In Love with Language
By SANFORD PINSKER
A Tale of Love and Darkness
By Amos Oz
Translated by Nicholas de Lange
544 pages. Harcourt. $26.
Amos Oz is arguably Israel’s leading writer. His
best-selling novels include My Michael,
To Know a Woman,
and Black Box.
In addition, he has, as a political activist, written some 450 articles, many
of them in support of the Peace Now
movement. Not surprisingly, he has for some time been a controversial figure, both
in Israel and abroad. All of which makes A
Tale of Love and Darkness, his thick book of memoir, so intriguing.
Not surprisingly, language is at the center of Oz’s
ruminations. “I was powerfully drawn,” Oz recounts at one point, to “the
solemn idioms, the almost forgotten words, the exotic syntax and the linguistic
byways… and the poignant beauty of the Hebrew language.” As a child, Oz grew up
in a small apartment crowded with books in 12 languages and relatives who spoke
nearly as many. Both his parents were passionately bookish souls (his father
worked as a librarian, always lugging home three or four weighty tomes in his
briefcase) and his uncle Joseph Klausner, a world-class scholar and
author of Judaism and Humanism, figures prominently in Oz’s reminiscences.
Oz’s parents were, like many Jewish intellectuals, people who defined high
culture in European terms but who also knew full well that that culture was
systematically eradicating its Jews. Born in l939, Oz grew up in the war-torn Jerusalem
of the '40s and '50s, and has emerged as both the imaginative historian and
conscience of the State of Israel. Given the deadly suicide bombings of the last few years and
the deep division in Israeli society about how to forge a lasting peace with
the Arab population that surrounds them, Oz’s leftist Peace Now position
earmarks him as either a prophet or a fool.
Oz’s mother died from an overdose of sleeping pills: she was 39 at the time;
her son was 12. A Tale of Love and Darkness threads his mother’s troubled life
through his memoir, only focusing on the suicide itself in the last pages. Oz,
in effect, circles around defining moments, abandoning strict chronology for
the more powerful effects of accretion. The same thing is also true of how he
limns family portraits. I was struck by how Oz’s seemingly meandering narrative
mirrors that of Garcia Marquez’s luminescent Living to Tell the Tale.
In less generous hands, Oz’s memoir could have been a tale of unmitigated
“darkness,” one focusing on family tensions, political differences, and the
other constraining forces that led him to abandon Jerusalem at 15 to join a
kibbutz, change his name, and eventually become a writer. Instead, Oz, rightly,
gives “love” a chance to flower and humor an opportunity to breathe. Here, for
example, is Oz remembering how he was, at nine, an avid newspaper reader and
I conducted proud yet pragmatic talks
at that time with Downing Street, the White House, the Pope in Rome, Stalin and
the Arab rulers…. In those days I was not so much a child as a bundle of
self-righteous arguments, a little chauvinist dressed up as a peace-lover, a
sanctimonious, honey-tongued nationalist, a nine-year-old Zionist propagandist.
No doubt some of Oz’s detractors would argue that he is as
self-righteous and sanctimonious as he was when a boy in knickers. My own
feeling, however, is that Oz is both clear-eyed and unflinchingly honest. He
knows the value of disarming his critics by a few well-placed confessions.
The result is a book worth our attention if for no other reason than the
pleasure of reading Oz’s lyrical sentences. Here, for
example, Oz explains that the words “Tel Aviv” conjure up "the picture of
a tough guy in a dark blue singlet, bronze and broad-shouldered, a
poet-worker-revolutionary, a guy made without fear, the type they called a Hevreman,
with a cap worn at a careless yet provocative angle on his curly hair, smoking
Matusians, someone who was at home in the world....” Oz’s sentence goes on for
about 50 more words. Later, he alternates his sentence rhythms, capturing Tel
Aviv in a single striking image: “The whole city was one big grasshopper.”
But important as style and language are in this backward glance at what made Oz
a man and a writer, what we learn about in A
Tale of Love and Darkness is the conflicting currents of delight and worry,
memory and desire, that define Israeli society—at least as Oz sees it. In this sense, however much Oz’s book is a personal
chronicle, it is also a testament that spans some six decades and that records
what it means to discover a new language (his Uncle Joseph Klauser added a
number of words to the modern Hebrew lexicon).
It is hardly a secret that we are currently awash in memoir and that adding one
more life story to the heap is bound to produce skeptical sighs. But A Tale of
Love and Darkness has a way of hooking readers early and keeping them turning
its pages. Concrete images from his childhood—whether they be words that he met
in his early reading ("meadow," for example) or the excitement of a
ringing telephone when that "invention" was a new phenomenon—lead, as
they must, to rich mines of memory. To put Oz in very good company, classic
books such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory
and Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past
come to mind whenever Oz works up a good head of imaginative steam. At its
best, A Tale of Love and Darkness is that good.