Amos Oz
Translated by
Nicholas de Lange

Albert Danon lives in Bat Yam, just outside of Tel Aviv. He's an accountant, sixtyish. His wife Nadia has just died of cancer and son Rico David has gone off to Tibet to find himself.

Rico's sweetie, Dita Inbar, moves in with Albert. She's a looker, so much so that Albert has trouble with her going about in her tee-shirt and panties. She works the swing shift in a hotel and writes plays.

Dubi Dumbrov, a TV producer "who pants like a dog," gets hold of Dita, and her play, Nirit's Love. He'll produce it if she'll front him a little money (he's a scamster). He tells her he is in love with Nirit (the play, the heroine) so he extracts some money from her and from Albert --- much to the reader's disgust: "Don't give him a cent," we want to say.

Meanwhile, Giggy Ben-Gal does the beast with two backs with Dita, then wants to know how good it was "on a scale from nought to one hundred" --- which disgusts her (and us)(have you ever had to field that particular question?) Bettine Carmel, another accountant, also sixtyish, reads Chekov, spends some time with Albert, figures out that he is having trouble with his heart because of Dita and her tee-shirt and her wonderful aroma.

All the while, Rico is moving to Sri Lanka with Maria, a Portuguese hooker-with-heart. She reads coffee grounds; tells Rico they are out of coffee (and out of money). She disappears, he finds a ragged street-boy, and... and... and.... All the while the ghost of Rico's mother keeps hanging around, won't give him a break.

§     §     §

So there you are: the bare-bones plot. I feel rather dumb writing it up. My words cannot begin to capture Oz-magic. He's all you could want in a novelist: funny, heartbreaking, outrageous. He can sew together a plot that will knock your socks off. He knows hearts, old and young. He shares the good and the bad of love --- old love, new love --- and loves to tell. Most of all, he, or rather he and his translator, are dynamite with words.

I'm such a sucker. I find myself in love with all these Oz folk; in love with Dita and Rico and even shy old nervous Prufrockian tentative, willing to sew buttons on Dita's "orange skirt," all the while saying to her,

    You're no trouble at all. On the contrary: for some time now ---
    He stopped himself. Under the towel her hips made a whispering sound
    and he was blushing as though he had been caught red-handed.

In other words, he's lonely; loves her, and we love his fusty accountant's way of the world, in money, in life; always seeking "what balances, what doesn't."

O yes --- much of the book is in verse. It's the real thing, and some of it is gorgeous,

                          Two hundred yards
    from here, the sea is having a whispered conversation with the sea, not
    cracking jokes but trying on silver baubles, taking them off, putting them on, polishing them, replacing emerald with lead.

And this on the mother just before her death,

    Nadia is letting go of everything,
    like a pear from a branch: the pear is not picked but a ripened pear drops.
    Right now at four in the morning Nadia is the most alone she has ever been,
    not alone like a sick woman hearing a bird in a garden but alone like a bird
    with no garden no branch no wing.

§     §     §

There are almost two hundred aperçus --- some running six lines; some a page and a half. Most are in poetry; some blank verse. Like the newspaper scene in Ulysses, all have titles --- some of which are mere introductions; some of which mock the subject (or the narrator); some of which meld with the words in that particular "chapter:"

    In Bangladesh in the rain Rico understands for a moment
    With his back to his mother on the bridge in the warm rain
    between a small town and a swamp Rico hears wet voices
    in the distance. Women, foggy bears, are laughing in the flooded
    field and one of them waves to him, inviting him to join them

And the sketches --- some right out of Browning. This is Dubi Dumbrov ringing up Dita at 3 AM at her job (receptionist at a hotel). He tells her that if she could just come up with some money ("We could spread our wings and make one hell of a film"), then he touches on poor old Albert's lust --- everybody knows --- tells Dita to try to hit on him for ten thousand (or maybe three, or even one), then gets on the subject of his eczema-ridden body

    All my troubles come from this lump of flesh that's clung to me since I was a child and doesn't let me rise above it...It guzzles fuel like crazy and all it ever does is make me blush or squirm...I'll sell it to an organ bank or even donate it to a forensic lab or a transplant center, and then I'd go off to the beach as free as the air.

Then he starts in gossiping about Rico: "I really don't believe all this shit, that he's hanging out there with some Portuguese chick, his own private fado singer, some kind of sexy hot-gospeller..." In short, Dubi is so awful that you and I would want to kick him but he's so fascinatingly awful we can't help but be delighted when Oz brings him back for another turn.

§     §     §

Amos Oz --- did he make that name up too? --- is perfectly willing, being a late 20th Century Nabokovian, to play a medley of tricks on us. Like one aperçu, entitled Magnificat, a "Morning of orange-tinged joy" where

    The light of the hills to the east cannot keep its hands to itself, shamelessly
    groping at private parts, causing heavy breathing all around...

Such a fecund day, that the narrator leaves the desk, goes off to work

    in the garden, although it is not even six, the fictional Narrator, the whole cast of characters, the implied author, the early-rising writer, and I.

And who appears? The everyone in the book, along with extras --- Albert and Rico and Giggy Ben-Gal and Nadia (from the grave --- along with her previous husband), "my father" (whose?) and Dombrov. Bettina, and "my mother" (whose?) and Dita "stooping and tying sweet peas to canes..." Maria, the Portuguese whore pops up, as do the five Dutchmen who climbed the mountains of Tibet with Rico.

It's like when the play ends and they drop the curtain and all the characters ---- even the ones who have been stabbed or gone mad --- rise up and come out to accept their applause. A lesser writer could never bring it off. For Oz, it's just another fillip, just to show who's boss; all those characters, many or some or none ("the implied author, the early-rising writer, and I") who just might be, but maybe aren't, Oz himself. Nothing so simple, because we may have many characters in search of an author. If there is to be one at all.

§     §     §

A worthy novelist --- one who has to be worth our time --- must construct a universe enough like our own that we know where it can (and should) go, but, at the same time, must create one original enough and strange enough so he can take it (and them) where ever he wants to, even if it means murdering them, getting them robbed, letting them be miserably sad, letting them be so disgustingly brazen. This Oz pulls it off; knows the dance of the words --- so much so that I caught myself thinking of the writers that in my sixty years have swept me off my feet with their stories and their words and their word-tricks and their daring.

There's Barth and his Floating Opera and Bart-Schwarz's Just and the Unjust and Donleavy's Ginger Man, and Hemingway and Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson and even Sartre himself (in that pretend autobiography, his finest novel, The Word). There's Beckett's Mrs. Rooney, Carey's Gully Jimson, Nabokov's Humbert Humbert and Joyce's Leopold Bloom (and Molly). And now --- for those of us looking for such things --- there's Amos Oz.

Each of these writers had the word-art. It reached down to the soul of us. It made us wonder about gods they inveigled to steal the magic that they then put between covers, them and their myriad characters. They had the effect of making us abandon thoughts of doing the master novel because we knew that they had mined this field of words so that we thought, why bother?

§     §     §


I just sent this e-mail off to The London Review of Books.


I was in the middle of Amos Oz's magic circus, The Same Sea, when I came upon your 20 September 2001 issue containing a review of the same book by Yitzhak Laor of the Israeli magazine Ha'aretz.

Reading his words set me to wondering if the publisher had made some mistake. Perhaps they sent me and Laor two different manuscripts --- albeit with the same title: a belated April Fool's Literary Joke.

Laor finds very little to love in Oz. He spends much of his review on questions about the original language --- "high" and "low" Hebrew --- in which The Same Sea was originally composed, ignoring the exquisite translation by Nicholas de Lange. He frets about Oz's previous writings on the prostitution of that fine language --- and dwells on what he sees as the novelist's weakness in describing "a left-wing rally."

He then describes "a whole chapter" on the character Dita being irritated with the word "intercourse" --- even though "a whole chapter" turns out to be seventeen lines on page 8. Laor says, This kind of ambivalence --- or is it disingenuousness --- recurs throughout the novel. Well, one man's disingenuousness is another man's ecstasy. We could take Laor's criticism more seriously if he had actually bothered to read the book. Every quote he comes up with in his lengthy review --- there are some twenty or so --- appear in the first third of the book. Laor is, apparently, so disgusted with the author, so hung up with the language and the treatment of "virtue" and "vice," that he didn't even bother to work his way to the bitter end, as all good reviewers should.

He makes much of one of the characters saying "we should be happy with what we have" --- not seeing it for what is: a throwaway, one of those sighing lines that flow from the lips of professional martyrs, the kind we've known all our lives. It's the irony, stupid.

I urge your readers to ignore this sourpuss and give Oz a whirl. I guarantee them they will find more delight per square inch than in all the literary poetasters who bedevil the pages of the New York Times, PW, Library Journal, Kirkus or, god knows, Ha'aretz.

--- Ignacio Schwartz

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