when the country was awash in the euphoria of the conquest, he, as a young man, warned against the occupation and described for us what it would look like. To his sorrow and our great misfortune, he was right about everything he described.”

Grossman added, “He was an extraordinarily generous person. And he had a great sense of curiosity. When I talk about him in the past tense, I choke up.”

Writer Haim Be’er also recalled his friendship with Amos Oz: “We spoke on the telephone last week, and he sounded very weak. We were friends for many years, and I can tell you a story about us, which in my view reflects vividly the person Amos was. I was about to publish a book about the relations between three writers – Agnon, Bialik and Brenner – which I titled ‘Their Love and Their Hate.’ A small advertisement had appeared about the book, which was then being printed. A month later I get a package from Amos. He wrote, ‘Dear Haim, I want you to read the manuscript of my book about Agnon.’ I open the manuscript and see that its title is almost identical to the title of my book. I didn’t know what to do.

“Another friend of mine, Rafi Weiser, director of the Agnon archive, got a phone call from me. He told me, ‘It’s been arranged. I received the manuscript from Amos yesterday – he sent it in order to get my opinion. I told Amos that you have a similar book with an almost the same name, which is now at the printer’s. Amos told him there was no problem and changed his title to ‘The Silence of Heaven: Agnon’s Fear of God.’

“The magnanimity of someone who was senior to me, older than me and more established – his generosity. I found that to be an amazing act of magnanimity. Amos was one of the most generous people in the arena of literature. It’s very sad. It was very trying for me to hear him last week, even though he preserved his dignity.”

“We spoke a few days before he died,” said Victor Radutzky, who translated 13 of Oz’s books into Russian. “There were practical matters on the agenda. I wanted him to write a foreword to ‘My Michael,’ which was being republished in Russia to mark the 25th anniversary of the first Israeli novel to appear in Russia. We talked about all kinds of things. We had a conversation about fiction, and Amos said, ‘I am writing fiction for you now.’ To think that we won’t know what he wrote is terrible.

“We parted from one another in Moscow on October 25, after the ceremony in which he received a prize for ‘Judas.’ In Russia, ‘Judas’ and ‘The Third Condition’ were published simultaneously; both got marvelous reviews and Oz was a candidate for the prize for both books. We had thought that in the present situation in Russia, an artist who is not identified with the New Testament had no chance, because insulting the sensibilities of the believers is a punishable offense. Nevertheless, he was awarded the prize.

“We spent a few fantastic days in Moscow, and he was plied with much love. Six-hundred people came to a meeting with him, to hear what Amos would tell them. In the question-and-answer period, devoted readers quoted from his books, and I was happy for him. The next morning he flew back to Israel; it had been a wonderful evening. We thought about the glowing future and had a hard time parting. After that we spoke a few times and agreed to meet. And then he called me from the hospital. He said, ‘It’s passing, be ready to come.’ That didn’t happen for us.”