If I think back to the days of my aliyah and the year or two that preceded it -the period 1989-91, Amos Oz was one of the writers who was most present and influential in my mind. His prose, along with the poetry of Yehuda Amichai and the music of Yehuda Poliker, underlay the mental climate in which I chose to make my home in Israel. It was a much more male, Ashkenazi and Europe-oriented Israel-of-the-imagination than would be approved of today, by either leftists or rightists. It had the twin totems of the Holocaust and the IDF as the two unmoving pillars around which everything else revolved, with the city of Jerusalem and the pre-state military undergrounds in there somewhere too.
I was never a great fan of Oz’s novels and have never revised my early middling to negative verdict. After a couple of years in Israel, once I had learned Hebrew properly and found my feet politically, I was also no longer an admirer of his political essays. In my view, at least, his literary reputation will rest on the magnificent autobiography ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness,’ which is an utterly luminous invocation of Jerusalem in the period immediately prior to the establiishment of the State of Israel, during the 1948 war and in the years immeiatley following it. Oz was very clearly waiting all his life to write this book, and novels such as ‘My Michael’ are a kind of uneasy circling around the themes that would dominate it.
The other, less well known pillar on which his reputation should in my view rest is that of his early short stories, which I think are masterpieces of that less respected or hallowed form. In this regard ‘The Hill of Evil Counsel’ is particularly notable, similarly set in the period of pre-1948 Jerusalem which seems to have remained the richest imaginative landscape for Oz throughout his career. ‘Where the Jackals Howl’ is I think Oz’s first collection of short stories. Once again there are there mysterious portraits of a figure that in retrospect is clearly his mother, Fanya Klausner, in many of the stories (who committed suicide when he was 12). There is also what I think is the only example in Oz’s oeuvre of a piece of military literature, namely a portrait of a member of an IDF airborne unit during the reprisal raids of the mid-50s. I think the story was called ‘Itche.’ Given that Oz was a combat veteran of the 1967 and 1973 wars, this absence of the military experience in his writing is I think noteworthy.
Oz was a person who was influential in the building of the ‘grande illusion’ that led to the Oslo process of the 1990s, and then the four years of insurgency and counter insurgency that followed it. This illusion was the notion that the Arab Muslim nationalism that had arisen in opposition to the Jewish project west of the Jordan River had reached a point where it was ready for a ‘historic compromise’ with the latter. There was never much convincing evidence for this conviction in either the statements or the actions of the proponents of this nationalism.. For this reason, the very great confidence with which the proponents of this view asserted it tended to exist in inverse proportion to the amount of knowledge, or indeed the amount of curiosity they possessed regarding the actual state of affairs on the other side, in terms of thought and in terms of action.
Only Yehuda Poliker now remains of the trumvirate of artists and visionaries that I named at the top. I am going to see him perform ‘Ashes and Dust’ in Tel Aviv next month. After I read ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ I wandered round the Kerem Avraham neighborhood in Jerusalem where Amos Oz grew up, and found the little house where many of the events in the book take place, and where he grew up. What is that line from Ehud Banai? ’20 years afterwards, you won’t see me in the city.’
Reprinted with author’s permission from Jonathan Spyer