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A World of Words

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Whether by luck or judgement I don’t now remember, but I first came across the work of Amos Oz in 1984. The occasion was my sole visit to Israel, when I needed a contemporary guide, my only other literary encounter with Jewish culture having been three historical novels by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Somewhere between Singer’s nineteenth-century Poland and Oz’s modern stories came the horrors of the Nazi era: the bit of Jewish history that everyone knows and that is built into everyone’s idea of the state of Israel. It was in my mind at the time, not least because the parents of our Israeli friend bore the tattoos of the concentration camp on their forearms.

The book that spans the period and would have explained a lot had not yet been written. Amos Oz’s memoir of his childhood, youth and family history, A Tale of Love and Darkness, was published much later, in 2003. Like all his books it was written in Hebrew – a language that was dead for many centuries before being revived so that immigrants arriving in Palestine from the diaspora could communicate with one another. Oz has described in interviews the extraordinary transformation of ‘prayer-book Hebrew’ into a ‘volcanic’ language, one that is ‘happening’ all the time, and has likened the use of it to playing a musical instrument. Translating it successfully into English must be a formidable challenge but Nicholas de Lange, who has worked closely with Oz for four decades, vividly conveys the voices not only of the author but also of the crowd of characters who people his pages.

Voices are my abiding memory of A Tale of Love and Darkness. The young Amos Klausner (he changed his name to Oz later) was surrounded by people in the densely populated quarter of Jerusalem where he lived for the first fifteen years of his life. Every one of them had an opinion on everything from international politics to the ethical dilemma inherent in buying Arab cheese. And they were eager to share their opinions, occasionally crowding into the Klausners’ claustrophobic little flat in order to do so. Oz evokes in intense and by turns hilarious detail the patterns of speech, the preoccupations, fears and prejudices of a community in voluntary exile from everything it holds dear back home in Europe, ‘that wonderful, murderous continent’:

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Whether by luck or judgement I don’t now remember, but I first came across the work of Amos Oz in 1984. The occasion was my sole visit to Israel, when I needed a contemporary guide, my only other literary encounter with Jewish culture having been three historical novels by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Somewhere between Singer’s nineteenth-century Poland and Oz’s modern stories came the horrors of the Nazi era: the bit of Jewish history that everyone knows and that is built into everyone’s idea of the state of Israel. It was in my mind at the time, not least because the parents of our Israeli friend bore the tattoos of the concentration camp on their forearms.

The book that spans the period and would have explained a lot had not yet been written. Amos Oz’s memoir of his childhood, youth and family history, A Tale of Love and Darkness, was published much later, in 2003. Like all his books it was written in Hebrew – a language that was dead for many centuries before being revived so that immigrants arriving in Palestine from the diaspora could communicate with one another. Oz has described in interviews the extraordinary transformation of ‘prayer-book Hebrew’ into a ‘volcanic’ language, one that is ‘happening’ all the time, and has likened the use of it to playing a musical instrument. Translating it successfully into English must be a formidable challenge but Nicholas de Lange, who has worked closely with Oz for four decades, vividly conveys the voices not only of the author but also of the crowd of characters who people his pages. Voices are my abiding memory of A Tale of Love and Darkness. The young Amos Klausner (he changed his name to Oz later) was surrounded by people in the densely populated quarter of Jerusalem where he lived for the first fifteen years of his life. Every one of them had an opinion on everything from international politics to the ethical dilemma inherent in buying Arab cheese. And they were eager to share their opinions, occasionally crowding into the Klausners’ claustrophobic little flat in order to do so. Oz evokes in intense and by turns hilarious detail the patterns of speech, the preoccupations, fears and prejudices of a community in voluntary exile from everything it holds dear back home in Europe, ‘that wonderful, murderous continent’:

On my parents’ scale of values, the more western something was the more cultured it was considered . . . Europe for them was a forbidden promised land, a yearned-for landscape of belfries and squares paved with ancient flagstones, of trams and bridges and church spires, remote villages, spa towns, forests and snow-covered meadows.

Words like ‘cottage’, ‘meadow’ or ‘goose-girl’ excited and seduced me all through my childhood. They had a sensual aroma of a genuine, cosy world, far from the dusty tin roofs, the urban wasteland of scrap iron and thistles, the parched hillsides of our Jerusalem, suffocating under the weight of white-hot summer.

The boy soon develops a sense that the ‘world-at-large’, as it is always described, is a cultured, sophisticated and exciting place. At the same time, it is frightening and threatening because it doesn’t like Jews. Along with the European fairy-tales that his mother tells him come other stories, of his parents’ family lives in Poland, Lithuania, Odessa and the Ukraine, and these are peppered with incidents that foreshadow the Holocaust, in which some members of his family perished. He decides that when he grows up, he wants to be a book, because books have a better chance of survival than the humans who write them. He lives in a world of stories, whether oral or printed on the pages of the books that line the walls and windowsills of every room in the flat, and the contrast between these and the impoverished life of the dusty streets outside convinces him that ‘the whole of reality was just a vain attempt to imitate the world of words’. Instead, he grows up to understand that the world of words and the whole of reality can be one and the same, and he becomes a writer who can light up page after page with his descriptions of ‘reality’ in all its detail: from the act of putting his baby foot into his first ever shoe to the ritual of accompanying his parents to a café to meet their ‘valuable acquaintances’. He sees the humour and the pathos in everyday events and can reproduce a conversation so vibrantly that you feel you are personally involved. Some of his best portraits are of his grandparents: Grandma Shlomit, who fears the germs of the Levant so violently that she sprays her flat with DDT and blocks the overflow holes of the basins with soap, ‘in case the enemy attempted to infiltrate that way’; and her husband Grandpa Alexander, dapper and resolutely optimistic, who blossoms after her death in the company of ‘a bevy of well-preserved women in their fifties or sixties’ who, his grandson realizes, were attracted to Alexander because he ‘loved to understand . . . loved to give himself . . . he loved setting sail, he was never in a hurry to cast anchor’. Oz was the only child of parents whose university educations had equipped them for a life that, in their new home in the Middle East, was beyond their reach:

In a Jerusalem that was full of immigrants from Poland and Russia and refugees from Hitler, among them distinguished luminaries from famous universities, there were more lecturers and scholars than students.

Oz’s father, who knew a dozen languages ancient and modern, spent most of his working life as a librarian in the newspaper department of the National Library. At home, in a cramped flat overflowing with books and thwarted hopes, he instructed his son on everything from the order of the planets to the correct way to file book titles. That son grew up to be such a successful writer that he has been offered several professorships despite the fact that he has, he declares, ‘never had any talent for research’. The sad truth is, ‘My father’s little finger was more professorial than a dozen “parachuted in” professors like me.’
My father was a cultivated, well-mannered librarian, severe yet also rather shy, who wore a tie, round glasses, and a somewhat threadbare jacket, who bowed before his superiors, leaped to open doors for ladies, insisted firmly on his few rights, enthusiastically cited lines of poetry in ten languages, endeavoured always to be pleasant and amusing, and endlessly repeated the same repertoire of jokes (which he referred to as ‘anecdotes’ or ‘pleasantries’).
While Oz’s parents lavished attention and instruction on their son, their articulacy faltered in the face of intimacy. They and their friends ‘were capable of conversing for hours on end in excited tones about Nietzsche, Stalin, Freud, Jabotinsky, giving it everything they had, shedding tears of pathos, arguing in a singsong, about colonialism, anti-Semitism, justice, the “agrarian question”, the “Question of Women”, “art versus life”, but the moment they tried to give voice to a private feeling what came out was something tense, dry, even frightened, the result of generation upon generation of repression and negation’. Not only were they constrained by bourgeois European manners and a religious upbringing, they were also hindered by ‘a great lack of words’. His parents spoke several languages fluently but used only Hebrew with Amos, and Hebrew had not developed sufficiently to be a language of intimacy. ‘Even people like my parents who knew Hebrew well were not entirely its masters. They spoke it with a kind of obsession for accuracy. They frequently changed their minds, and reformulated something they had just said.’ The stories of all these people – neighbours, relations, acquaintances and also writers and politicians – run like threads through this tight-packed memoir. Oz’s mother is simultaneously the brightest and the darkest of these threads, committing suicide when he was 12. She was beautiful, intelligent and captivating, a creative romantic unable to come to terms with the limitations of her life. Her loss is alluded to at intervals and interspersed among other recollections, defying chronological order as it colours each memory. Here, for example, he recalls his boyish ambition of becoming a fireman:
But who was it that through most of my childhood I rescued in my fantasies over and over again from the fiery furnace and whose love I earned in return? Perhaps that is not the right way to ask the question, but rather: What terrible, incredible premonition came to the arrogant heart of that foolish, dreamy child and hinted to him, without revealing the outcome, signalled to him without giving him any chance to interpret, while there was still time, the veiled hint of what was going to happen to his mother one winter’s evening?
It seems that writing this book was as much an effort on Oz’s part to understand what happened to his mother as to commit to paper the memories of his early life. But don’t imagine, therefore, that it is a sorrowful tale. It has its tragedies, but many comedies too. It is an absorbing, life-affirming story that he tells, as well as a fascinating insight into the life of Jerusalem during the last years of the British Mandate in Palestine and the creation of the modern state of Israel. Perhaps Amos Klausner did, after all, grow up to be a book.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 37 © Annabel Walker 2013


About the contributor

Annabel Walker writes intermittently from a shed on Dartmoor.

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