Memoir and Family Redemption

April 1, 2005
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David Biale

Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness. trans. Nicholas de Lange. New York: Harcourt, 2004. 544 pp.

EVERY WRITER OF fiction mines to one extent or another his or her own life, turning reality into food for the imagination. But when a writer turns to his own biography, he can do the opposite: use the tools of fiction to uncover truths hidden by reality. For the past is not a real place, but an artifact of memory, and who better to create that artifact than the writer of fiction?

In his stunning memoir, which is already a best-seller in Israel and in several European countries, Amos Oz is entirely conscious of what it means for a writer of fiction to write his own autobiography. He deliberately calls this not a memoir but a “tale” (sippur in Hebrew). Its focus is his childhood, with some brief forays into later periods of his life. In fact, its real focus is his parents, and in that respect it is really more the story of their lives — and deaths. Since they and their generation are largely gone, Oz is free to plumb the depths of his own memory and, where memory fails, to use the novelist’s clairvoyance to reconstruct what must have been true.

The event around which the memoir gingerly circles — and only fully encounters at its end — is the suicide of Oz’s mother, Fania. The pain of this trauma remains as fresh to him now as it was then — perhaps even fresher for having tried to reconstruct it. It was she who bequeathed to him storytelling in the strange Gothic tales she wove for her young son. Highly educated in Prague and the Hebrew University, her illness and, perhaps, her unhappy marriage to Oz’s father, stifled her enormous creative potential. It is Oz’s father, Aryeh, increasingly helpless and inept in the face of the mother’s descent into depression, who comes into even sharper focus. Scion of the Klausner family (the great historian Joseph Klausner, whom Oz brilliantly and hilariously lampoons in all his self-important pomposity, was Aryeh’s uncle), his potential also remained largely untapped. He emerges like a figure out of an Agnon novel (Agnon makes several appearances here since he was very much a part of the Jerusalem world of Oz’s parents). Aryeh is full of trivial knowledge, which he deploys endlessly, but his scholarly endeavors add up to very little, despite his obsessive efforts. He never achieves the professorship he covets and spends his whole career as a librarian at the National Library. Aryeh’s book learning cannot compensate for his emotional bankruptcy and, in the wake of his wife’s suicide, he and his son become increasingly estranged.

In order to draw this portrait of his parents, Oz tells a sprawling family saga of his father’s family in Russia and his mother’s in Poland. I can think of few better introductions to Eastern European Jewish history. And, since branches of the family (including Oz’s cousin who was exactly his own age) were murdered in the Holocaust, he also brilliantly relates that chapter of Jewish history.

These two families found refuge from Europe in Jerusalem in the early 1930s. While the heroic pioneers were building the land and themselves (as the popular song had it), the Jerusalem of Oz’s youth was a provincial European outpost. One of the funniest passages in the book is Oz’s description of his grandmother, who became obsessed with the ubiquity of germs in the Middle East and died in her bath, which she took several times a day in order to wash off the microbes. Desperately trying to recreate Europe in the Middle East, these new Jerusalemites felt themselves just as much estranged from the “true” Zionism as they were in exile from Europe. Moreover, the Klausners were Revisionists and therefore politically opposed to the majority Labor Zionists. The story that Oz tells here is, therefore, a counter-narrative to the much more familiar one of the Zionist mainstream. But it is a crucial story to tell because so many of the Jews who founded Israel were really more refugees than they were “New Hebrews.”

It was this Jerusalem that endured the siege of the 1948 war and, once again, Oz succeeds brilliantly in capturing the terror and claustrophobia of that epoch. Characteristically, his father fails to learn how to operate a rifle and, as in the earlier Revisionist underground to which he belonged, played the role of an anti-hero.

With the founding of Israel, personal weakness was seen as antithetical to the national spirit. Oz, therefore, fled his family home to Kibbutz Hulda in search of a more heroic future. But, as a writer, he has been drawn again and again to the prosaic and personal, to writing about the foibles and weaknesses of real human beings. Politically, he has also championed an Israel not in the thrall of bombastic ideologies. With this memoir/tale, which may well be the best thing he has written, he has redeemed his father and mother by placing their very human failings in the historical drama in which they took part. They emerge no more heroic than before, but, like the historical drama itself, profoundly human.

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David Biale is Emanuel Ringelblum Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis. He is the editor, most recently, of Cultures of the Jews: A New History. He is a judge for The Koret Jewish Book Awards.

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