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by Bamber Gascoigne

Amos Oz (1939-2018)


Israeli novelist, short-story writer, and essayist who wrote in Hebrew. Amos Oz was often mentioned as a possible Nobel contender. Central themes in his fiction were loneliness, rootlessness, and the tension between inner life, mystical yearning, and outer reality. As a political essayist Oz dealt with major national controversies, Zionism, the relations between Jews and Arabs, and the return of the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the author campaigned for a Palestinian homeland in the West Bank and Gaza. But the time of Oz's death, his books had been translated into nearly fifty languages.

"Wherever war is called peace, where oppression and persecution are referred to as security, and assassination is called liberation, the defilement of the language precedes and prepares for the defilement of life and dignity." (from Israel, Palestine and Peace, 1995)

Amos Oz was born Amos Klausner in Jerusalem into a family of scholars and teachers. Both of Oz's parents were Zionist immigrants from Eastern Europe. Yehuda Arieh Klausner, his father, was a librarian and writer, who spoke eleven languages, and later received his doctorate from London University. Oz's mother, Fania Mussman, read seven or eight languages. Mostly Oz's parents read books in German or English, at home they spoke Russian and Polish, but the only language they taught him at home was Hebrew. At the age of 16, Oz read the New Testament. The story of Jesus fascinated him ‒ more than playing basketball or chasing girls in the evenings ‒ and tinged all his thought. Noteworthy, his great-uncle, Joseph Klausner, had published in 1921 a book, Jesus of Nazareth, in which he claimed that Jesus never aimed at establishing a new religion; he was born a Jew and died a Jew.

Oz's mother, who had suffered from depression, committed suicide in 1952; she was 38 years old. "For every true writer becomes a writer because of a profound trauma experienced in youth or childhood," Oz said (The Silence of Heaven, 1993). After his father remarried, Oz left Jerusalem and settled at the Kibbutz Hulda, where he took the surname Oz, a Hebrew word meaning "strenght" or "courage". In 1960 Oz married Nily Zuckerman, the daughter of the librarian of the kibbutz. Between 1957 and 1960 Oz served in the Israeli Army. In the Six-Day War (1967) and the Yom Kippur War Oz fought as a reserve soldier with a tank unit.

Oz received his B.A. in Hebrew literature and philosophy in 1963 from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, where he was sent by the General Assembly of the kibbutz. After graduating, Oz worked as a teacher of literature and philosophy at Hulda High School and Regional High School, Givat Brenner.

Where the Jackals Howl, Oz's first collection of short stories, appeared in 1965. Its provocative opening story, 'Nomad and Viper', has been compared to E.M. Forster's A Passage to India (924). This book was followed by a novel about kibbutz life, Elsewhere, Perhaps (1966). Oz's breakthrough as a writer came with My Michael (1968), a story about a young woman, Hannah, who tries to find a way out of her bourgeois life and marriage through self-destructive fantasies. At the end she imagines sending her childhood friends, Arab twins, on a commando raid on a farm. This psychological novel was an international bestseller but also created controversy. 

While living on the kibbutz, Oz did his share of manual labor, carried trays into the dining room, drove the tractor, farmed, and taught in the kibbutz school. Royalties from his publications went into the general coffers. Moreover, many of his kibbutz stories were written in the collective persona, often with an ironic edge.  In the beginning of his literary career, Oz wrote in his spare time, mostly in the hours before sunrise. His books were published by the Labor Party press, Am Oved. With his growing renown in the literary world, Oz was allowed to devote more of his time to writing. He once defended the kibbutz as having "a social system that, for all its disadvantages, is the least bad, the least unkind, that I have seen anywhere." ('The Kibbutz at the Present Time,' in Under This Blazing Light, 1995, p. 128). 

Oz's characters are torn between forces and conflict of motives - their own desires and social reality, irrational impulses and obsessions. In A Perfect Peace(1982) a young man leaves his home, the secure world of the kibbutz, but do not survive in the desert without the help of a female soldier and an old man. Eventually, after misadventures, he returns to his house to live a quiet life. Patience and compromise are the keys to the stability of Oz's characters. What becomes of fanaticism, he has remarked that life has made him an expert in it. Due to Oz's conciliatory attitude toward the Palestinians, the nationalist right labelled him as a betrayer of his people. "For me the word "compromise" means life. And the opposite of compromise is not idealism, not devolution; the opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death." (How to Cure a Fanatic, foreword by Nadine Gordimer, 2010, p. 8)

The experimental Black Box (1987), which was also a bestseller, consisted of letters between members of a broken family, revealing through their voices personal anguishes, as well the diverse realities of Israeli life. From book to book, the burden of past is always present, but Oz's fiction is decidedly contemporary in its concerns. History is biography, he argued. In the memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002) Oz explored the traumatic effect of his mother's death on his life and writing.

Immediately after the Six Day War in 1967, Oz started his career as a political essayist with an article deprecating the use of the term "liberated territories". Although he was born in Jerusalem, he could not rejoice in the annexation of Arab East Jerusalem: "My dreams had deceived me," he later confessed. After the battle, which took the Old City from the Jordanians, Oz walked through its streets but without any fulfillment; insted he saw "enmity and rebelliousness, sycophancy, amazement, fear, insult and trickery." (Governing Jerusalem: Again on the World's Agenda by Ira Sharkansky, 1996, p. 28) Since choosing kibbutz life, Oz had never resided in Jerusalem. He also kept his distance because the city had been taken over by all kinds of extremists, Muslims, religious Jews, and nationalists - it was a metropolis full of tensions, not the small town with many neighbourhoods, which he so well remembered.

In the Land of Israel (1983), a collection of essays based on interviews made in the aftermath of the Lebanon War in 1982, Oz examined the past and present of his country. Originally the essays appeared in the newspaper Davar. Viewing with suspicion the ideals of the founders of modern Israel, Oz concluded: "Perhaps we should have aimed for less. Perhaps there was a wild pretension here, beyond our capabilities - beyond human capabilities. Perhaps we must limit ourselves and forgo the rainbow of messianic dreams. . . ." Oz also published a number of essays on literary criticism, especially on the work of S.Y. Agnon, whom Oz regards as one of his literary mentors. In The Story Begins (1995) Oz analyzed how such writers as Gogol, Kafka Chekhov, García Márquez, and Raymond Carver open their stories.

Oz was a founding member of the Peace Now movement in 1977 and advocated the idea of an exchange of land for peace. "What we require is a divorce between Israel and the Palestinians, followed by the partitioning of a very small apartment," Oz stated in 1991 in an interview (The New York Times, April 14, 1991). Before becoming a supporter of Meretz, a left wing social democratic party, he had close connections with the Israeli Labor Party and its leader Shimon Peres. In an article written for the Los Angeles Times in July 2006, Oz supported the Israeli army in its war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, but in August, along with A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman, Oz urged the Israeli Prime Minister to reach a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hezbollah forces.

Following President Bashar Assad's brutal crackdown on the country's uprising, Oz and other writers, such as Umberto Eco, David Grossman, Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, and Wole Soyinka, urged in June 2011 the United Nations to condemn the repression in Syria as a crime against humanity. In December 2014, Oz, David Grossman and other prominent Israelis signed a petion for the recognition of a Palestinian state.

Oz lived on the kibbutz until he moved with his family in 1986 to Arad, in the south of Israel. Oz was a visiting fellow at the St. Cross College, Oxford (1969-70), a writer-in-residence or visiting professor at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem (1975), the University of California, Berkeley (1980), the Colorado College, Colorado Springs (1984-85), Boston University (1987), and the Hebrew University, Jerusalem (1990). In 1987 Oz was appointed professor of Hebrew literature at the Ben Gurion University, Beer-Sheva. Oz's many awards include the Holon Prize (1965), the Israel-American Cultural Foundation Award (1968), the B'nai B'rith award (1973), the Brenner prize (1976), the Ze'ev award for children's books (1978), the Bernstein prize (1983), the Bialik prize (1986), the H.H. Wingate award (1988), Prix Femina Étranger (1988), the German Publishers' Union international peace prize (1992), the French cross of the Knight of the Légion d'Honneur (1997), the Israel Prize for Literature (1998), and the Goethe Prize in 2005. Amos Oz died in Tel Aviv, on December 28, 2018, after a short battle with cancer.

For further reading: Voices of Israel by Joseph Cohen (1990); Between God and Beast: an Examination of Amos Oz's Prose by Avraham Balaban (1993); 'Oz, Amos,' in Contemporary World Writers, ed. by Tracy Chevalier (1993); 'Oz, Amos.' in Encyclopedia of World Authors in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Somber Lust: the Art of Amos Oz by Yair Mazor (2002); Great World Writers: Twentieth Century, Vol. 9, ed. Patrick M. O'Neil (2004); 'In Conflicts, Few People Are Able to Understand the Suffering of Others / Amos Oz,' in Literature and War: Conversations with Israeli and Palestinian Writers by Runo Isaksen  (2009); 'Zionist Places against the Desert Wilderness: Amos Oz,' in Place and Ideology in Contemporary Hebrew Literature by Karen Grumberg (2011); Imagining the Kibbutz: Visions of Utopia in Literature and Film by Ranen Omer-Sherman (2015)

Selected works:

  • Artzot Hatan, 1965
    - Where the Jackals Howl, and Other Stories (transl. by Nicholas de Lange and Philip Simpson, 1981)
  • Makom acher, 1966
    - Elsewhere, Perhaps (transl. by Nicholas de Lange, 1973)
    - Ehkä jossain muualla (suom. Kai Kaila, 1977)
  • Micha'el sheli, 1968
    - My Michael (transl. by Nicholas de Lange, 1972)
    - Mieheni Mikael (suom. Marja Alopaeus, 1978)
    - Film: Michael Sheli (1975), screenplay Esther Mor, Dan Wolman, dir. by Dan Wolman, starring Oded Kotler, Efrat Lavi, Moti Mizrahi, Dina Roitkoff
  • 'Ad mavet, 1971
    - Unto Death (transl. by Nicholas de Lange, 1975)
    - Kuolemaan asti (suom. Ilkka Malinen, 1987)
  • La-ga 'at bamayim, la-ga 'at baruah, 1973
    - Touch the Water, Touch the Wind (transl. by Nicholas de Lange, 1974)
  • Makom aher, 1973
  • Anashim aherim, 1974
  • Har ha-'etsah ha-ra 'ah, 1976
    - The Hill of Evil Counsel (transl. by Nicholas de Lange, 1978)
    - Pahanneuvon vuori (suom. Pirkko Talvio-Jaatinen, 1981)
  • Soumchi, 1978
    - Soumchi (transl. by Penelope Farmer, 1980)
  • Be-or ha-tekhlet ha-'azah, 1979
    - Under This Blazing Light: Essays (transl. by Nicholas de Lange, 1995)
  • Menuhah nekhonah, 1982
    - A Perfect Peace (transl. by Hillel Halkin, 1985)
    - Täydellinen rauha (suom. Pirkko Talvio-Jaatinen, 1988)
  • Poh va-sham b'Eretz Yisra'el, 1983
    - In the Land of Israel (transl. by Maurie Goldberg-Bartura, 1983)
    - Israelin maassa (suom. Dan Steinbock, 1983)
  • Until Daybreak: Stories from the Kibbutz, 1984 (selected and with an introduction by Amos Oz, edited by Richard Flantz)
  • Israeli Literature: a Case of Reality Reflecting Fiction, 1985
  • Kufsah she-horah, 1987
    - Black Box (transl. by Nicholas de Lange, 1988)
    - Musta laatikko (suom. Pirkko Talvio-Jaatinen, 1990)
    - Film: Kufsa Sh'hora (1994), screenplay Yeud Levanon, Nomi Sharron, dir. Yeud Levanon, starring Bruria Albek, Ami Traub, Mati Seri, Amnon Meskin
  • Mi-mordot ha-Levanon, 1987
    - The Slopes of Lebanon (transl. by Maurie Goldberg-Bartura, 1989)
  • Hafradat Tzva'im, 1989
  • La-da'at ishah, 1989
    - To Know a Woman (transl. by Nicholas de Lange, 1991)
    - Naisen ikävä (suom. Kristiina Lampola, 1993)
  • Matsav ha-shel-ishi, 1991
    - Fima (transl. by Nicholas de Lange, 1993)
    - Fima (suom. 2012)
  • Shtikat Ha-Shamayim, 1993
    - The Silence of Heaven: Agnon's Fear of God (transl. by Barbara Harshav, 2000)
  • Al tagidi lailah, 1994
    - Don’t Call It Night (transl. by Nicholas de Lange, 1995)
    - Älä kysy yöltä (suom. Pirkko Talvio-Jaatinen, 2010)
  • Panter ba-Martef, 1995
    - Panther in the Basement (transl. by Nicholas de Lange, 1997)
    - Pantteri kellarissa (suom. Kristiina Lampola, 2000)
    - Film: The Little Traitor (2007), prod. Evanstone Films Ltd., Panther Productions, screeenplay Lynn Roth, dir. Lynn Roth, starring Ido Port, Alfred Molina and Arieh Adler
  • Israel, Palestine and Peace: Essays, 1995
  • Mathilim Sipur, 1996
    - The Story Begins: Essays on Literature (transl. by Maggie Bar-Tura, 1999)
  • Kol ha-tikvot, 1998
  • Oto ha-yam, 1999
    - The Same Sea (transl. by Nicholas de Lange, 2001)
    - Meri on sama (suom. Kristiina Lampola ja Mikko Rimminen, 2002)
  • Beetzem yesh kan shete milhamot, 2002
  • Sippur al ahava ve-hosekh, 2002
    - A Tale of Love and Darkness (transl. by Nicholas de Lange, 2004)
    - Tarina rakkaudesta ja pimeydestä (suom. Kristiina Lampola ja Pirkko Talvio-Jaatinen, 2007)
    - Film: A Tale of Love and Darkness (2015), prod. Handsomecharlie Films, Ram Bergman Productions, screenplay by Natalie Portman, dir. by Natalie Portman, starring Natalie Portman (as Fania Oz), Makram Khoury, Shira Haas
  • Pitom be-omek ha-yaar, 2005
    - Suddenly In the Depths of the Forest (transl. by Sondra Silverston, 2010
  • Shalom la-ḳanaʼim, 2005
    - Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land (translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen, 2018)
  • How to Cure a Fanatic, 2006 (previously published, without interview, as: Help us to divorce. Includes the essay Between right and right and an interview of Amos Oz conducted by Brigitta van Rheinberg)
  • Haruzei Hahaim Vehamavet, 2007
    - Rhyming Life and Death (transl. by Nicholas de Lange, 2009)
  • The Amos Oz Reader, 2009 (selected and edited by Nitza Ben-Dov)
  • Temunot me-haye ha-kefar, 2009
    - Scenes From Village Life (transl. by Nicholas de Lange, 2011)
  • Jews and Words, 2012 (by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger) 
  • Ben ḥaverim, 2012
    - Between Friends (translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston, 2013)
  • ha-Beśorah ʻal pi Yehudah, 2014
    - Judas (translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange, 2017)
  • Shalom la-ḳanaʼim: shalosh maḥshavot = Dear Zealot: Three Pleas, 2017
  • Mi-Mah Asui ha-Tapuah?, 2018 (What Is in an Apple; conversations with Shira Hadad)

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