When Amos Oz’s recent novel appeared in English translation, his homeland was in the midst of celebrating his 70th birthday with a three-day festival in his hometown of Arad and a conference at Ben-Gurion University.
Oz’s political views have often placed him on the fringes of the Israeli mainstream, but he shares this position with other major Israeli novelists such as David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua. Rhyming Life & Death (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which appeared in Hebrew two years ago, is a slim book, easily read in a sitting or two. Its focus is the imaginings, during an eight-hour period, of a writer said to be in his early 40s. But for such a young narrator, the story told has an inescapable tone of gloom, of end times, of a writerly voice with grave doubts about its relevance and motivations.
Set in the early 1980s, the book turns on the kind of event that writers love to hate – the all-too-necessary question-and-answer event meant to introduce a new book, which often leads to the kind of questions with which Oz begins his narrative: “Why do you write? Why do you write the way you do? Are you trying to influence your readers, and, if so, how?” Oz’s protagonist, known simply as “the Author,” has “no idea how he will answer the audience’s questions.”
The ingenious feature that drives the front half of Rhyming Life & Death is the Author’s spontaneous ability to develop full-fledged characters – complete with flaws, personal entanglements and a deeply textured daily life – from fleeting encounters. On his way to an event in his honour at the Shunia Shor and the Seven Victims of the Quarry Attack Cultural Center in Tel Aviv, he stops at a coffee shop. There, out of an overheard conversation, he conjures Ovadya Hazzam, a lottery winner who “spent money left and right, both on good causes and just having a good time, he cruised around town all day in a blue Buick with Russian blondes…” Later, as the Author listens to a literary critic summarize his contribution to Israeli literature, he spots a face to which he attaches the name Arnold Bartok: “He lives with his mother, Ophelia, whose legs are paralyzed. The two of them sleep under the same sheet on a worn-out mattress in their room, which is no more than a windowless cubicle that was once his father’s little laundry.”
This process of conjuration, which the Author calls his “usual tricks,” gives Rhyming Life & Death its energy, and it allows Oz to supply glancing, sharply etched portraits of Israeli types and daily life. Political complaints, youthful artistic yearnings, embarrassed romantic urges and a wanton lust for life arise out of a bare motif: Hazzam’s blue Buick and his blondes; a young waitress’ “high” breasts; the way a “heavily built woman” listens attentively to the Author’s words, “her lips… parted with the sweetness of the cultural experience she is undergoing.”
There is great readerly pleasure in Oz’s employment of these tricks, which offer a study in how a writerly imagination builds a fictional world out of the events of daily life. In this, Rhyming Life & Death is a book about writing, its pleasures and eccentricities, which answers some of the questions posed at the outset of the novel. In a recent interview in Ha’aretz, Oz outlined some of the basic habits that underwrite his creative work: “I get up at 5 in the morning, every day. This habit from the kibbutz has stayed with me. I go out to walk a little in the desert near the house in Arad, not long, 20 minutes. By 6, I’m already sitting at my desk and I write until noon. I always write with a pen . . . for sensual reasons, the arc between the pen and fingers…”
Further on the theme of a writer’s motivations, Rhyming Life & Death takes its title from the book of the early Israeli poet Tsefania Beit-Halachmi. A touchstone in the Author’s youth, Halachmi’s poetry was sung to “melancholy Russian-style” tunes “around campfires and on kibbutz lawns.” His subjects were “absorption of immigrants, transit camps, austerity measures, the conquest of the desert… border incidents and raids by infiltrators, the corruption and bureaucracy that overshadowed the public life of the young State. He represented the younger generation, the muscular, suntanned native-born sabras.” These experiences encapsulate Oz’s own youthful years, born as he was before the declaration of the State, to become, in the early 1960s, an emblematic figure from this “younger generation.” At the novel’s end, Oz’s musings about Halachmi’s fate seem to suggest his own doubts and indifference regarding his literary legacy.
Rhyming Life & Death takes an odd turn in its middle pages, as the Author describes (or imagines) a long, awkward scene of lovemaking with one of his admirers. Beyond this, it is a shrewd and unsettling portrait of an author’s life and times.
Norman Ravvin is chair of the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies. His books include A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity and Memory and Hidden Canada: An Intimate Travelogue.