World Literature

Amos Oz

 

BORN: 1939, Jerusalem

NATIONALITY: Israeli

GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Where the Jackals Howl, and Other Stories (1965)

Elsewhere, Perhaps (1966)

My Michael (1968)

Unto Death (1971)

A Perfect Peace (1983)

 

 

Amos Oz. Oz, Amos, photograph. Ulf Andersen / Getty Images.

 

Overview

In his fiction and nonfiction alike, Israeli author Amos Oz describes a populace under emotional and physical siege and a society threatened by internal contradictions and contention. Immensely popular in his own country, Oz has also established an international reputation, with translations of his books appearing in more than fifteen languages.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Zionism, to the Right and to the Left. Born into a family of right-wing Zionist supporters that included several writers and scholars, Oz grew up in a house that both eschewed religion (a tendency strengthened by his mother’s suicide when Amos was twelve years old) and supported a strong and independent Jewish state. In this, Oz’s background typifies one of the central quandaries of Jewishness in the modern world: a difficult blend of religious history and ethnic claims that makes identity a site of struggle. Partially in response to just this struggle, Oz left his native city of Jerusalem during the 1950s to join a kibbutz, or collective farm. The kibbutz movement in Israel was dedicated to communal Jewishness, such that many kibbutz members of that period owned no personal property at all; although distinctly a movement of the left, kibbutzim (the plural of kibbutz) were not Marxist in orientation, primarily because of their commitment to religious principles. In this sense, there was a continuity with his childhood, since Zionism (the desire for an independent Jewish nation-state) continued to play a large role in his life. Later, sent to study literature and philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Oz received his bachelor’s degree in 1963 and returned to his kibbutz to concentrate on farming, teaching, and writing. In stories collected in Where the Jackals Howl, and Other Stories (1965), Oz uses the jackal as a symbol of forces that threaten the stability of an isolated kibbutz, both from outside its guarded perimeter and from within its domestic sphere. Although mildly received in Israel, this collection won praise in the United States for its accurate rendering of kibbutz life.

Personal Challenges to the Political. With his novel My Michael (1968), Oz achieved popular success and established an international reputation as one of Israel’s foremost authors. Set in Jerusalem during the 1950s, this work alternates between stark realism and romantic lyricism to relate excerpts from a diary that describes the ambivalent sexual fantasies of an unhappily married woman. While some Jewish nationalist reviewers regarded the book as a nearly seditious allegory of their country and its relationships with Arab Israelis, western critics compared My Michael to Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary for its restrained portrayal of an individual’s private struggle against adverse social circumstances. Unto Death (1971), inspired by Oz’s reaction to Israel’s Six-Day War with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in 1967, consists of the novellas Late Love and Crusade. In addition to shifting the balance of power in the Middle East, the Six-Day War—precipitated in large part by Egyptian aggression, and begun with a ‘‘preemptive’’ attack by the Israelis—cemented a tradition of Arab-Israeli struggle in the region. Together with the 1973 Yom Kippur War, it has often served, within Israel, as a justification for oppression of Palestinian Arabs and, in the Arab world, as an incitement to destruction of the Isreali state altogether.

In Touch the Water, Touch the Wind (1973), Oz blends comic fantasy, allegory, and symbolism to chronicle the experiences of a Polish-Jewish mathematician from his internment in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany during World War II through the Six-Day War. Incorporating the protagonist's rise to world prominence and his reunion with his estranged wife with fantastical events, including the transformation of humans into animals, this novel garnered angry reactions from Israeli critics for attempting to deal with atrocities in comic or surrealistic terms. Critic Alfred Kazin, however, declared that Oz ‘‘is an immensely clever, subtle, and mischievous writer whose new book is a brilliant scenario of all Jewish experience of our day.’’ True Repose (1983), published in response to Israel’s war with Lebanon, reflects Oz’s dissatisfaction with his country's often violent response to differences with its neighbors. This novel concerns the decision of a young man to flee his confining existence in a kibbutz and seek suicidal escape in the Jordanian desert. Oz also began, long before this, to support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palistinian conflict (the ongoing animosity and hostilities between a largely Jewish Israeli majority and a largely Muslim Palistinian minority in the state of Israel), a position that has made him less than popular with many Zionists inside and outside of Israel.

Oz’s next novel, A Perfect Peace (1983), centers on domestic conflicts that result when the son of a Zionist founder rejects his family and life in a kibbutz to escape the constrictive ideologies of his ancestors. After a naive but passionate young man who idealizes kibbutz existence joins the community and supplants the protagonist, Oz's hero shames his family by inviting his successor to share his wife and home before departing to seek his own identity in enemy territory.

The Unity of an Essay Versus the Plurality of a Novel. Oz is also noted for his essays on political and literary topics. In the Land of Israel (1983) is a collection of interviews Oz conducted with Jewish and Arab Israelis from diverse social and political backgrounds. Originally published as a series of articles in the socialist newspaper Davar, these pieces, according to Robert Alter, ‘‘reflect a strenuous effort to go out into Israeli society and sound its depths.'' Oz is also coeditor of the Israeli magazine Siach lochamium and has contributed articles to such journals as Encounter and Partisan Review.

Married and the father of three children, Oz continues to live and work at Kibbutz Hulda, and is a professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, Israel. He also speaks and travels frequently, bringing his personal thoughts to television and lecture audiences in Israel and abroad. Describing his creative impulses, Oz told the New York Times: ‘‘Whenever I find myself in total agreement with myself, then I write an article—usually in rage—telling the government what to do. But when I detect hesitation, more than one inner voice, I discover in me the embryo of characters, the seeds of a novel.'' His more recent work has included the novels The Silence of Heaven: Agnon’s Fear of God (2000) and Suddenly in the Depth of the Forest (A Fable for All Ages) (2005), and the nonfiction How to Cure a Fanatic (2006).

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Oz's famous contemporaries include:

Arthur Miller (1915-2005): An American playwright famous for his plays—including The Crucible and Death of a Salesman—and for his personal life—his controversial politics and his marriage to Marilyn Monroe.

GUnter Grass (1927-): A Nobel Prize-winning German playwright and author, Grass is a key figure in the magical realist movement. He was the subject of controversy in 2006 when he revealed his service with the Nazi Waffen-SS in the last months of World War II, in contradiction to earlier statements and to his leftist politics.

Moshe Dayan (1915-1981): Distinctive for his bald pate and black eyepatch, Dayan was a celebrated and controversial figure in the history of Israel. As minister of defense, he helped lead his country to victory in both the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War.

Anwar El Sadat (1918-1981): The Egyptian president who most radically altered Egypt's foreign and domestic policies, instituting a multiparty political system and signing the first Arab peace treaty with Israel. The latter action was directly responsible for his assassination at the hands of an Egyptian extremist.

Oliver North (1943-): An obscure U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, North was thrust into the public spotlight when he was implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan administration, which involved illegally trading arms to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages.

Pope John Paul II (1920-2005): The second-longest- reigning pope, the first Polish pope, and the first non-Italian pope in over four hundred years, John Paul II was one of the most successful and popular popes of the modern age. Upon his death, calls were raised by many theologians and laypeople for his immediate elevation to sainthood.

 

Works in Literary Context

Writing exclusively in Hebrew, Oz has been widely praised for his use of a carefully modulated literary style that blends surrealistic fantasy, symbolism, and allegory. ‘‘As a seamstress who takes different pieces of cloth and sews them into a quilt, Amos Oz writes short pieces of fiction which together form a quilt in the reader’s consciousness,’’ notes J. Justin Gustainis in Best Sellers, continuing. ‘‘Just as the quilt may be of many colors but still one garment, Oz’s stories speak of many things but still pay homage to one central idea: universal redemption through suffering.’’

The Kibbutz and the Family Unit. The kibbutz provides Oz with a powerful symbol of the nation’s aspirations, as well as a microcosm of the larger Jewish family in Israel, suffocatingly intimate and inescapable, yet united in defense against the hostile forces besieging its borders. New York Times Book Review contributor Robert Alter observes that nearly all of Oz’s fiction ‘‘is informed by the same symbolic world picture: a hemmed-in cluster of fragile human habitations (the kibbutz, the state of Israel itself) surrounded by dark, menacing mountains where jackals howl and hostile aliens lurk.’’ According to Jewish Quarterly contributor Jacob Sonntag, the people of Oz’s fiction ‘‘are part of the landscape, and the landscape is part of the reality from which there is no escape.’’ If the landscape is inescapable, the bonds of family also offer little relief. Oz's fiction addresses the generational conflicts that are particularly tense in modern Israel: conflicts often marked by a contrast between the bitter pragmatism of a younger generation and the increasingly desperate pragmatism of their elders.

The Conflicts of Zionism. A central concern of Oz’s fiction is the conflict between idealistic Zionism and the realities of life in a pluralistic society. Paul Zweig claims in the New York Times Book Review that when My Michael was published in Israel shortly after the Six-Day War, it proved ‘‘extremely disturbing to Israelis. At a time when their country had asserted control over its destiny as never before, Oz spoke of an interior life which Israel had not had time for, which it had paid no heed to, an interior life that contained a secret bond to the Asiatic world beyond its border.''

As a corollary to this, many of his sabra, or native- born Israeli, characters have decidedly ambivalent feelings towards the Arab population, especially Palestinians. Commentary essayist Ruth R. Wisse writes that in book after book, ‘‘Oz has taken the great myths with which modern Israel is associated—the noble experiment of the kibbutz, the reclamation of the soil, the wars against the British and the Arabs, the phoenix-like rise of the Jewish spirit out of the ashes of the Holocaust—and shown us their underside: bruised, dazed, and straying characters who move in an atmosphere of almost unalleviated depression.’’ A part of the bruisedness of these characters is in relation to a system of morality that, on the one hand, is guided by deeply felt ideals of communality and brotherhood and that, on the other, has served to justify the oppression of Palestinians for decades.

Internal Demons and Redemptive Humor. ‘‘Daytime Israel makes a tremendous effort to create the impression of the determined, tough, simple, uncomplicated society ready to fight back, ready to hit back twice as hard, courageous and so on,'' Oz told the Partisan Review. ‘‘Nocturnal Israel,’’ he continued, ‘‘is a refugee camp with more nightmares per square mile I guess than any other place in the world. Almost everyone has seen the devil.’’ The obsessions of ‘‘nocturnal Israel’’ fuel Oz’s work, in which few psychic stones if any are left unturned—no matter what might be found beneath them. This is not to suggest, however, that Oz's work is unrelentingly somber or polemical. Indeed, many find that Oz’s humor has a redemptive quality of its own.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Other works to address the theme of redemption through suffering include:

The Brothers Karamazov (1880), a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. One of the central themes of Dostoyevsky's last novel is having to experience misery on the way to redemption, as personified by such characters as Dmitri, Grushenka, and Katerina.

David Copperfield (1850), a novel by Charles Dickens. Throughout Dickens's coming-of-age novel, several characters choose to repent for previous misdeeds through hard work and good deeds.

The Star Wars movies (1977-1983, 1999-2005), a series of films directed by George Lucas. The central character of the six-film arc is Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, whose descent into evil is reversed by his son's love. Ultimately Anakin dies to save his son, thus redeeming himself.

 

Works in Critical Context

According to Judith Chernaik in the Times Literary Supplement, Oz writes books that are ‘‘indispensable reading for anyone who wishes to understand... life in Israel, the ideology that sustains it, and the passions that drive its people.’’ In a New Republic assessment of the author’s talents, Ian Sanders notes: ‘‘Amos Oz is an extraordinarily gifted Israeli novelist who delights his readers with both verbal brilliance and the depiction of eternal struggles— between flesh and spirit, fantasy and reality, Jew and Gentile.... His carefully reconstructed worlds are invariably transformed into symbolic landscapes, vast arenas where primeval forces clash.’’ Times Literary Supplement contributor and novelist A. S. Byatt observes that in his works on Israel, Oz ‘‘can write with delicate realism about small lives, or tell fables about large issues, but his writing, even in translation, gains vitality simply from his subject matter.’’ And New York Review of Books reviewer D. J. Enright calls Oz Israel’s ‘‘most persuasive spokesman to the outside world, the literary part of it at least.’’

My Michael. My Michael, a novel about the psychological disintegration of a young Israeli housewife, was Oz’s first work translated and published in English. New Republic contributor Lesley Hazleton calls the book ‘‘a brilliant and evocative portrait of a woman slowly giving way to schizoid withdrawal’’ and ‘‘a superb achievement,... the best novel to come out of Israel to date.’’ In Modern Fiction Studies, Hana Wirth-Nesher expresses the view that Oz uses his alienated protagonist ‘‘to depict the isolation and fear that many Israelis feel partially as a country in a state of siege and partially as a small enclave of Western culture in a vast area of cultures and landscapes unlike what they have known.’’ Alter praises My Michael for managing ‘‘to remain so private, so fundamentally apolitical in its concerns, even as it puts to use the most portentous political materials.’’ Disturbing though many found it, My Michael was a best seller in Israel; it established Oz’s reputation among his fellow Israelis and gave him entree into the international world of letters.

Portraits of Israel. Critics find much to praise in Oz’s portraits of the struggling nation of Israel. ‘‘Mr. Oz’s words, his sensuous prose and indelible imagery, the people he flings living onto his pages, evoke a cauldron of sentiments at the boil; yet his human vision is capacious enough to contain the destruction and hope for peace,’’ writes Richard R. Lingeman in the New York Times. ‘‘He has caught a welter of fears, curses and dreams at a watershed moment in history, when an uneasy, restless waiting gave way to an upsurge of violence, of fearsome consequences. The power of his art fuses historical fact and symbol; he makes the ancient stones of Jerusalem speak, and the desert beyond a place of jackals and miracles.'' In the Saturday Review, Alfred Kazin states that Oz’s effect on him is always to make him realize ‘‘how little we know about what goes on inside the Israeli head.... To the unusually sensitive and humorous mind of Amos Oz, the real theme of Jewish history—especially in Israel—is unreality. When, and how can a Jew attain reality in the Promised Land, actually touch the water, touch the wind?’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Amos Oz often addresses the animosity that sometimes arises between Jews and Gentiles. Select one of his works in which this occurs and, in a short essay, trace the origin of the animosity and how it develops into open hatred.

2. Despite the fact that Oz’s stories center on Israel, they have a universal quality. Analyze how Oz is able to evoke this universality. What techniques does he use in his descriptions of characters and locations that makes them seem to be ‘‘more than they are''?

3. Research the kibbutz movement in Israel: its history, its goals, its current status. Apply what you have learned to Oz's depictions of the kibbutz. With a group of your classmates who have read the same Oz stories, analyze the camaraderie and purpose of a kibbutz in Oz's fiction.

4. Amos Oz has taken an active role in promoting peace in the Middle East, meeting Palestinian leaders in an effort to hammer out a workable peace plan, performing what he calls the ‘‘gruntwork: of peace.’’ Write a paragraph describing how you think Oz defines the gruntwork of peace. Why is it so critical to the peace process?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Balaban, Avraham. Toward Language and Beyond: Language and Reality in the Prose of Amos Oz. Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1988.

Balaban, Avraham. Between God and Beast: An Examination of Amos Oz’s Prose. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1993.

Cohen, Joseph. Voices of Israel: Essays on and Interviews with Yehuda Amichai, A. B. Yehoshua, T. Carmi, Aharon Appelfeld, Amos Oz. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Mazor, Yair, and Weinberger-Rotman, Marganit. Somber Lust: The Art of Amos Oz. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Periodicals

Enright, D. J. ‘‘Jews, Have Pity.’’ New York Review of Books. September 26, 1985.

Leaf, Hayim. ‘‘Oz, Amos (1939-).’’ Encyclopedia of World Biography. Ed. Suzanne M. Bourgoin. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.

Wirth-Nesher, Hana. ‘‘The Modern Jewish Novel and the City: Kafka, Roth, and Oz.’’ Modern Fiction Studies, 24 (Spring 1978).

Wisse, Ruth R. ‘‘An Unheralded Zionist.’’ Commentary (June, 2007).