A Night in Tel Aviv

Amos Oz’s slim new novel is full of posers

Written by Mini Kapoor | Published:March 29, 2009 11:54 am

It is hard to articulate precisely this fascination with a slim work by a leading writer. Slim not simply in length,though Amos Oz’s latest novel weighs in at just 155 pages of moderately large type. Slim also because Rhyming Life and Death comes without its author’s investing in grand civilisation points and symbolism.

The last book by Oz,Israel’s leading living writer who is periodically mentioned as a frontrunner for the Nobel prize,was A Tale of Love and Darkness,a memoir of growing up in Jerusalem in the forties and fifties. It combined the story of an unusual childhood,one in which Oz’s will to be a writer was forged,with the story of the founding of the Israeli state. It was an introduction to the social roots of a Socialist Zionism that dominated the early leaders,but which is now a fading memory even though Oz continues to canvas in elections for the Meretz,a party on the left of a right-weighted Israeli spectrum that is good in that country’s system of proportional representation for two-three seats in the Knesset.

Rhyming Love and Death is also limited in expanse compared with much of Oz’s fiction. In it the interior lives of the characters do not necessarily reflect the political landscape of the country,as they do in his major novels like My Michael. A celebrity writer known to us only as the Author is to give a reading at a Tel Aviv cultural centre,and we track him for a few hours,from the moment he enters a café to kill time before the late-evening reading right through to his hours-long walkabout in the neighbourhood after it.

The Author is highly acclaimed and well known. This is evident from his anticipation of the flurry of questions that will come his way. “Why do you write? Why do you write the way you do?… What is it like to be a famous writer and what effect does it have on your family?… Do you write with a pen or on a computer? Do you draw the material for your stories from your imagination or directly from life? What does your ex-wife think of the female characters in your book?… Are your books autobiographical or completely fictional?”

As he orders his omelette,salad and glass of coffee,he starts imagining the pathetic love life of the waitress and the probably conspiratorial conversation of two diners. Once he ambles over to the cultural centre,and the prim reader,she whom he will pursue after the reading,has begun,his silent storytelling continues: that gaunt boy,for instance. This is not casual speculation; the lives of others are richly imagined. The waitress’s boyfriend possesses a textured past evoked by his status as reserve goalkeeper. The gangsters have names. The boy’s mother is called Ophelia,and a month ago he was sacked from his part-time job at a courier company.

As the evening and the Author’s thoughts progress,the line between what is and what is imagined gets blurred. Does he,for instance,actually pursue the reader (Rochele Reznik) or are the passages about the pursuit fantasy?

Come to think of it,how much of what the Author says is drawn from concrete knowledge? Is he the real storyteller or another one,at a remove? Oz perhaps? We don’t know. We also do not know exactly why at the end of the book there is given a list of characters (titled,perhaps significantly,“The Characters”,pages 149-155). Is it to emphasise heft,to create a centre of gravity in a story of wispy threads? Or is it,more chillingly,meant to fudge the separation of “real” lives and imagined ones? After all,topping the list is the Author.

Rhyming Life and Death is full of little posers. But at its heart it is Oz’s attempt to value his craft. In a 2004 interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick,Oz explained why as a child he wanted to grow up to be a book: “There was a fear why I was a little boy. People would say,enjoy every day,because not every child grows up to be a person… I thought a book may survive.”

Books survive,but do authors matter? The Author wonders,mid-way,what enduring benefit there could be to “write about things that exist even without you”. The idea fills him with shame,this suspicion that he’s looking and looking at people as if they “all exist only for him to make use of in his book”. As a counterpoint to his private embarrassment at assuming a central point wherever he goes,being the eye that records what may or may not be happening among those who surround him,is the death of Tsefania Beit-Halachmi. Throughout the long night out,this minor poet’s verses (yes,he wrote “Rhyming Life and Death”) have been quoted often. When the Author winds down by reading the previous day’s paper,he finds the poet has died at the age of 97. And the reader of the book wonders,who was this book about? The Author or the poet?

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