Thursday 20 June 2019

Obituary: Amos Oz

Israeli writer who was revered by many but attacked by others for his alignment with the Zionist left

INTELLECTUAL: Writer and author Amos Oz. Photo: AP
INTELLECTUAL: Writer and author Amos Oz. Photo: AP

Amos Oz, who has died aged 79, was Israel's foremost contemporary novelist - and also its most controversial. Some Israelis regarded him as a prophet, but to others he was little better than a traitor.

Oz wrote in the biblical language of Hebrew and drew heavily on ancient texts, but he also did much to evolve the language into new contemporary forms, seeing the process as part of the rejuvenation of Israel. He described himself as a "tribal storyteller", recording the strengths, foibles and conflicts of his own people. His novels were immensely popular in his own country - reliably selling 70,000 in hardback alone - and translations appeared in more than 30 languages.

A sabra, or native-born Israeli, Oz lived through the birth, growth and struggles of the nation, saw military service in the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War and spent his adult life until the 1980s as a member of a kibbutz.

Yet his was a voice of dissent, and he assumed the paradoxical role of expressing the values of the society of which he was a dissenting part.

Though he was often disgusted by Israel, he explained, it remained "my thing and my place and my addiction".

Oz often complained about being seen as a political writer, pointing out that his characters were more concerned with their failing marriages, wayward children and sexual fantasies than with events on the West Bank: "I know that if ever I write a story about my grandmother's infatuation with the milkman, everybody would immediately say that my grandmother symbolises the Jewish tradition, that the milkman is the world and the milk itself is the violence," he said. "The fact that critics see everything I write as allegorical is part of the tragicomedy of living in melodramatic times in a melodramatic part of the world."

He had a point. When one of his most famous novels, My Michael, was published in 1968, it won comparisons outside Israel with Madame Bovary for its depiction of a young married woman retreating into a fantasy world. In Israel it was upbraided for a dream sequence in which the heroine is ravished by Arab brothers. No Jewish girl, the papers declared, could entertain such treacherous thoughts. Oz was stimulated by German romantic philosophy and by the writings of Freud and Jung, while Nietzche's view of consciousness as a thin crust over a seething mass of natural instincts and primal urges provided the underlying pulse of his novels.

Jung gave him a model of the primordial drives and forces - "the peaks of savage mountains" - over which civilisation and ideology is but a thin veneer. But Oz's belief that instead of vying with and conquering one's urges one should seek to come to terms with them seemed to have an underlying political message that was not always welcome.

This concentration on the sociopolitical aspects of his writing also reflected his status as a polemicist. From the Six-Day War of 1967, Oz emerged as a critic of Israeli policy towards its neighbours. He published articles and essays about the Israeli-Arab conflict, becoming a founder member of the Left-wing Peace Now movement and campaigning for a two-state solution based on coexistence between Israel and a Palestinian state.

Oz became a target of right-wing smear campaigns as well as chief pin-up and principal spokesman for the country's left and for the international peace movement. Yet Oz was far from being a pacifist: he had supported the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War and was vociferous in his support for the first Gulf War, believing that pacifists took no account of the murderous ambitions of Saddam Hussein. His touchstone was what would best guarantee Israel's survival. "The primary basic question," he said, "is how can we save Israel from the threat of physical destruction and at the same time from the danger of moral and spiritual disintegration? How can we live and not die?"

He did not believe that force could resolve the Palestinian problem, but neither could Christian ideals of brotherly love. He saw the dispute as a tragedy that could have either a Shakespearean resolution, in which a measure of justice prevails but everyone dies, or a Chekhovian resolution, in which everyone ends up embittered and heartbroken but still alive. "I have never believed in love between nations. There's just not enough love to go around. What we require is a divorce between Israel and the Palestinians, followed by the partitioning of a very small apartment. Eventually, as history works, the animosity may over generations fade."

Yet Oz the polemicist was a very different creature from the novelist. "I have two Biros," he explained. "If I'm in a rage, I pick up the Biro I reserve for journalism. When I'm 100pc in agreement with myself, I tell the government what to do. When I'm not in full agreement with myself, I pick up the other Biro and write a story."

An only child, he was born on May 4, 1939, in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, then under British administration. His family name was Klausner: his great-uncle had been a literary and political figure in Odessa. His father, Yehuda-Sarieh, a literary scholar and right-wing Zionist, had emigrated from Russia in 1932; his mother, Fanya, arrived from Poland two or three years later. They met at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. Though his parents were fluent in many languages, he was brought up to speak only Hebrew and was sent to an orthodox religious school where "they taught us to long for the glories of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and to aspire to restore them in blood and fire".

Oz's childhood memories were of fear - fear that the Nazis might take over Palestine, and fear of the Arabs. When he was eight he experienced the siege and bombardment of Jerusalem and saw a dead man for the first time.

He became a Zionist activist, a member of the right-wing Beitar youth movement. The first words he learned in English were "British go home", which is what he used to shout while throwing stones at British patrols.

When in 1947 the UN voted to recognise Israel, his father came into his bedroom and told him for the first time about the humiliations he and his family had suffered in Europe: "You see son, you may still get kicked and beaten and jeered at by the school bullies - but not for being Jewish. That is what the Jewish state is all about." In 1952 his mother, he wrote, committed suicide "out of great despair and longing... Two years after her death, when I was 14, I arose and left my father's home, the good manners, the wisdom, changed my name from Klausner to Oz and went to work and study at Kibbutz Hulda. I truly hoped to turn over a new leaf".

His mother's suicide led the young man to conclude that romantic dreams brought destruction and doom. Consequently he revolted against his right-wing upbringing, choosing a "realistic" way of life antithetical to his parents. But, as he later admitted, the revolt was only partial. In choosing the name Oz (a Hebrew word meaning "courage" or "strength") he preserved a central element of his parents' idealism.

In Hulda, young Amos was adopted by the family of Azer Hulda'yi, the principal of the local school and one of the central figures of the kibbutz. Kibbutz life, with all its ideals and imperfections, is described in Elsewhere, Perhaps, Oz's first novel, and in A Perfect Peace (1982), which is set in a fictitious kibbutz in the mid-1960s. The kibbutz provided Oz with a powerful symbol of the nation's aspirations, as well as a microcosm of the larger Jewish family in Israel, uncomfortably intimate and inescapable yet united in defence against hostile forces.

After army service, in 1961 Oz returned to the kibbutz to work in the cotton fields. In his early 20s his first short stories were published in the literary quarterly Keshet, before the kibbutz assembly sent him back to Jerusalem to study philosophy and literature at the Hebrew University. With his degree, he returned to the kibbutz where he divided his time between writing, farming, and teaching in the school.

In 1965 he published Where the Jackals Howl and Other Stories, a series of dramatic pieces telling of love, hate and conflict, set against the harsh biblical landscape of Israel. The book won Oz his first literary award, a keen readership and a strong literary opposition. It was followed a year later by Elsewhere, Perhaps.

After the Six-Day War, in which Oz fought with a tank unit on the Sinai front, he achieved an international following with My Michael (1968). In Unto Death (1971), Oz focused on the darkness within the human soul as expressed within the narrative context of a medieval Crusade. After the Yom Kippur war of 1973, in which he fought on the Golan Heights, Touch the Water, Touch the Wind (1973) described the post-war lives of two Holocaust survivors who meet and fall in love on a kibbutz.

In Panther in the Basement (1995), Oz revisited the Jerusalem of his childhood with a story of a 12-year-old boy torn between his dreams of resistance against the British, his friendship with a British soldier and his need to vindicate himself to his friends and family over this relationship with an enemy.

In 2002 he published what became his best-known book, the autobiographical novel A Tale of Love and Darkness, which dealt with his early life and was lauded by critics.

Amos Oz, who died on December 28, 2018, married in 1960, Nily Zuckerman, with whom he had three children.


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