Writing Tales: Amos Oz (1939 – 2018) Israeli writer of novels, tales, poems and essays.

Amos Oz, who died in December 2018,  has always been an important writer for me, not only because of his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock, but also because of his multi-part solutions to writing, whether it be with reference to subject matter, context, genre or viewpoint.

Apart from novels, I first came across him as critic in The Agony and the Ego: The Art and Strategy of Fiction Writing Explored (ed. Clare Boylan, Penguin 1993).  Oz’s contribution is titled The Artist and Integrity where he rejects the word integrity in fiction because it doesn’t exist in Hebrew anyway, and what he wants as a writer is neither fiction, nor non-fiction but the truth.  (I have written about this before: see my OCA blog in September 2016). The writer, says Oz, “is equipped to act as the language’s smoke detector, if not its fire-brigade” and “can use words for building castles, for playing brilliant games, for calling death a rose.” But the writer “is also capable and therefore responsible for calling a rose a rose, and a lie a lie.” (p.235)

His part-novel, part-memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, was published  in English in 2004 and  in a Guardian podcast (https://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2016/sep/23/amos-oz-on-his-novel-judas-books-podcast)  shortly before his death  he explains he used the word “tale” in the English title advisedly because it is neither fiction, nor memoir, but a tale. That’s a useful word, but maybe both story and tale are already condemned as words referring to fiction in English literature, because of their close association with the world of lies.  If you want to tell the truth you have to write memoir, biography or autobiography, but how many untruths do those genres conceal? I wish Amos Oz was still alive to comment on how the South African writer, J.M. Coetzee coined the word autrebiography to cover a genre that alternated between fiction and autobiography (the truth?)

In the podcast referred to above, Jonathan Freedland questions Oz about his most recent novel, Judas (2015) in which three characters discuss Jewish views of Christianity, and how far Judas was or was not a traitor.  Three differing viewpoints are put forward but Oz says he doesn’t commit to one more than another, just as a composer of a quartet doesn’t favour the parts written, for example, for the violins over those written for the cello or viola.  The author, just like the composer, is everywhere and nowhere. And that is why a novel (a tale) is more effective than an essay. And as far as polemic goes, Oz argues that the characters come first and their viewpoints arrive later in the process of writing tales.

One of Oz’s books I’d particularly like to recommend is The Same Sea (2004) which is a novel in verse where  the characters speak and tell their tales, interrupted sometimes by a character who is no longer alive, by the author/narrator and occasional telephone calls from the characters to the narrator.  But it’s not entirely in verse: some of the pieces of the tale are told in prose and some are prose poems. Sometimes the pieces are bits of narration or the narrator questioning the narration, sometimes they are in the voice of one of the characters talking lucidly to the reader, sometimes in an unpunctuated stream of consciousness in the first person, or third person free indirect discourse.  The language, vocabulary and imagery rely heavily on the Old Testament, so it helps if you have read at least the psalms, the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes. (And what are you doing, pretending and claiming to be a writer in the English language if you haven’t read these?) The overall effect has been compared to Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood.

At one point (p72) the narrator, commenting on his characters, says: “And all of them are among shadows. Even the Narrator himself is somewhere between the mystical and the mischievous.”  And maybe as writers, our narrators are always between one thing and another, uncertain what they are up to. It’s also at this point the Oz interjects a section called The Peace Process, one of his few references to the political situation in Israel/Palestine.  “You will have to make further concessions. Only what is truly a matter of life and death should not be negotiable.”

One of his characters, Bettine, addressing the Narrator, in a kind of nod towards metafiction and joke reminiscent of Ian McEwan in Atonement (where one of the characters in the book turns out to have written the last section of the book) asks him shortly after he has made a reference to Chekhov: “Do you happen to have read Troyat’s book about Chekhov?”  And Bettine twice makes the comment: “It turns out that something that never was and never will be is all that we have.” (p152 and 185) Therein lies the beauty of writing and reading tales and Amos Oz was a master tale-teller.

Image: Amos Oz, 1939-2018 (Photo: Michiel Hendryckx/Wikimedia)

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