Rhyming Life & Death
Nicholas de Lange
(Mariner)We've praised other Amos Oz novels, our favorite being The Same Sea. But this newest is quite different.
The earlier novel (published as an extended poem) was a hilarious blend of family travail and love and miscreant youth coupled with letters from a nagging long-suffering Jewish father. Rhyming Life & Death has some poetry --- by yet another, older writer --- and virtually no guilt. It's mostly eight hours in the night of a writer called "Author."
We see Author before and after a "literary evening" at the Shunia Shor Community Center in Tel Aviv. Thus Oz the author presents us with a novel in which the main character is an author named Author --- both of whom, or perhaps none of whom --- may be Amos Oz.
Our hero (or anti-hero) gives a presentation, and, then, afterwards, there is a seduction of a young lady ... sweet Rochele Reznik, the shy reader at his modest literary event. Author's words are designed to confuse and entice her, and certainly are a scandal. Author, or perhaps Oz, should be ashamed of himself. "Your voice really sounds to me so much like the inner voice of the character as I heard it while I was writing." Oy, vey! Then: "Just let me take you to a special place that's less than five minutes from here?"
Once in her room, as his hand is moving here and there, we get a fog of words designed to confuse and seduce her. Author gives every indication of being an experienced if not amoral lecher.
Interspersed with these scandalous scenes are a lovely series of short aperçus ... brief pictures of the worlds of those who come to pay him honor, with an undercurrent of passion for the word and poetry and music and the arts in 1980s Israel.
There is a mournful reflection on a dying poet, Tsefania Beit-Halachmi. There is speculation by the narrator on what it means to presume to write about others. There is the question of being designated as "Author," he being a writer but also a man who wanders the streets of Tel Aviv, with its "Flickering lights in windows. A witless traffic light changing color aimlessly, amber, red, green. Barking of distant dogs and a faint smell of sewage."
Why write about all these things? They exist, and will go on existing whether you write about them or not, whether you are here or not. Surely these are the basic questions that figured at the beginning of this text: Why do you write? Why do you write the way you do? What contribution do your books make to society, to the State, to the enhancement of moral values? Whom do you hope to influence?
A few hours after the event, we find Author and Rochele in her narrow bed. Hers is a profound (and noisy) pleasure; his is an embarrassing dysfunction of the membrum vitale. He must escape, and does so, quickly, heartlessly.
There is a touch of Joyce here (sixteen expansive hours on the streets of Dublin vs. eight rather thin ones on the streets of Tel Aviv) along with those old, time-honored literary quibbles: Why are we here? We're all going to die, so what difference does it make? Who is the true artist, the shy school marm Rochele (he calls her Squirrel) or Author ... or maybe Yuval, the seventeen-year-old poet with the grainy glasses who only wants to kill himself, or, alternatively, wants Author to read through his poems so that they will both see their deep, futile kinship.
§ § §
Life & Death reminds me of the recent productions of Roth: short, functional, a little playful, a little bitter. Oz tells us often that he can do anything he wants with the reader ... even make them characters that he can seduce. He can also make them sick, he can make them lonely, reckless, funny, obtuse, soulful. He is the god of life and death. He runs the show, even makes it possible for there to be a character named Author, part of himself written into the mist of this "fiction" ... one who has the gall to ask himself if what he is doing is honorable, is fair, is real.
Is it fair, seducing his lonely fans, those he has made up whole-cloth? Is it honorable ... or even real, to toy so with his readers, or, at least, this one faithful reader?--- David Lowe