The Surprising Letter Tolstoy Wrote to Israeli Author Amos Oz

While he still awaits recognition from the Nobel committee, Amos Oz recently received another, unexpected literary honor

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Amos Oz. The prize named after Tolstoy joins an already crammed shelf
Amos Oz. The prize named after Tolstoy joins an already crammed shelfCredit: Leonardo Cendamo / Leemage / AFP
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

UPDATE: Amos Oz, Israeli literary giant, dies at 79

Not long ago, the writer Amos Oz found a rather surprising letter in his mailbox. “Dear Mr. Oz, It gives me great pleasure to inform you that you have won the award,” wrote someone who signed himself “Mr. Tolstoy.” Oz was a bit taken aback: It’s not every day you receive a letter from a literary great who died 108 years ago.

“I thought it was a prank,” says Oz. “I thought I was being played with, until I read the letter.”

It’s like taking part in a séance.

Oz laughs. “Yes, yes.”

'If I leave this world without the Nobel, I’ll feel just fine. I’ll let you in on a secret: Literary awards are a strange thing'

Turns out that Vladimir Ilyich Tolstoy, the author of the letter, is the great-great-grandson of Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy. In 2003, the Yasnaya Polyana Literary Award (the name of the estate where the writer was born and lived most of his life) was inaugurated in Tolstoy’s memory.

Leo Tolstoy at his estate, Yasnaya Polyana, May 1908Credit: Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky

His great-great-grandson heads the committee that decides on the winner each year. Presented mainly to works of modern Russian literature that draw on the tradition of the classic Russian novels, the Yasnaya Polyana is one of the country’s most prestigious and important literary awards.

>> With Amos Oz's passing, Israel lost a patriot. I lost a family friend

Three years ago, an international category was added for acclaimed writers whose books have been translated into Russian. Oz will be awarded the prize (and the equivalent of about $16,500) for his 2014 book “Judas” at a ceremony next week at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. The book’s Russian translator, Victor Ratdutzky, will receive a stipend equivalent to $7,400.

Oz receiving the Goethe Prize in 2005Credit: BERND KAMMERER / AP

To date, two Nobel laureates in literature, Orhan Pamuk and Maria Vargas Llosa, have also won this award. What does Oz think of Israeli expectations that he will also win the Nobel someday?

“I’m fine, I’ve received plenty of awards,” he says. “If I leave this world without the Nobel, I’ll feel just fine. I’ll let you in on a secret: Literary awards are a strange thing. I write books the way I drink water or breathe air. I can’t not breathe, I can’t not drink, I can’t not write. Then afterwards people come and say, ‘You breathe so beautifully,’ ‘You drink water so beautifully, let’s give you an award for it.’ I’d write the same books even if I had to pay a fine after each book – and there are people who would like see that happen, I know.”

Some young writers seem to take pleasure in coming out against writers who are widely beloved by the audience.

“I’ve been in the literary battle for many, many years. When a young person comes to me and says, ‘Move aside, I want it too,’ I tell him, ‘Soon, be patient, just a little longer.’ I didn’t put myself there. And when a young guy says, ‘Enough with you already, we’ve heard all about you, step aside, I also want a turn,’ he’s right. There’s nothing I can say to him. I’ve been there myself. In the same place with the same feeling.”

It’s as if the entire literary world is a small wrestling ring with little space and lots of ego.

'Kiss of Judas' by Giotto, 1304-1306

“Isn’t it the same everywhere? Every few days I get a letter or email from a reader, usually a woman, who cites a paragraph or sentence from a book of mine with such joy and affection that I don’t care if somebody else is angry or unhappy or inpatient.”

'Russia is an Orthodox Christian country that hasn’t undergone the same revision about Jews as the Catholic Church has'

Surprised by the Russian award

Oz, it hardly needs saying, is one of Israel’s best-known, most highly acclaimed and active writers. Since the publication of “Judas” in Hebrew, four years ago, he has published three more nonfiction books. The latest, “What Is in an Apple?” (Hebrew title: “Mimah Asui Hatapuah?”), comprised of conversations with his editor Shira Hadad, came out a few months ago from Keter (his usual publisher). His winning of the Polyana award follows the Israel Prize, the Goethe Prize, the Bialik Prize and the Heinrich Heine Prize, among others.

Oz's latest book, 'What Is in an Apple?' is comprised of conversations with his editor Shira Hadad

But Oz, who will turn 80 next year, says the Yasnaya Polyana award is special because it was so unexpected. “Judas,” set in a Jerusalem household over a few months in 1959, tells the story of Shmuel Ash, a graduate student at the Hebrew University who halts work on his master’s thesis – which deals with Jesus from a Jewish viewpoint, and Judas Iscariot – when his parents withdraw their support. In search of an income and a place to live, Ash moves into the home of Gershom Wald, a bitter and disabled elderly man. Atalia, an attractive 45-year-old woman, lives there as well. (Her connection with Gershom will gradually become apparent to the reader). The novel, sections of which are devoted to the character of Judas, is certainly not what one would call easy reading.

“It surprised me that this book won the award,” says Oz. “Russia is an Orthodox Christian country that hasn’t undergone the same revision about Jews as the Catholic Church has. There they still teach that the Jews killed God, and the images of the traitor’s kiss and the 30 pieces of silver are very strong. This novel, ‘Judas,’ is hard from a Christian point of view, even provocative and challenging. I have great respect for the judges’ panel that selected it, who will surely receive a lot of criticism from devout Christians in Russia.

“I’ve seen it in other places where the book was translated. Judas Iscariot in Christianity is like Eichmann for us, if not worse. He is the embodiment of hatred, he is burned in effigy in the Easter passion play. Then you have the protagonist in my book say, when Judas hangs himself after Jesus’ death, ‘Thus dies the first Christian, the last Christian, the only Christian.’ It’s a shock for Christian readers. It’s not easy to read and nor was it easy to write this sentence. I have a special respect for the judges who chose such a challenging book, one that presents the Christian story about Judas as the Chernobyl of anti-Semitism.”

'When a young guy says, ‘Enough with you already, we’ve heard all about you, step aside, I also want a turn,’ he’s right'

Did that make you hesitant at all when you were writing this?

“Absolutely. I was still worried about it when I was done writing, and not just because of this part. This is a novel of ideas, and that’s an endangered animal. Not many novels of ideas are being written these days. It seems to have gone out of fashion. Three people sitting in a room for an entire winter, drinking liters of tea and arguing with one another – that’s my book.”

The cover of Oz's book Judas

Your last three books also belong to this endangered genre, or at least they’re not especially commercial: “Jews and Words,” which you wrote with your daughter, the historian Fania Oz-Salzberger; “Dear Zealots,” in which you lay out your sociopolitical views; and “What Is in an Apple?,” a book of conversations with your editor Shira Hadad.

“What Is in an Apple” is a book that Shira and I did with a smile, and I hope it will be read with a smile. Sometimes the smile is sad but it was all written with a smile. I’d never written an entire book with a smile before. That was new for me.”

And what made it possible now?

“Maybe it’s the years, the time. Twenty or 30 years ago, I would never have thought of writing something like this, or doing something like this together with a partner in conversation and in language that is the language of conversation. I used to think that such things were below the admission threshold for literature. I don’t think that way anymore.”

Because of a willingness to forgo seriousness, or because of the idea of publishing a book of conversations?

“The idea wasn’t to put out a book of conversations. There was no idea at all. Shira is the editor of my recent books. She edited ‘Judas.’ We met and talked while that was going on and afterwards we kept meeting at my home and discussing all sorts of things. After a few such conversations, we decided to move from the living room to the study and to put a tape recorder between us. We didn’t know yet that it would become a book.”

And perhaps it also has something to do with the questions and rumors that have arisen lately about the state of Oz’s health. He declines to comment on the rumors, and will say only, “I’m not well, but I’m fighting.”

You’ve always been political, you’ve always written about this place [Israel] and its problems. You have this stance, call it ‘Observer of the House of Israel,’ and in this book it’s somewhat absent. You’ve loosened your tie.”

"This title, ‘Observer of the House of Israel,’ is overblown. Maybe a ‘concerned citizen who writes a lot.’ I’ve written stories and political essays, and the reality always enters the stories. For at least the past 20-something years, the reality, the disappointments, the fears, as well as the hopes, the small consolations, the shame – have all been there in my stories too. ‘Dear Zealots’ came out not long ago, and that’s where you’ll find my ideological legacy – what I want to tell my grandchildren about the political, social and cultural situation. Shira and I got together and talked. I thought, ‘Here we are, a young woman and an old man, different generations, different genders, different life experiences, talking about men and women, about reading books, about criticism, about life – we ought to save this in some form. We thought it would be interesting and Shira, who has a marvelous touch, cut very wisely and correctly from all the conversations. There was 10 times or a hundred times more material and she cut it and put it together. She brought the book into being.”

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