Interviews

Amos Oz, The Art of Fiction No. 148

Interviewed by Shusha Guppy

Amos Oz lives in Arad, a small new town of twenty-two thousand inhabitants, built in 1961 in the Negev Desert. To reach him, I took the bus from Jerusalem to Beersheba, then another to Arad. At the bus station everyone knew his house, and a man directed me to it: uphill along a wide tree-lined road flanked with medium-sized apartment buildings in white sandstone, to the top, where rows of family houses back onto the desert in lateral streets. Roses and huge feathery chrysanthemums grow in his front garden, shaded by a peppertree.

Inside, the house is simply furnished and welcoming. Stairs lead from the sitting room to Oz’s study below: a tidy, womblike room, entirely lined with books, like wallpaper. One long shelf contains dozens of Oz’s own books, in various editions and translations. A comfortable sofa and armchair in gray velveteen, a coffee table, a large desk, and a lectern in one corner complete the furniture. Patio windows open onto a small beautiful garden, like a bower, with rosebushes and shrubs, overhung with plumbagos. Beyond is the desert. “I’m proud of my garden,” he said. “I created it. There is no topsoil here, so it had to be brought specially.”

Amos Oz speaks perfect English, with a slight accent. The clipped, well-rounded sentences, clearly enunciated, indicate the punctuation, as if he were writing. He was born Amos Klausner in 1939 to a family of scholars who had emigrated from Russia in the early 1920s and later settled in Jerusalem. At fifteen he left home for Kibbutz Hulda, where he lived until a few years ago, when his younger son’s asthma made the move to Arad necessary—the clean desert air alleviates his condition. Oz studied philosophy and literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and later fought as a reserve soldier in the 1967 Six-Day War in Sinai and on the Golan Heights in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Apart from a dozen novels and some collections of short stories, he has published three books of essays, mostly concerned with the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is one of the earliest activists of the Peace Now movement, advocating a compromise between the two communities based on mutual acceptance and cooperation, and the sharing of land.

When he began to publish his work he took the name Oz, meaning strength. He met his wife Nily at the kibbutz, when they were both fifteen. They have two daughters who have grown up and married, and a teenage son—“the child of our old age”—who lives with them. Nily runs the International Artists’ Colony in Arad, where artists from all over the world live and work for a period of eight months.

Amos Oz is a professor of Hebrew literature at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Beersheba, and has been visiting professor at universities in Britain and the United States. He is much in demand for lectures and conferences, last year traveling to several European countries—France, Poland, Belgium, Germany, and Italy, among others.

"He looks like Mel Gibson,” his London publisher suggested. Oz has turquoise-blue eyes, short blondish hair, and a gentle smile. His courtesy and courtly manners, his acute intelligence and knowledge, made the afternoon I spent with him a delight. It took place in December 1994. 

 

INTERVIEWER

Your traveling schedule is formidable. Yet you produce books at regular intervals. How do you divide your time? First during the year, and then daily?

AMOS OZ

The first rule is never to travel when I’m pregnant with a book. I tend not to travel abroad when I’m writing, and even within this country I limit myself to three or four times a year. It doesn’t always work out, but that is my pattern. As for my day, I start at six a.m. with a forty-minute walk in the desert, summer and winter.

INTERVIEWER

Does it ever snow in the desert?

OZ

Oh yes, every two or three years. And then you should see the expression on the faces of the camels crossing the desert! That is when I understand the real meaning of the word bewilderment! But even without snow, it is bitterly cold in winter, a savage place at dawn, when stormy winds seem determined to sweep away the whole town into the desert. But walking alone knocks things into proportion. If later on I read in the morning papers that some politician has said this or that will never happen, I know that this or that is going to last forever, that the stones out there are laughing, that in this desert, which is unchanged for thousands of years, a politician’s never is like . . . a month? Six months? Thirty years? Completely insignificant.

I then have my coffee and come down to this room, sit at my desk, and wait. Without reading, listening to music, or answering the phone. Then I write, sometimes a sentence, sometimes a paragraph—in a good day, half a page. But I am here at least seven or eight hours every day. I used to feel guilty about an unproductive morning, especially when I lived on the kibbutz, and everyone else was working—plowing fields, milking cows, planting trees. Now I think of my work as that of a shopkeeper: it is my job to open up in the morning, sit, and wait for customers. If I get some, it is a blessed morning, if not, well, I’m still doing my job. So the guilt has gone, and I try to stick to my shopkeeper’s routine. Chores like answering letters, faxes, and telephone calls are squeezed in an hour before lunch or dinner.

Perhaps poets and short-story writers can work with a different pattern. But writing novels is a very disciplined business. Writing a poem is like having an affair, a one-night stand; a short story is a romance, a relationship; a novel is a marriage—one has to be cunning, devise compromises, and make sacrifices.

INTERVIEWER

What about the evenings? Arad doesn’t seem crackling with exciting nightlife. It seems fast asleep even on this sunny afternoon.

OZ

Don’t you believe it! It is an exciting little place: three restaurants and three banks, a brand-new shopping mall, a barbershop, and a bookstore. We have had an influx of overqualified Russian Jews in recent years. We say that if a Russian arrives who is not carrying a violin, it’s only because he or she is a pianist. So we have good concerts.

Sometimes I come down here after dinner and read what I have written during the day. I demolish mercilessly, to start again the next morning. Sometimes I go out and sit myself at the local parliament: a couple of benches at the café where people argue about the meaning of life, the significance of history, or the real intention of God, and that’s my favorite pastime.

INTERVIEWER

When do you fit in your journalism?

OZ

I write articles not because I’m asked to, but because I’m filled with rage. I feel I have to tell my government what to do and, sometimes, where to go. Not that they listen. Then I drop everything and write an essay, which is always published here first, then picked up by The New York Times, or England’s Guardian or another publication. You see, I’m not a political analyst or commentator. I write from a sense of injustice and my revolt against it. But I can write an article only when I agree with myself one hundred percent, which is not my normal condition—normally I’m in partial disagreement with myself and can identify with three or five different views and different feelings about the same issue. That is when I write a story, where different characters can express different views on the same subject. I have never written a story or a novel to make people change their minds about anything—not once. When I need to do this, I write an essay, or an article. I even use two different pens, as a symbolic gesture: one to tell stories, the other to tell the government what to do with itself. Both, by the way, are very ordinary ballpoint pens, which I change every three weeks or so.

Unlike stories, articles are written in one burst, over six or seven hours. It is like having a quarrel with my wife—we scream and shout and later make up. We live in a Fellini movie, not an Ingmar Bergman one: anything is better than silence and sulking and making each other feel guilty. I act upon the same principle in politics.

INTERVIEWER

How do you write? Standing at that lectern, like Hemingway, or sitting down? Do you write in longhand or with a word processor?

OZ

I write in longhand. That machine on my desk [a word processor] is for typing out, not composing. For years I had my portable typewriter on which I typed the final draft, so that others could read it. Now I do the same on the word processor. I don’t even edit on it, but rewrite and rewrite in longhand. After many drafts I finally type it out. The word processor is, for me, nothing but a typewriter, only you don’t have to use Typex to erase or correct a mistake.

I walk round the room, then stand by the lectern and put down a sentence, and walk round again. I sway between the desk and the lectern.

INTERVIEWER

You have chosen to write in Hebrew, which is important for two reasons. The first is that it is the official language and therefore bound with the national identity . . .

OZ

Oh no, I have never chosen Hebrew. I was born into it. It is my native tongue. I dream and laugh and curse in Hebrew. And I have said many times that I’m a chauvinist only in respect of the language, and that even if I had to part with this country, I would never part with the language. I feel for the language everything that perhaps I don’t always feel for the country.

INTERVIEWER

The second reason is that Hebrew is a sacred language, a language of revelation, a language in which God has spoken, like Arabic and Sanskrit. It is both a challenge and a responsibility to use it. Yet modern Hebrew is said to be only a hundred years old, and has been invented by poets like Bialik and other early writers. Could you not have written in English?

OZ

No, I could not. Hebrew is the language in which I think, count, laugh, and make love. It is part of my being. But you are right, as a spoken language it was as dead as ancient Greek or Latin. It had an old literature, and a medieval literature, but no everyday currency. It was used for religious rituals and scholarly exchanges among Jews of various countries. It also had some high-flown poetry written in the Middle Ages by Jews in Muslim Spain who loved Hebrew but didn’t speak it in everyday life.

So Hebrew was revived here a hundred years ago, but not as a result of an ideological decision, which cannot be done—no argument or decision could make the Canadians suddenly start speaking Korean or Japanese. The reason why Hebrew was revived here is because it was the only language the Jews coming from all over the world had in common. The Oriental Jews spoke Arabic, Persian, Turkish, or Ladino (a Spanish dialect), while the European Jews spoke Yiddish, Russian, Polish. The only language in which they could communicate—to ask directions in the street, to rent a flat or a shop—was the prayer book Hebrew.

But for me the revival of Hebrew occurred when the first boy said to the first girl “I love you” in Hebrew. Or was it the girl who said it to the boy? This had not happened for seventeen centuries. I hope that boy and girl had their way with each other and lived happily ever after—they deserved to, for having revived the language. Yet it couldn’t have happened if there had not already existed a significant body of literature in Hebrew, a literature that contained, surprisingly, several modern sensibilities. People like Bialik, Brenner, Berdichevsky, Mendele—names that mean nothing to you or your readers—but I’m standing on their shoulders.

On the other hand, Hebrew is like a volcano, like Elizabethan English. I’m not implying that our poets are all Shakespeare, rather that the language is erupting like a volcano; it is happening all the time. So writing in Hebrew is a wonderful challenge.

You said it is the language of revelation. You are right. Think of playing a piece of chamber music inside a cathedral—you have to be very careful with the acoustics, otherwise you may produce a lot of echoes you don’t want. You have to use words that have prophetic and mystical connotations to describe a little pocket-money disagreement between parents and children. You don’t want to bring in Isaiah and Psalms and Mount Sinai. So you are always tiptoeing on a minefield. If sometimes you want to produce an explosion, then it is easily done—by introducing a weighty word in the middle of a prosaic sentence. I have a feeling that I work with a wonderful musical instrument.

INTERVIEWER

The creation of an academy at the inception of the State of Israel must have helped bring the language up to date, making it adequate for expressing what you call “modern sensibilities.” Do you think it was important? Or would the language have evolved anyway?

OZ

It was important to establish Hebrew. There was first a committee, which later became the Academy of Hebrew Language, of which I’m a proud member. It deals with the need to create modern terminology, but cannot, of course, control the language, which as I said is like a gushing crater, with an organic life of its own.

INTERVIEWER

There are other famous modern Hebrew writers: the Nobel Prize winner S. Y. Agnon, A. B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, among others. It seems that writers are taken very seriously in this country. In the West commercial considerations play an important role. As a result, Shelley’s claim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” seems to apply here more than with us. Is that the case?

OZ

We have a somewhat different tradition. In the West, at least in English-speaking countries, writers, even great writers and poets, are usually regarded primarily as entertainers. They can be fine, subtle, deep, but still they are entertainers. Even Shakespeare is regarded as a magnificent, perhaps the greatest, entertainer. By contrast, in the Judeo-Slavic tradition, writers are regarded as prophets. This can be a terrible burden, for unlike the prophets I don’t hear voices from above, and I don’t think I’m any more equipped to be a prophet—to foresee the future or serve as the people’s conscience—than an American or a British writer. Yet there is a huge expectation here, and so it is also in Russia or Poland.

Perhaps we can start to examine the word fiction, which does not exist in Hebrew. The academy has invented bidayon to translate the English word, but in bookstores you won’t find my works or any other novelist’s under that title. You will find them under the title siporet, which means narrative prose. That is a bit more decent, because fiction has a ring of lying about it, the opposite of truth. In my view this is nonsense: why should James Joyce, who took the trouble of literally measuring how many steps there were between the bar and the mailbox on the street corner, or Tolstoy, who studied the minutest details of the Battle of Borodino, be regarded as fiction writers, while the most banal journalist using such clichés as “the boiling cauldron of the Middle East” be regarded as a nonfiction writer? The novelist has no political aim but is concerned with truth, not facts. As I say in one of my essays, sometimes the worst enemy of truth is fact. I’m a writer of narrative prose, siporet, but I’m not a prophet or a guide, nor am I an inventor of “fiction.”

INTERVIEWER

Yet your work is very much rooted in the realities of Israel today, and you do tell the people and the government what is right and what is wrong . . .

OZ

Because our lives are soaked with history. History is not something on the TV screens, or overseas, or in the Congress or the House of Commons, it is everywhere, and it penetrates the most intimate tissues of life. To give an example: during the recent Gulf War, we were issued gas masks against chemical bombs. My son who is asthmatic and can hardly breathe had to wear one. We were sitting, shut tight in a sealed bedroom, wearing these ghastly masks, looking like monsters, our most private intimacy invaded by a threat from two thousand miles away. So you see, we can’t get away from the realities. People use moments in the country’s history to measure time: I got married just before the Six Day War, they say. Or, My daughter was born the day Sadat came to Israel.

INTERVIEWER

What language did you speak at home? Did your parents speak Russian or just Hebrew?

OZ

My father was from Odessa originally and had emigrated to Vilnius, Lithuania, which at that time was part of Poland; my mother was from Ukraine. Their languages were Russian or Polish. They met in Jerusalem, as students at the Hebrew University. My father knew sixteen languages and spoke ten of them, and my mother knew seven or eight languages too. They spoke Russian when they didn’t want me to understand, otherwise they insisted on using only Hebrew. They feared that if I learned any European language I might be tempted to go back to Europe, which they regarded as deadly for Jews. They themselves had a love-hate relationship with it, as after an unrequited love: they loved Europe, but Europe kicked them out. They left in the nick of time, otherwise I would not be sitting here talking to you.

INTERVIEWER

Your parents came from that area that used to change hands between Poland and Russia, and where anti-Semitism was more virulent than perhaps elsewhere in Europe. But isn’t anti-Semitism part of the fabric of European civilization?

OZ

I have said that the image of the Jew is a segment of the European-Christian imagination, in every sense. There is the wonderful, adorable Jew who is almost superhuman, who suffers so much and excels. Then there is the terrible, diabolical Jew who destroys everything in devious ways. The common denominator between these two types of Jew—the good and the bad—is that neither is regarded as individual, both are forever representatives of their race.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that the creation of Israel has got rid of that image? I notice here that people, especially young Israelis, are not at all like European Jews, self-conscious about being apart, but just people, like anyone else in the world.

OZ

I don’t know. It was certainly one of its purposes. It is time to dissociate the relationship between the Jews and the Christian Europe and create a different, more balanced relationship. A neighborly relationship, a come-and-have-a-cup-of-coffee relationship, not an everlasting host-guest relationship, which is bad for both the guest and the host. Even when the guest has become a prominent member of the family, marrying the son or the daughter of the host. Even when the Jew has become more fluent in the language, traditions and culture of the country than the “natives.”

INTERVIEWER

Your work is very much rooted in Israel, from the first stories and the novel Elsewhere, Perhaps, which depicted the life of the kibbutz, to Fima, the latest to appear in English. They arouse controversy for that reason. In a sense the chief protagonist in your books is the land of Israel. Your position is that a homeland cannot be denied to the Palestinians any more than it could be denied to Jews. So what is the solution?

OZ

The Arab world still spends twenty to twenty-five billion dollars on armaments per year. Why? The point is that the Palestinians are here, and that they won’t go away. And the Israelis are here, and they won’t go away either. So they are two peoples claiming the same piece of land, the same house. They cannot share it, so they have to divide it. I think it is urgent for the Palestinians in the occupied territories to conduct free, internationally supervised elections, and whoever is elected should represent them and run their government. It will be the first time they will have a legitimate representative government.

INTERVIEWER

What if the free elections bring in the extremists?

OZ

Even Hamas might become part of the democratic political machinery and behave responsibly, or we might be back to square one, and have a clear knowledge that there is no chance of conducting business with them. If that should happen, we will have to proceed with a unilateral partition, saying, You don’t want to negotiate with us? Very well, we divide: you take this bedroom, we take the other, you take this bathroom and we take the other. It is like dividing a flat, turning it into a semidetached house.

INTERVIEWER

In the meantime, there is the question of human rights: the left accuses you of not taking a strong stand on this and condemn the treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli occupied forces.

OZ

It is a question of diagnosis. The conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis is not a civil rights issue, but an international dispute. We have not conquered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in order to deprive the Palestinians of their human rights (they never had many of those), nor in order to give them their human rights. We conquered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip because Israel was attacked in 1967, and threatened with extinction. Once our security is safeguarded, we ought to go away from the Palestinian areas and let them be. Palestinian human rights is a Palestinian problem.

INTERVIEWER

But the treatment of Palestinians by the Israelis during the intifada is what Israel’s human rights people have in mind.

OZ

It is an illusion to think that there can be a rosy military occupation. It is like a friendly rape—a contradiction in terms. I have invested every ounce of my energy in finding ways to terminate the occupation, not to improve it, because I don’t think that if only the occupation were nicer it would resolve anything. We don’t need to improve the way we rule over them; we need to stop ruling over them. So in some ways my attitude has been more radical than that of the human rights people. They have regarded the issue as a clash between two communities, or two social classes, while I have always considered it an international dispute between two different nations. Therefore I have not wasted any time trying to introduce certain American left-wing concepts such as regarding the Palestinians as our black Americans, or proposing that all we need is a system of yellow buses and integration. I don’t waste time on these irrelevancies.

INTERVIEWER

You mean people like Chomsky and other left-wing campus intellectuals?

OZ

Chomsky has always been dogmatic on the Middle East conflict. A few years ago in Germany I met some left-wing intellectuals who were enthusiastically pro-Saddam Hussein. I wondered why? They said because he represented a poor third world nation standing up to American domination. I explained to them that Saddam represented a country far richer than Sweden. How come? they asked. I said that in terms of income-per-capita, Iraq is richer than Sweden. They said, But we see Iraqis living in hovels, in abject poverty. I said that if Sweden decided to have the third biggest army in the world, the Swedes too would be living in hovels. I told them that in truth they loved Saddam because he is a friend of Qaddafi, who is a friend of Fidel Castro, who was once married to Che Guevara, and Che was Jesus Christ, and Jesus is love, therefore we have to love Saddam.

INTERVIEWER

Nevertheless, the idea is that if reasonable people of both sides sat together, they could find a solution. Have you met Hanane Achraoui, for example? She seems a very intelligent and reasonable person.

OZ

I have met hundreds of Palestinians, not necessarily in the happy sense of unison of hearts, but on a pragmatic basis. It is another misconception of the West: they assume that the Israelis and the Palestinians need to get to know each other better. I get invitations from well-meaning institutions in America to go and spend a wonderful weekend with a number of Palestinians in order that we may get to know and like each other, and whissht, the conflict will go away! Like group therapy or marriage counseling. As if the Arab-Israeli conflict were just a misunderstanding. I have news for them: there is no misunderstanding between the Israelis and the Palestinians. We both want the same piece of land because we both regard it as ours. This provides for a perfect understanding, and for a bitter conflict. As I said, it is justice against justice—a perfect tragedy.

It must be resolved through a painful compromise, and not through having coffee together. Rivers of coffee drunk together cannot extinguish the tragedy of two peoples regarding the same little country as their own and only homeland. We need to divide it. We need to work out a mutually acceptable compromise.

INTERVIEWER

What did you read as a child and as an adolescent?

OZ

Some of those Hebrew writers of a hundred years ago I mentioned earlier were also compulsive translators, and had translated the great nineteenth-century Russians who were a source of inspiration to many of them, and also German, French, English, and Scandinavian authors. I read like a maniac all of them—there was nothing else to do.

INTERVIEWER

Who were the authors that left a lasting impression or triggered off your own vocation?

OZ

When I was nine or ten, I read Zionist books about the glories of the ancient kingdoms of Israel. I decided to become a terrorist against the British Mandate; I built an intercontinental rocket with the wreck of a refrigerator and the relic of a motorcycle. My plan was to aim this rocket at Buckingham Palace, then send a letter to the King of England saying, Either you get out of my country or off you go! I was an intifada child against the British—I threw stones at British soldiers and shouted, Go home. So my early reading was nationalistic, in the spirit of third world freedom-fighting: books about the Italian Risorgimento, like De Amicis’s Heart, about little children who save their country by some heroic deed or self-sacrifice. Later I discovered the Russians, in particular Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and above all, Chekhov. I felt Chekhov must have come from our neighborhood in Jerusalem, no one had ever captured those little paralyzed work reformers who use big words as he did.

INTERVIEWER

What about the American writers? Your work has often been likened to Faulkner’s, in that he was rooted in the American South, in his own area, Yoknapatawpha County, yet has a universal appeal.

OZ

There are three American writers who have become very important to me: Melville, Sherwood Anderson, and Faulkner, in that order. I admire other American writers, but those three are the ones I would single out in American literature.

INTERVIEWER

When did you decide to become a writer? After you had bombed Buckingham Palace?

OZ

There was no contradiction between the two activities: I could be a terrorist and write. My father was writing fiery illicit pamphlets against the perfidious Albion, calling the British every name in the book, quoting Shelley and Keats and Byron to prove how hypocritical and unjust they were. At the same time he was a great Anglophile, as the following anecdote illustrates. In 1947 there was a curfew and a house-to-house search. My father was asked by the Jewish underground to hide a couple of Molotov cocktails in our home; it was risky, as there was a death penalty for terrorist activities. Our apartment was tiny and choking with thousands of books, and my father hid the explosives behind some books on a shelf, and told us about it so that we didn’t set them off by mistake. The British arrived—I still have a vivid memory of the incident—they wore khaki shorts down to their knees and khaki socks up to their knees and in between their knees were exposed, white as snow on the Alps. The officer was extremely polite and, apologizing profusely for the inconvenience, began the search with a couple of soldiers. We were terrified. They evidently thought my father was too bookish to be a terrorist and searched perfunctorily. As they turned to go, the officer made some polite remark about the books and asked if there were any interesting English ones. That set my father off: How do you mean, sir? Of course we have English books! he said, and began to pull out one English classic after another. My mother and I were petrified, lest having forgotten about the explosives, he might suddenly expose them or cause an explosion, while he was showing off. The reason we survived was that he had hidden the explosives behind Russian books—with the anarchists and terrorists of nineteenth-century Russia—Bakunin, Nechaev, Kropotkin, Dostoyevsky.

INTERVIEWER

Your mother died when you were thirteen, and you left home for the kibbutz at fifteen. Why?

OZ

I rebelled against my father and the bookish atmosphere of the house. I wanted a different life. I thought I would carry out the revolution my father talked about but didn’t do anything to create. I didn’t give a fig about school or university—I wanted to be a tractor driver, like the ones in Soviet movies, working all day and drinking and making wild love to kibbutz girls all night. It happened, to some extent, but what did not happen was getting away from books.

INTERVIEWER

When did you start writing?

OZ

I had always written, ever since I had learned the alphabet at the age of five. I invented little stories. I wrote at school, and when I was a tractor driver in the kibbutz and when I was in the army. The turning point came when I became conscious that I was born to write, and decided to be a writer. A couple of poems and short stories I had written while working in cotton fields were published and well-received. So I applied for a one-day-per-week dispensation from farmwork to write. Now everyone could have claimed he or she was an artist and asked for release from manual work. A committee had to decide who was a genuine artist and who was not. They said if we grant a day off to Oz, how can we refuse it to the next applicant? There was an old man—the age I’m now—who said, Maybe this young man has talent, maybe he is a future Tolstoy, but he is much too young. Let him work in the fields until he is forty, then he’ll have something to write about. Luckily he was overruled, and I was told that I could have one day a week, provided I worked doubly hard on other days, which I did. But I was focused—I thought about what I was writing all the while I was working in the fields. On writing days I wrote twelve, even fifteen hours a day.

INTERVIEWER

The result was your first collection of short stories, Where the Jackals Howl. Did you decide to write short stories, before tackling a novel, as a kind of training, the way an athlete does?

OZ

I needed quick satisfaction. I was very young and didn’t have the patience and wisdom to play long games. I decided to write short stories, because it is a craft that gets you there in a short time. I could work on a story in my head, then sit down and write it in one day. Incidentally, I can no longer do this. I have a different pace.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think you will go back to the genre?

OZ

I might. I do from time to time even now, but not in the same way—under the rhythm of teenage sexuality, with a tremendous drive and an unquenchable thirst for immediate satisfaction. Now I write a first draft, rewrite it, come back to it and work on a particular point, change this or that section and chisel away all the superfluous stuff.

INTERVIEWER

After that first book you went to university. Why? And why did you choose philosophy?

OZ

The kibbutz sent me to university because they needed teachers. My father said you never see an advertisement in a newspaper saying, Wanted: a philosopher! So I thought I might as well study something that nobody wanted. But I was lucky: I caught the tail end of the generation of great philosophers teaching at Jerusalem University. The spirit of Martin Buber was still there, as were Gershom Scholem and Bergman and others. Jerusalem was then a bastion of central European thought, from Germany and Prague. But I was reading philosophy while coping with generalizations, because I was a storyteller. When in a discussion about ethics the professor said, by way of illustration, The first time Ruth met David, my mind wandered off, and I began to imagine a story around their meeting. But I managed to get fair grades and finish my degree.

INTERVIEWER

What was the curriculum? What did you read?

OZ

Plato, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas . . . but I specialized in Spinoza.

INTERVIEWER

Spinoza is perhaps the greatest political thinker. Was it politics that attracted you to him?

OZ

Not especially. He created these ice palaces of pure logic, which were the crystallization of emotions that at that time fascinated me. It was like music; he was closer to classical music than any other philosopher. He turned me on, like Bach.

INTERVIEWER

In A Perfect Peace, you say that Spinoza is not against hope, that on the contrary he “specifically stresses the idea of human freedom.” That we are free to accept the “laws underlying the inevitable.” This is an interesting existential position, and you once had a long conversation with Ben-Gurion, who also was inspired by Spinoza. Can you elaborate on that?

OZ

What I meant was that there is a perfect balance in Spinoza between observation and action, in that observation does not lead to passivity and fatalism—you don’t have to discard your intellect in order to take action. Most philosophers believe that you have to give up something for the sake of something else: either reason or emotion, either this or that . . .

I was a young soldier and read something Ben-Gurion had written about Spinoza, and I wrote him a letter in which I strongly objected to his interpretation of the philosopher. To my surprise his secretary rang and summoned me to his office the next day at dawn. Imagine being summoned by the queen, or the president of the United States. Ben-Gurion had tremendous prestige and charisma, though a tiny man with a huge head. He paced up and down and tore my arguments to pieces, sharp as a razor.

INTERVIEWER

Spinoza acknowledged the divinity of Christ, and was excommunicated by the Jewish religious establishment, the sin of apostasy being one of the most heinous in Judaism. I don’t think that his conversion to Christianity was tactical—he really believed in it. What do you think of that? Have you been tempted by Christianity?

OZ

Spinoza never converted to Christianity. He was excommunicated by the Jewish religious leaders of Amsterdam, but never became a Christian. As for me, I am fascinated by Jesus, one of the greatest Jews of all times, but I have never been tempted by Christianity. Jesus himself, who had never crossed himself, never in his life seen nor could see the inside of a church, might or might not, if he lived longer, have had a taste for this or that Christian church. Or he might have kept his distance.

INTERVIEWER

Going back to your own writing. Often the most solidly rooted works of art are the most universal. The great Russians are an example: Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Chekhov, couldn’t be anything but Russian, yet we all recognize ourselves in their characters and predicaments. But in your novels, one gets the impression that the real protagonist is Israel—the land, the people, the history. One favorite in the West is My Michael, which is the story of the relationship between Hannah, an Israeli woman, and two Arab men in the aftermath of the Suez crisis. It is read as an expression of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Do you consciously set out to incarnate an idea?

OZ

You know, if you write in a troubled part of the world, everything is interpreted allegorically. If I wrote a story about a mother, a father and their daughter, a critic would say that the father represents the government, the mother, the old values, and the daughter the shattered economy! If Moby-Dick was written in South America today under the name of Vargas Llosa, people would say it is about dictatorship. If it were written in South Africa by Nadine Gordimer, it would be interpreted as the conflict between the blacks and the whites. In Russia the whale would be Stalin, in the Middle East the novel would be about Israelis chasing Palestinians or vice versa. So that is the price you pay for writing in a trouble spot. But I always start with a group of characters. Then they tell their story. I never wrote a political allegory, or a novel of ideas.

INTERVIEWER

Nonetheless you have said that the Arab-Israeli conflict is a tragedy because both are right in their claims to the land—“it is justice against justice.”

OZ

Oh, yes, in an essay. But my novels are not about justice. I’ll tell you a Hasidic story from the Middle Ages, about a rabbi who in his capacity as a judge has to pass a verdict between two claims for the same goat. He listens carefully to both claimants, then he decrees that they are both right. His wife says, Dear Husband, it is impossible, you can’t divide a goat; either it belongs to X or to Y, they can’t both be right. The rabbi scratches his head and says, You know, dear Wife, you too are right!

I am that rabbi. If I had to tell you in one word what my work is about, I would say family. I find the family the most mysterious institution, and the most unlikely, paradoxical, contradictory. We have been hearing prophesies about the death of the family for centuries. And look how it has survived religions and ideologies and regimes and historical changes. Father, mother, brothers, and sisters, and what goes on among them. This idea makes me realize that many conflicts in the world can be conceived in family terms: a perpetual rotation of love and hatred, jealousy and solidarity, happiness and misery. This rotation is in almost every one of my novels. It is a family in which everybody is in conflict with everybody else and everybody is right, just as in the story of the rabbi and the goat. The son is right because the father is tyrannical, the father is right because the son is lazy and disrespectful, the mother is right because son and father are exactly alike and deserve each other, and the daughter is right who can’t stand the atmosphere and has left the house. Yet they all love each other. So I sometimes see the international conflicts through the perspective of the family.

INTERVIEWER

Tolstoy says all happy families are alike, the unhappy ones are unhappy in different ways . . .

OZ

With due respect to Tolstoy, I think it is the opposite. There are half a dozen clichés of unhappy families, but each happy family—and these are really rare—is unique. I’m fascinated by happy families.

INTERVIEWER

There is a noticeable change in your last few novels, both in form and content. For example the penultimate one to appear in England, Black Box, is epistolary. Why did you suddenly decide on this form?

OZ

By accident. I meant to begin the novel with a letter from a woman to her ex-husband, whom she had divorced seven years previously. They have a son whom the husband has renounced completely, and the ex-wife wants to arrange a meeting between them. So I thought I would start with her letter. But then the husband answered back, a correspondence started between them, and gradually other characters wrote letters, and it went on, beyond my control, until the end. It is a mistake to think that the novelist is God Almighty and can do anything he wants. At some point the characters take over. The novelist can put his foot down and say, I refuse to take that direction, but he cannot tell his characters who to be and how to unravel their stories. Black Box evolved into an epistolary novel because the characters wanted it that way. I have to add that it is a dreadfully difficult form, especially now that people just pick up the phone and never bother to write, so that the form has little credibility. In this case as the characters didn’t talk to each other, writing letters was the answer. I mean who writes letters now? A husband and wife who have had a row, and don’t speak, they leave little notes on the refrigerator or the sideboard; children who have gone away but write to their parents, whom they can’t stand, to ask for money. So letters become a medium of intimacy and detachment at the same time. It is also a good way of putting thoughts across without being interrupted in midsentence, which is what happens in family arguments. As I said I always start with a bunch of characters.

INTERVIEWER

Another new aspect of your latest novels is the erotic element. Is it because you yourself have reached the midlife point, when one begins to ask questions about basic aspects of life?

OZ

The erotic has always been present in my work. There are not many explicitly sexual scenes, but there is an erotic electricity. I don’t think it is something that suddenly surfaces in my recent books.

INTERVIEWER

How long does it take for your novels to appear in the West after publication in Israel?

OZ

Usually it takes two years for a book to be translated, depending on how quickly Nicholas de Lange, my translator, works, and on how long the production takes. The new one will be called “Don’t Call it Night.” It is about middle-age love, and about childlessness. It takes place in a small desert town not unlike Arad. Two middle-age people have been living together for many years but have no children . . . But I’m not giving you the whole plot!

INTERVIEWER

What about the novel you are writing now?

OZ

I never talk about it—one mustn’t expose pregnancy to X rays, it can damage the baby.

INTERVIEWER

You are still young and have a substantial body of work behind you. Do you ever think about death?

OZ

I’m fifty-seven, and in Israel that is no longer young. It means I’m older than my country. Of course I think of death. I wouldn’t have an intoxicated enjoyment of life if I didn’t think of death every day. I think of death, but even more I think of the dead. Thinking of the dead is preparing for one’s own death. Because those dead people exist only in my memory, my longing, my ability to reconstruct a bygone moment, almost a Proustian recapturing of precise gestures, which might have occurred fifty years ago. One day I spent hours quietly reconstructing a ten-minute episode of my childhood: a room with six people in it, and I am the only one still alive. Who was sitting where? Who was saying what? Then I thought, I’m keeping those people alive for as long as I can, in my heart, my head or my writing. If when I die someone will keep me alive in the same way, it will be a fair deal.

INTERVIEWER

After fifty, death can come any time . . . Readiness is all, as Hamlet said.

OZ

I’d rather it came fifty years from now. I love life and enjoy it tremendously, but part of that enjoyment is that my life is populated with the dead as well as the living. If death arrived tonight, it would find me angry and unwilling, but not unprepared.