In Love with Language


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 political debater:

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.