Oz, Amos (1939–)
Born in mandatory Palestine, Amos Oz, born Klauzner, is one of Israel's few major writers whose work and life can be read as embodying the nation, creating a biography that is enjoined to the history of the State of Israel in allegory. He has written over thirty books as of 2007 and continues to publish at an increasing rate; he is a popular speaker on issues of Israel and has gained great success in translation. The recipient of numerous prizes and honors, for some years he has been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Oz was born in Jerusalem in 1939 to a family of fervent right-wing Zionists. When Oz was thirteen, his mother committed suicide. After his father's subsequent remarriage, Oz went as an out-child to kibbutz Hulda, a rather isolated settlement in the heart of Judea. At Hulda, he was renamed Oz (Hebrew: "valor" or "courage") in keeping with the kibbutz's tradition of reconceiving old Jews as new Jews.
Oz served in the Israeli army from 1957 until 1960 in the aftermath of the Sinai war. His observations during this mandatory military service would greatly affect his work later in life. After his time in the army, Oz studied literature and philosophy in Jerusalem, then returned to the kibbutz to work as a high school teacher.
Oz began his literary career in earnest with the publication of his first story in the innovative journal Keshet in 1961, and the public as well as the emerging generation of literary critics readily accepted him. At the same time, Oz developed his serious interest in political activism.
Name: Amos Oz (born Klauzner)
Birth: 1939, Jerusalem, mandatory Palestine
Family: Married with children
Education: Literature and philosophy studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
- Early 1950s: Mother commits suicide; Oz goes to kibbutz Hulda
- 1957–1960: Serves in Israeli army
- 1961: Publishes first story in the magazine Keshet
- 1987–present: Professor at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev
- 2002: Publishes the autobiographical A Tale of Love and Darkness
INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS
Because Oz's work is so closely intertwined with his personal history and the history of the state of Israel, it is difficult to separate his personal life from his professional life. Having measured in his life the arc of the state of Israel's existence, Oz has always been a writer whose voice, in a self-conscious way, goes beyond textuality and seeks to represent more than himself. Writing about issues that were national even when private in nature, he has created a point of view that lends itself consistently to an allegory of the collective. His style substantiates this voice with his command of Hebrew letters and an uncanny ability to create atmosphere with a few strokes, providing his work grace and unity. Though a self-proclaimed ironist, ever since the publication of A Tale of Love and Darkness in 2002, in which Oz lay bare the life of the author, he has become a writer whose biography cannot be told apart from his work.
Oz is related to the famed literary scholar and Zionist thinker, Yossef Klauzner, and he often displays a fine nose for literary celebrity. Childhood encounters with Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Martin Buber, and other literati form major episodes about which much has been written. The details of this childhood in Jerusalem among the British of the mandate, the right wing resistance movements, and the torn and tattered European immigrant Jews have also been retold in many forms, especially in The Hill of Evil Council (1978), Panther in the Basement (1995), and in A Tale of Love and Darkness. Childhood memories of failed dreamers, fervent nationalisms, and a hostile Orient merge into dark and powerful prose, engendering a constant threat of breakdown.
It is difficult to separate Oz's family history from his fiction. His fiction and his novels often deal with a single child among well-meaning, depressive parents. Oz's own father was an underappreciated scholar who worked as a librarian in Jerusalem, and his mother committed suicide when he was thirteen. The tale of their tortured and failed love deeply marks his writing.
During Oz's stay at the kibbutz Hulda after his mother's death, he gained not only a new name but also a socialist humanistic framework to manage the powerful conflicts that his prose and person struggled with. This new worldview helped forge a portrait of the artist as a clear-eyed, brooding, soldierly youth.
During his military service, which took place after the Sinai war, Oz was deeply influenced by war and the reigning, rather foolish, regard to soldierly heroics. In an autobiographical piece from 1975 Oz himself summarizes the experience as informing his peace activism: "Twice, in 1967 with the victorious armored forces in the Sinai desert, and in 1973 among the burning tanks in the Golan Heights, I saw with my own eyes that there is no hope for the weak and the dead, and only partial hopes for the mighty and victorious."
Oz began his literary career in the grand tradition of the pioneer Zionist generation, living in a communal border settlement, mixing menial labor with defense duties, yet finding time for literary reflection and political essay writing. His first story was published in 1961 in the innovative journal Keshet, and others followed. Oz's prose and political activism emerged at about the same time and have since merged into a figure of political authority that rests on the reputation of the man of letters. The stories he wrote at the time are collected in Where the Jackal Howls (1965; revised 1975) and are among the best work he has ever produced. His early work utilizes the form of the short novella with dexterity in order to expose a world of marginal being within a centralized focal point. The narrator often uses an omniscient voice that oscillates almost indistinctly between the personal and the collective, allowing the writing to explore the extremes of the human condition in a space constricted by a demanding collective.
Similar to most Israeli culture of the first two decades of independence, Oz's writing was cognizant of the fierce Oedipal battle between the founding pioneer generation and the children born in the land. Oz gives a complex view of this conflict by seeing the founding fathers as pathetic and castrating at once. At the same time he internalizes their view of his generation and of the Jewish state as a disappointing if not failed one, thus his characters are torn by powerful urges that more often than not, result in violence inflected on the self.
After the 1967 War, Oz played an important role in the defining project of Soldiers Talk. The book was based on the recordings of numerous encounters the editors held with kibbutz members who were returning from the war. At the time it was seen as a generational portrait sensitive to the suffering of war, but in retrospect one can claim that the book holds the seeds of the narcissism that was to become the main peace movement until the Oslo Accords. Among the editors, Oz was quick to realize the immense distortions of occupation and military might, perhaps because he did not deny the lure of the Jewish past, nor the will to overpower. Having always viewed the east as a threat, Oz rapidly understood how the victory would undo the Zionist attempt to create a model European society in the Jewish land of Israel. In fiction this takes the form of an often-abject dark antagonist that eventually exacts revenge on the ironized self-righteous father figures. This outlook, in a way, also forms the basic rationale of the new peace movement that positioned itself as a belated attempt to stop the flood in order to return to a better more coherent past. Oz has a definite part in ironizing the father figures, yet at the same time he provides the view of peace as a return to a past harmony, to an Israel without an empire, which also happens to be a past in which the kibbutz and the European Jews held a fearsome hegemony.
The prolific two decades that followed the 1967 War were defining for Oz. Moving ably within the forms of narrative, in 1968 he published the successful My Michael, a tale of love and female darkness in Jerusalem in the fifties; he then published Unto Death (1971) which includes two novellas, one following a failed crusade through Europe and another an elderly émigré. In 1977 he published his first and rather successful attempt at children's literature, Sumchi, telling of an eleven-year-old boy in Mandate Jerusalem out for an adventure. In 1978 Oz published the insightful collection of essays Under the Blazing Light, mastering the form of the short essay to discuss literary and political matters. These developments were then honed to become what might be Oz's most important work, the ponderous reportage of his travels In the Land of Israel (1983). The work is well written and extremely perceptive. Offering the reader even more insight by exposing the assumptions and remissions of the observer. These vary: a compassionate encounter with the settlers in Ofra; a harrowing discussion with a former warrior of 1948, preaching genocide to finally rid the Jews of their Judaizing; a conflicted encounter between embittered and ignorant Mizrahi laymen and a man of letters. In the Land of Israel shows Oz is at his best, his eye surveying the land and its inhabitants, binding them with passion and compassion. The draughtsmanship is a fine craft of minute details.
With A Perfect Peace published the preceding year, Oz had established himself as a public figure of considerable moral authority with a significant role in the debates over 1982 Lebanon war and its dismal aftermath. As the war began Oz wrote: "Hitler is Already Dead Mr. Prime Minister" trying with little success to convince Menachem Begin that yasir arafat was no Adolf Hitler. The right-wing sea change in Israel over the next years had helped Oz remain a figure of opposition, sharing with many a view of peace based on a substantial aversion to its surroundings. In 1987, with the publication of Black Box, this aversion was explored in a highly allegorical novel mourning the death of a failed generation and fearing the libidinal rise of the abject, religious Mizrahi Jews. As with the problematic attempts at female consciousness, Oz is considerably weaker when he tries to write the other.
During the 1980s, as Oz became increasingly well-known abroad and more involved in academic engagements, the character of his writing changed. Since 1987 he is a full professor at the Ben-Gurion University in the Negev. He has published two literary inquiries that can be attributed to these endeavors. Moderately successful and insightful, they cannot be called major works, and many observers find that in general his work in the 1990s has not developed significantly or reached the level of his former work. Certainly To Know a Woman (1989), Fima (1991), and Don't Call it Night (1994) are well-crafted novels, but even the formally more explorative The Same Sea (1999) has not revealed an unknown side of Oz or proved a major development.
A Tale of Love and Darkness appeared in 2002 and seemed to be that long awaited novel, and was perhaps too quickly claimed a classic. Long and elaborate, autobiographical and mythical, it is an almost postmodern text, deconstructing a life in letters in a way reminiscent of Quixote's second part undoing the first: deconstructing fiction with another fiction turning into myth. The tale of Amos finally in first person garnered great success in Israel, and in translation. As it often happens this also launched him into furtive publishing of partial and at times ill-prepared works, including a collection of three almost repetitive essays on German-Jewish relations in On the Slopes of the Volcano (2006).
THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE
Since the 1980s Oz has become increasingly well-known abroad. His work has been well received in translation, especially his autobiographical A Tale of Love and Darkness. Oz had become an international man of letters, publishing often in European journals; his work has appeared in more than 450 editions and has been translated into more than thirty languages.
As of 2007, it is safe to say that Oz has written over the years what might be the most consciously representative body of work Israeli culture has produced. Yet a position that claims moral authority based on literary endeavors is treacherous terrain for a writer, and Oz's position in support of Israel's action in the 2006 war between Israel and Hizbullah seems to prove so. In poetic terms A Tale of Love and Darkness might have touched Oz's creative boundary, though he might also turn out to be as prolific and as innovative as his model Shmuel Yosef Agnon was in the latter part of his writing.
Oz, Amos. "A Tale of Myself." In Under this Blazing Light. Tel Aviv: Sifriat Poalim, 1979.