Amos Oz, inventor of other people's life stories, contemplates his own

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 December, 2016, 9:48am

Read almost any recent interview with Amos Oz and you might think the 69-year-old is a statesman first and Israel's finest living novelist second. After the year began with mass destruction returning to Gaza, Oz has fielded more questions about Israeli war crimes, Hamas and the chances of peace in the Middle East than his newly translated novella, Rhyming Life and Death.

If this imbalance is a source of frustration, Oz does a good job of hiding it, accepting that it's often the fate of writers 'from troubled parts of the world'. More impressively still, he cracks bawdy jokes about the competing claims on his split personality. 'I am both [a writer and a spokesman],' he says, 'but I try not to be both at the same time. If I write a story, I don't want to preach. When I write angry articles telling my government to go to hell, I am not telling stories. A man can be a lover and a gynaecologist both, but not at the same time.'

This burst of vulgar erudition turns out to be characteristic. Oz proves to have a storyteller's knack for a well-turned anecdote, a politician's skill at incisive commentary and a humorist's way with a witty epigram. Occasionally, he does all three at once.

For instance, this recollection of the many years he spent living on a kibbutz, and how he would beg for time off to write: 'I used to feel very guilty,' he says. 'I would come to the communal dining room and sit next to someone who had milked 100 cows. I had written three sentences and erased four. I was ashamed to have my lunch.' He pauses. 'But then I told myself that I am like a shopkeeper. My job is to open the joint at a set hour and wait for customers. If they come, it's a good day. If they don't, I am still doing my job by just sitting there and waiting.'

Oz is similarly amused and amusing when asked what he thinks of the English translation of Rhyming Life and Death, only recently published three years after the Hebrew original. 'Translating a work of literature into a foreign language is like playing a violin concerto on the piano. It can be done very successfully on one strict condition: never try to force the piano to produce the sounds of the violin.'

Whether you read Zhong Zhiqing's Chinese translation or the English version by Oz's long-time collaborator Nicholas de Lange, Rhyming Life and Death feels like an extension of its creator. Short, playful and slyly digressive, it is refined one moment, earthily funny the next.

Set in Tel Aviv, it recounts a few late-night hours in the life of a successful but life-battered novelist. The unnamed protagonist eats in a cafe, wanders the streets, gives a public lecture, has sex either in reality or his mind and all the while turns the people he observes into potential characters for fiction. 'It's about love, lust, loneliness, desolation, desire, death. The great and simple things. It's about the birth of stories by transforming everyday life and everyday encounters into literature. But most of all it's about endless curiosity.'

For the author, curiosity is a fundamental moral virtue. 'Putting yourself in other people's shoes makes you a better human being - a better spouse, a better parent, a better partner, a better friend. By imagining the other you acquire a strong antidote to fanaticism and egotism,' he says.

His warning against egotism is a reminder not to draw too many personal parallels between Oz and Rhyming Life and Death. 'Bear in mind this is autobiographical, not confessional,' he says before telling a story about his neighbour in Arad, the city he calls home. 'Each time he walks past the window of my study he stops and combs his hair ... so that if he gets into one of the stories, his hair will be neatly combed. That's not quite the way it works. What I see during my life may eventually emerge in a novel, but it is totally transformed and transfigured.'

Oz traces this compulsion to re-imagine reality back to his childhood in Jerusalem during the final years of British rule, which ended in 1948. Dragged by his parents to many of the city's cafes, he was forced to endure lengthy political and intellectual discussions ('These last in my memory for 77 hours each,' he says) on pain of not being given ice cream. His only way to stave off boredom was to speculate about his fellow customers. 'I entertained myself in my solitude by overhearing snatches of conversations from other tables, by watching other people and inventing their life stories. I invented for each one a room or apartment by looking at their shoes, their clothes, their body language or the dishes they ordered.'

Such flexing of his imaginative muscles continues to this day. 'Whenever I have to kill time at the dentist's or an airport, instead of reading a tabloid I look at the people and they tell me stories. This is a highly recommended pastime,' he says before delivering the punchline. 'Especially as you may get ice cream in the end.'

Oz wrote extensively about his childhood in his last book, the much-praised memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness.

In many ways the antithesis of Rhyming Life and Death, the memoir is epic, explicitly political and deeply personal: it begins with his birth in a 'tiny, low-ceilinged ground-floor flat' and ends with his mother's suicide when he was 12.

'I made peace with my dead parents before I even tried to start writing,' Oz says. 'I couldn't do it for all those years when I was angry with myself. After I made peace, writing A Tale of Love and Darkness was difficult, not because of the past, but for compositional reasons. The book moves in spirals around a radioactive core - the death of my mother. It finally reaches there at the very end.'

Anger runs throughout Oz's conversation. He was an angry young boy growing up under the British during the original intifada, describing himself as 'a fanatic' and 'a little slogan-screaming chauvinist'. He recalls: 'The first English words I learned to pronounce, except for 'yes' and 'no', were 'British go home'. That's what we Jewish kids in Jerusalem used to shout as we threw stones at the British patrols.'

And despite his outward charm, Oz is still angry. 'I am angry with Hamas for bombarding Israel with close to 10,000 rockets over the course of the years,' he says. 'And I am angry with my government for overreacting and for responding in an excessive way.'

As for road maps, Oz sees only one way out: a two-state solution. Describing the Arab-Israeli conflict as a 'real-estate dispute', he prescribes a messy divorce. 'The divorcing couple remains in the same house. They have to divide the house into two smaller apartments. Painful decisions will have to be taken about who gets bedroom A and who gets bedroom B.'

In the meantime, he must live with the violence and political instability, like every other inhabitant of the region. When I ask how he does it, Oz tells me a final story - about the stroll he and his wife take every morning into the Negev Desert. 'If I walk into the desert and come home to hear politicians on the radio using words like 'never' or 'forever' or 'eternity', I know the stones out there are laughing. Human terms like eternity refer to just a few days, a term in office. My sense of eternity is that it is simply not for us.'

Writer's notes

Name: Amos Oz

Age: 69

Born: Jerusalem

Lives: Arad, Israel

Family: married to Nily; two daughters and a son

Genres: fiction, criticism and memoir

Latest book: Rhyming Life and Death, translated by Nicholas de Lange (Chatto & Windus, 2009)

Other jobs: worked on a kibbutz

Other publications include: fiction - Where the Jackals Howl (1965), Elsewhere, Perhaps (1966), My Michael (1968), Touch the Water, Touch the Wind (1973), The Hill of Evil Counsel (1976), Soumchi (1978), Black Box (1987), To Know a Woman (1989), Fima (1991), Don't Call it Night (1994), A Panther in the Basement (1995), The Same Sea (1999), The Silence of Heaven: Agnon's Fear of God (2000), Suddenly in the Depth of the Forest (A Fable for all ages) (2005) Non-fiction - The Slopes of Lebanon (1989), Israel, Palestine and Peace: Essays (1995), The Story Begins: Essays on Literature (1999), A Tale of Love and Darkness (2003), How to Cure a Fanatic (2006)

Next project: short story collection

What the papers say: 'A writer of revelatory genius' - The Guardian 'There are times when you are reminded what it means to be in the presence of genius ... with Amos Oz you have to add wisdom and hope' - The Scotsman on A Tale of Love and Darkness 'Outstanding. Moving, amusing, thought-provoking and brilliantly evocative' - The Sunday Telegraph on A Tale of Love and Darkness