(December 31, 2018 / JNS) Yes, he should have received the Nobel Prize in Literature because his books are wonderful. Whatever are the political ideas of those who read them, his original language is rooted in the Bible with a critical tone and knowledge of a secular thinker, his thoughts of love are intricate and ruthless as those of William Shakespeare, his determination to knowledge was that of a Faust . And, yes, he had a profound hatred of war but as pacifist-oriented as he was, he was still well aware of the enemy’s inevitable fury. It pained him not to have received the Nobel Prize, but—and this is the real reason—he was just too Israeli for Stockholm to grant him the award.
Amos Oz (1939-2018) left the world on Dec. 28 at the age of 79 after a long illness. For the Italians and all the world, he was known as that left-wing writer, along with Abraham B. Yehoshua and David Grossman, who was worthy to occupy a space on their bookshelves despite being Israeli because he was pacifist and a vocal critic of his country. However, Oz was far more than this alone. Pacifism constituted just a small part of Amos Klausner, who was born in Jerusalem in 1939, and raised at No. 18 Amos Street by Fania, his cultured and refined Polish mother, and his Lithuanian father, Yehuda Arieh Klausner. I had the luck to meet Amos Oz several times; he was more than handsome—he was beauty and depth personified, and knew it. Moreover, he was what Zionism sought to represent at its best in the eyes of the Western progressive world—the response of the Jewish people to thousands of years of persecution, the Shoah and death. In a life that concluded in Tel Aviv after years in the Negev Desert, Oz, with his perfect persona (which at times seemed condescending) produced 40 books translated into just as many languages, 450 articles and essays, and received dozens of literary awards and honorary degrees.
At age 15, after a childhood spent surrounded by Jerusalem’s Ashkenazi intellectual and military elite capable of founding the State of Israel despite insurmountable economic difficulties and war, young Amos left Jerusalem for Kibbutz Hulda. It was there, in the spirit of tzionut—the Zionism lived to transform an oppressed and persecuted people into a living and winning people—that Amos changed his last name to Oz, meaning “strength,” and proceeded with titanic intensity to free himself from the suffering that had engulfed his life and undertakes the path of writing. “I wanted to be an architect,” he said, “but destiny wanted me to be a writer, because you become a writer because of a wound. There are those who after a deep wound become criminals or saints. For me, that’s how it happened: words became my path, my story.” And actually, nobody has been as good as him in forging the modern language of Israel and of worldwide literature; his words are pure and direct, and at the same time, complex and meaningful.
Oz’s wounds, in addition to the general one of permanent war, which he knew firsthand while fighting in the Israeli Defense Forces’ Nahal Brigade—a unit that combines military combat with the ideals of community service and brotherhood—during the Six-Day War and later in the Yom Kippur War, were terrible. His mother, gripped by depression, committed suicide at age 38, when Amos was 12. His father, wrote Oz in A Tale of Love and Darkness, “On October 11, 1970, some four months after his sixtieth birthday, my father got up early as usual […] shaved, splashed on some toilet water, wetted his hair before brushing back, ate a roll with butter […] read the newspaper, sighed a few times […] put on a jacket and tie and drove down the street to Denmark Square to buy some items of stationery from the little basement shop […] parked […] bought everything on his list, joked with the woman who owned the shop […] asked her not to forget to pass on his greetings to her dear husband […] turned and walked to the door, and dropped dead of a heart attack. […] I inherited his desk. These pages are being written on it, not tearfully, because my father was fundamentally opposed to tears in principle […].”
“My novels all start with the dead,” said Oz. In fact, it his metaphysical afflatus about the destiny of human beings—always there to compensate for his slow, almost elementary, storytelling—that is the secret to his great masterpieces. In My Michael, in the background of a couple’s difficult story looms Jerusalem—miraculous, dark and luminous with its black cypresses and heavenly close skies. In 1965, he penned his first novel, Where the Jackals Howl, while still living at Kibbutz Hulda, and then numerous others, including The Hill of Evil Council, A Perfect Peace, Black Box, To Know a Woman, Fima, Don’t Call It Night, and so many others we came to love and cherish.
Meanwhile, many loved him for his political ideas, but I feel like saying plainly that his insistence, petitions, activism and attacks on the government, however motivated in a high modality, in a moral apolitical manner, were nevertheless articulated in a manner that were often shortsighted, too self-imposed, too blind to the nature of Palestinians.
Yet Oz wholeheartedly embodied Israel itself. “When I left home and went to live in the kibbutz […] I wrote down some resolutions I set for myself […] I must start by getting a tan within a fortnight so that I looked just like one of them; I must stop daydreaming once and for all; I must change my surname; I must take two or three cold showers a day […] I must not write any more poems; I must stop chattering; and I must not tell stories. I must appear in my new home as a silent man.”
This was the way that Amos, as a young boy, wholeheartedly wanted to incarnate Israeli identity: tough, silent, hard-working. Of course, he never truly became silent. As for the rest of that celestial and tough kibbutznik nature, he came to embody the ideal of a “virtuous Israel”—namely, of a man who works the fields by day and writes novels at night, and who dreams of peace and must go to war.
What will remain of his legacy is undoubtedly his magnificent use of words, along with the human significance of Israel’s history as a parable of love and darkness.
Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies, served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Translation by Amy Rosenthal.