Susan Sontag once defined herself as ‘a writer, reader, and a dreamer’ who dwelt upon ‘how things could be better, deeper, more intense, more wonderful.’ A better summation of a life could not be found for Amos Oz, who died on 28 December at the age of 79 and without whom, as David Grossman told the Guardian, the world has diminished and narrowed down.
Oz wrote in precarious times. Early stories like Where the Jackals Howl and Elsewhere, Perhaps saw the kibbutz’s fragility, while My Michael and The Hill of Evil Counsel conjured Jerusalem, the city of Oz’s birth, as few others have.
His finest novels – Black Box and especially Fima and Don’t Call It Night – encompassed the whole of Israel while keeping human relationships at the centre of restless and uncertain narratives. Oz’s 2002 masterpiece A Tale of Love and Darkness, one family’s tumult wrapped in historical saga, unlocks the rest of his novels.
Later stories returned to places and pathways he had walked before in his novels and dreams: Jerusalem and the kibbutz. Between Friends, interwoven stories set on a kibbutz in the 1950s, is perhaps my favourite of his novels. With time his prose became more succinct and economical, saying more with less. He did not suffer the fate of so many other novelists: the loss of literary gift before the loss of life.
Oz served in wars of life and death and remained a committed public intellectual. His essays, especially 1967’s The meaning of homeland, stood for a form of socialist Zionism, centred on the redemption of people and not land that was muscular yet humanistic, forward-facing but rooted, both visionary and realistic. His metaphors for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have become part of popular discourse, most famously, that a divorcing couple who nonetheless must find a way to cohabit the same house.
I feel fortunate not only to have read Amos Oz but met him too. His daughter, the historian Fania Oz-Salzberger, first suggested the idea.
I was trepid, for one should never meet one’s heroes – a fool’s caution, as it turned out.
On a January afternoon in 2016 with the sun setting beyond the Mediterranean’s edge, Oz and I sat in his study discussing his life and work for almost two hours.
Oz was warm and generous, more than happy to indulge my curiosity but at the same time, as any teacher should, willing to correct when necessary – for example, when I used the word ‘fiction’, which he hated. This conversation was one of the great pleasures of my writing life. We met a final time a year later at an event in Tel Aviv for a book of conversations, What Is in an Apple? Awaiting the English translation, I’m life with a deathly silence.
As we go through life trying on writers like outfits, Oz was the one that fit. I often thought that no one could have derived greater pleasure from a new Amos Oz novel than I did. Writer, reader, dreamer, Oz’s prose did indeed make life better and deeper, more intense and wonderful.
Now the world seems denuded – deprived not only of his perceptiveness and moral clarity but the opportunity to hear it pronounced.
Yet the end is not quite the end. Amos Oz witnessed the birth of Israel, fought twice to defend it, loved it even when he didn’t like it, and shaped its rich and ever-evolving language.
And from my desk I can see a half metre of paperback books bearing his name that will be a source of truth, beauty and wisdom forever.
- The full version of this article is available in Bicom’s Fathom Journal – fathomjournal.org