A Tale of Love and Darkness

By Amos Oz

Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange

Harcourt Books

Reviewed by Jane McCabe

I chose to read this book for this reason: I was interested in what it was like to grow up, like its author did, in Israel since its inception as a modern nation in 1948 and its development since. I figured the book would be good because Oz is Israel’s most widely published novelist. This book, however, is not a novel; rather it’s a memoir mostly about his childhood and early adulthood.

I was not disappointed—from its first pages I was enchanted and felt as though I was reading the writing of a kindred spirit. I had the same experience as he when as I child: I was so deeply absorbed in reading Little House on the Prairie that I thought I was there and when called to dinner it took a few seconds to return to the “real” world. Oz writes of his own absorption in a book as follows: “When my father asked me, half angrily, half affectionately, what was the matter with me this time, it took a while for me to come back to this world…of everyday chores.”

Amos Oz’s parents were European Jews who settled in Jerusalem in the 1930’s. His father’s family was from Odessa; they were a family of scholars. His great uncle, Dr. Joseph Klausner, was a famous Israeli linguist. His father’s great disappointment was his inability to get a teaching position, however, in those days Israel was rife with scholars. His father’s brother David had refused to leave Odessa and was killed by the Nazis.

His mother family was from Rovno, Poland. She was middle sister of three; her father became wealthy and purchased a large home in Rovno. Their mother was something of a harridan. His mother’s psychological disposition was delicate, causing her greater problems as she grew older.

Though Oz supplies the reader with plenty of information about the nascent state of Israel, the book is primarily about his mother’s suicide.

After long being tormented with bouts of medical depression and insomnia on January 6th, 1952, she ended her life at the age of 38 in the apartment of her sister Haya on Ben Yehuda Street, Tel Aviv, by means of an overdose of sleeping pills. Oz was 12 years old.

He comments, “It rained heavily almost without break all over Israel through that winter of 1951-52.”

If there’s a human action I most disdain it’s suicide. Though I understand that those who resort to it have been, as Fania Klausner was, long tormented by their mere existence, still I find it hard to forgive them because of what it does to those whom they have left behind.

In Fania’s case I think her suicide was calculated—she figured those whom she most loved could get along without her, her husband and her beloved son Amos.

As it turned out within a year Arieh had remarried and had in time two children with his new wife—so, it would seem he had determinedly carried on without Fania, and yet “in the last years of his life his shoulders slumped. He had grim fits of rage when he would hurl rebukes and accusations at anyone around him….” Eighteen years after his first wife died, on October 11, 1970, four months after his 60th birthday, after buying some stationery from a store in Jerusalem, he wished the clerk good day, greeted two strangers who were in line behind him, stepped outside the shop and dropped dead of a heart attack.” I don’t think he ever truly recovered from Fania’s suicide.

As for Amos Oz, at the age of 15 he joined a kibbutz, where he remained for the next 30 years. At that age he knew he wanted to write but thought he had to go to some exotic location to do so—London, Paris, Milan.

“It was Sherwood Anderson,” he writes, “who got me out of the vicious circle and freed my writing hand.”

When he read Winesburg, Ohio, which is a string of stories revolving the trivial, everyday happenings in a small town, it opened his eyes to write about what was around him!

By now Oz has written 13 novels, four books of non-fiction and one children’s book. He is happily married to a remarkably happy woman named Nily, to whom he was attracted because she was always singing. They have several children. He has received numerous awards for his work. This is the first book I’ve read of his, and I found it to be wonderfully satisfying—I’m glad for his happiness and hope Nily continues to sing.

Jane M McCabe is an associate editor and frequent contributor to the Neworld Review.

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