Rhyming Life and Death, the claustrophobic new novella by the famous Israeli novelist Amos Oz, takes place almost entirely inside the head of a famous Israeli novelist, who is named the Author. He, in turn, is confined to a few decrepit blocks near a rundown cultural center in Tel Aviv. He has been invited there by the Good Book Club to participate in a discussion of his work. The prospect fills him with dread, partly because he can’t stand the kind of questions asked at such events (“Why do you write? Why do you write the way you do? Are you trying to influence your readers, and if so, how? … Do you write with a pen or on a computer? And how much, roughly, do you earn from each book?”) and partly because he knows that in trying to answer them, he’ll pile “lie upon lie.”
Arriving early to steel himself, he sips coffee in a café and studies a waitress’s buttocks as well as the café’s other patrons. Later, stationed on a dais with his fellow panelists, he scans the faces in the audience. In both places, he allays his discomfort by making the clothes, features, and tics of the strangers spread out before him the basis of feverish fantasies about them, as though the act of “picking their pockets” for material arouses him sexually. Over the course of the evening, his creations take on lives of their own. Some enchant him; others hound him. But none offers him escape, because their lives turn out be to even sadder and lonelier than his.
How does a novelist arrive at such an inauspicious view of the creative process? In an introduction to a new anthology of his fiction and journalism, The Amos Oz Reader, critic Robert Alter points out that Oz, the grand homme of Israeli letters, has been writing in the claustrophobic mode since the beginning of his career close to 50 years ago. You perceive this most clearly in his landscapes, which feel cut off from hope. Oz’s first novel, Elsewhere, Perhaps, is set on a small kibbutz surrounded by jackals, enemies, and brooding mountains. The kibbutz itself is a warm and magical yet oppressive place, “imagined,” in Alter’s words, “as a microcosm of the Jewish state.” Later novels, as well as Oz’s great 2003 memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, take place in the pre-1948 Jerusalem of his childhood, a city surrounded by hostile armies and filled with premonitions of doom.
Oz’s political essays root his paranoid visions in the realities of life in Israel, a state that is itself the result of a problematic creative process. Oz is a Zionist, and he holds that the Jews had no choice but to create Israel. They had nowhere else to go. But having done so, he says, Israelis should not look for forgiveness and accommodation from those they have displaced, at least not in the immediate future. Nor should they seek total victory or total peace. “The best we can expect,” he wrote shortly after the Six Day War, “is a process of adaptation and psychological acceptance accompanied by a slow, painful awakening to reality, burdened with bitterness and deprivation, with shattered dreams and endless suspicions and reservations that, in the way of human wounds, heal slowly and leave permanent scars.”
As visions of political reconciliation go, this is a remarkably novelistic one. It casts the nation and its opponents as individual personae, doppelgangers, even, seeing and acknowledging each other with all the tolerance for pain and capacity for mutual recognition that morally complex characters could ever hope to muster. Oz’s scenario puts the Middle East peace process in the realm of the imaginary, no less than the triumphalism and pacifism it repudiates. In Rhyming Life and Death, on the other hand, Oz calls the imagination into question. What good does it do, really? Can his imaginings ever amount to anything more than solipsistic self-gratification?
There are a lot of ways this book might have turned out. It could have been a rueful, self-congratulatory look back over a career—a Stardust Memories in novelistic form. It could have been a knit-browed investigation into the ethics of fiction. Instead, and luckily for us, Oz has boiled it down to a juicily sadistic fable of creation. Grim as the Author’s world is, it is also a demonically joyous production. He takes great pleasure in fashioning his characters, but he takes as much pleasure, or more, in wounding them. That is how he brings them to life.
No sooner has the Author named the café waitress Ricky, for instance, than he gives her an unrequited love for a sports-car-driving soccer player named Charlie, who once, quite a while ago, took her to a sea resort and tickled her ear with his tongue, then abandoned her for Lucy, runner-up in the town’s Queen of the Waves contest.
Next, the Author overhears two men at the next table discussing the misfortune of one Ovadya Hazzam, a high-living lottery winner now dying of liver cancer. The Author promptly assigns him a catheter attached to an overflowing urine bag and a night nurse who ignores his calls for help in order to chat with a doctor.
The Author’s most pitiful creature is an unkempt sixtysomething-year-old whom he calls Arnold Bartok. Bartok “looks like a monkey that has lost most of its fur.” Several times during the event, the Author is pretty sure, Bartok sniggers at him. He retaliates by consigning Bartok to life in a windowless cubicle in the company of a paralyzed and abusive mother. Bartok, who seems meant to serve as the Author’s double, spends his time philosophizing about sex and death, writing letters to editors, and cleaning out his mother’s bedpan.
It is when he wallows in the disgusting that the Author achieves his most vivifying effects. Oz is a poet of sticky things. Ricky leaves a sticky trail on the Author’s table when she wipes it with an unclean cloth. A fat and aging matron tries to lure a young poet into bed with a sticky-sweet fruit compote. (Sticky-sweet jam or compote is mentioned in almost every novel by Oz I’ve read, and it is almost always given to a boy by an overripe woman.) Nearly every scene features bodily fluids in gas or liquid form. Contemplating the over-effusive organizer of the literary event, the Author tells himself, “You ought take the time to give this character some habits that will fix him in your readers’ memory, two or three significant eccentricities.” The first eccentricity he thinks of has the man licking stamps and the backs of envelopes lustily, with a “great abundance of saliva.”
Are we meant to perceive a theology beneath this grossness? It is the Good Book Club that gets the ball rolling, after all. To anyone familiar with the good book, the Author’s appetite for emissions and blemishes suggests a perverse inversion of the ancient priestly hierarchy of purity, a relish for the profane. This is a fallen, unsanctified world, and the Author, like Milton’s Satan, seems determined to exploit its sensual possibilities even as he curses its Maker to the skies.
The Author spends much of the latter part of the evening attempting to seduce Rochele Resnik, who read aloud from his new book at the literary event. Rochele might as well be an angel from heaven. A virginal young woman with a braid and a cream cotton dress, she finds more “compassion and grace” in the Author’s words than he is aware of having put in them. She is also the only character whose life story the Author doesn’t get to invent, the only one who lives outside his head. This grants her the power to take him out of himself and redeem him from his polluted state. The Author, however, is a half-hearted Don Juan. He imagines so many alternate possible endings to the evening that we are never quite sure he makes it into her bed. If he does, the experience has only the faintest redemptive effect.
This being Oz and Israel, the Author’s blaspheming has a political as well as theological dimension. Intermittently during the night, he mulls over a photograph that hangs on the wall of the cultural center. It is a portrait of Berl Katznelson, the late Labor leader who was one of Israel’s founding fathers, and he looks kindly but crafty, “as though he has just pulled off a coup by devious means.” The Author damns Katznelson’s handiwork as if it were God’s: “This is a bad business, all of it here, ridiculous and terrible.”
So what is the point of making things up, if that is what the process yields? It’s not just the audience that wants to know. The Author asks himself the question repeatedly. Who needs his inventions, his sad-sack souls, his “shabby fantasies about all kinds of worn-out sex scenes” with frustrated waitresses, lonely readers, and runners-up in a Queen of the Waves contest? Is it possible for the Author to defend the endeavor without deluding himself and lying to everyone else? Isn’t Bartok right to scoff?
In 2005, in accepting Germany’s Goethe Prize around the time he would have been writing the novella, Oz delivered a powerful apologia for the act of imagination: “I believe that imagining the other is a powerful antidote to fanaticism and hatred. I believe that books that make us imagine the other may make us more immune to the ploys of the devil, including the inner devil, the Mephisto of the heart. … Imagining the other is not only an aesthetic tool. It is in my view, also a major moral imperative.”
But novels have a subtlety that speeches do not, and I think the Author may be a more reliable source than his author on the moral status of imagining the other, especially in the face of a painful reality. I’m inclined to trust the Author’s view that there’s something less than wholesome about the exercise, something grandiose and deserving of mockery. “To write about things that exist,” he says, “to try to capture a colour or smell or sound in words, is a little like playing Schubert when Schubert is in the hall, and perhaps sniggering in the darkness.” The most ridiculous thing may be trying to justify oneself in the declarative language of uplift that audiences like to hear. Justification comes, if it comes, provisionally. And it comes privately, perhaps at the end of a long and hellish night. That is when it comes to the Author, at any rate. “Once in a while,” he says just before dawn, “it is worth turning on the light to clarify what is going on.”