November 5, 2009
Oz Mines Country’s Past in Personal Narratives
Just as the first heavy rain of the season began to beat against the large red awning of the Marilyn Monroe Café in Ramat Aviv, an area in north Tel Aviv, Amos Oz stepped under the protected terrace, looked around and smiled as I stood to shake his hand. Punctual to the minute at his preferred meeting place, he arrived unfettered by either a cell phone or an umbrella.
One of Israel’s most celebrated and beloved writers and a frontrunner for the Nobel Prize in Literature the past two years, he carries himself with the aura of a brooding intellectual. Nevertheless, when I tell him I washed my car the day before, he jokes about the universal law whereby that action inevitably brings on either a torrential downpour or a sandstorm in the desert.
Oz will be in Los Angeles Nov. 13 for a sold-out Shabbat dinner and public conversation with The Journal’s Editor-in-Chief, Rob Eshman, as part of American Jewish University’s annual Celebration of Jewish Books.
Just as he does in his memoir, in person Oz comes across as a serious thinker with a wonderful sense of humor. Born in 1939, in his 70 years he has witnessed the conception, labor pains and birth of the Jewish state. “Being an Israeli of my age is the exact equivalent of being a 315-year-old American,” he replied when asked how the notion of the collective has changed in Israel since he was a young man.
“I saw the Boston Tea Party with my own eyes. I shook hands with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Every single personality whose image is on our bills I knew personally. How many Americans can say the same?” he asked, right before telling me to treat him with the respect that a sage deserves. Despite his serious tone, he smiles playfully, closely watching my reaction with his penetrating green eyes.
“So when I was a young man, Israel was a revolution, not a country, not a state, not a society but a revolution in process. Of course a revolution cannot last forever and should not last forever. We crave some normalization and we have obtained some. Not complete, but some. That is a good thing.”
Asked if he was disappointed not to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, his answer was clear: “I had no expectations whatsoever, so I couldn’t be disappointed.” Perhaps it comes as no surprise then that when asked what advice he would give his younger self, he once again turns to expectations. “I would say to that 18-year-old chap, be careful. Be careful of great expectations. Realize that human nature does not change in one generation.”
Well known for his passionate and sometimes public disagreements with the political decisions of the state, Oz maintains a strict separation between his personal views and his fiction. “It’s simple. Each time I want to tell the government to go to hell, I write an angry article telling the government to go to hell. Each time I have the urge to tell a story, I tell a story.”
Born in Jerusalem as Amos Klausner, he was the only child of a distant father and a depressed mother. At the age of 15, he moved to Kibbutz Hulda and changed his surname to Oz, which means “strength.” Although he later wrote that he was “the joke of the kibbutz” because of his inefficiency with hard labor, it wasn’t until 1986 that Oz and his wife, Nily, moved to Arad, where he still lives and works today.
After gently correcting my pronunciation of Arad, he described his writing routine. Each day begins at around 5 a.m. with a walk just a few minutes away from home. “The desert helps me put everything in proportion,” he recounted in his flawless English. “Then I go home, drink a cup of coffee, sit down by my desk and start asking myself, what if I were him? What if I were her? How would I react? What would I say? That’s what I do for a living.” From about 6 a.m. until lunchtime, he composes paragraphs at his desk, in long hand, without the use of a computer. In the afternoon, he sometimes returns to his study to destroy what he has written in the morning.
“Each paragraph I write between six and 15 times,” he continued. “Sometimes I write forward and then I go back. I have an idea where I’m going, but sometimes the characters take over.”
Although Oz often bears witness to pivotal events surrounding the formation of the state and its ensuing struggles, his powerful grasp of the narrative arc and precise observation of the parochial lends his work a universal appeal. His stories may be set in Israel, but they are ultimately about the characters and how living here affects who they are in both tragic and comic ways. “The more local it is, the more universal it becomes,” he explained. “That’s the magic of literature.”
Oz uses material from his own life experiences in much of his oeuvre, but he stresses the importance of differentiating between the art and the personal: “Everything that I’ve written in my life has autobiographical elements, but they are not confessional. There is a strict line between the autobiographical and the confessional.”
Oz’s works have been translated into 36 languages, and he is the recipient of many prestigious prizes, including the Israel Prize laureate for Literature and the Goethe Prize in 2005 (considered the literary world’s second-most important prize after the Nobel). In 2007 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and last November he became the first Israeli to receive the Heinrich Heine Prize in literature, one of Germany’s most important prizes.
Yet, despite international renown, his debut as a writer was humble. The first mention of him is in October 1961, in Ha’aretz newspaper, when he was the candidate for deputy editor of a new weekly political publication. He recently described that work in an interview as “a major revolt against David Ben-Gurion. A smashing of idols.” In June 1965, at the age of 25, a short announcement appeared about his first collection of short stories, “Where the Jackals Howl”(English translation, Vintage, 1998). A year later, he published his first novel, “Elsewhere, Perhaps” (English translation, Harvest, 1985). By then, he was writing incessantly.
One of several films based on his work, “The Little Traitor” (2007), opened in New York in October. Based on Oz’s novel, “A Panther in the Basement” and with a screenplay by Lynn Roth, the film traces the escapades of 12-year-old Proffy Liebowitz during the summer of 1947 in Palestine, a few months before Israel becomes a state. Although he hates the British, Proffy befriends a British sergeant named Dunlop who becomes both a friend and a father figure. Ultimately the film, like the novel, grapples with the question of friendship with the “other,” the deep divide between an only child and his distant father and how understanding can overcome difference.
“It is based on my book, but it is Lynn Roth’s creation,” Oz responded when asked about the irony of filming in Jerusalem just as the Second Lebanon War broke out.
In Los Angeles, Oz will read from his memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness” (Harcourt, 2003). The memoir chronicles the author’s life — from his childhood in Jerusalem to later years on Kibbutz Hulda — against the backdrop of the hopes and dreams for the newly formed state. Peopled by survivors, pioneers, refugees, poets, writers, neighbors, friends and family, the narrative is a pluralistic and sprawling story that ends with the most tragic event in his life: his mother’s suicide when he was 12.
“Why do you write?” I ask after he offers me the second half of an almond croissant.
He looks at me and answers, “That’s like asking me why I dream, as if I have a choice not to dream.”
“The Little Traitor” opens in Los Angeles Nov. 13. Check local listings for theaters and show times.