Amos Oz: Writer, Activist, Icon

  • Review
By – September 26, 2023

As soon as Amos Oz could read, he sat down at his father’s type­writer and wrote the words Amos Klaus­ner sofer [writer].” He was five years old when he made the dec­la­ra­tion that would come to define his life. Robert Alter, a long-time friend of Oz and a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Hebrew and com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture at Berke­ley, has cre­at­ed a por­trait of Oz using the writer’s own words and the words of those close to him. 

Much of the back­ground for Oz’s work can be found in A Tale of Love and Dark­ness, which he wrote when he entered his six­ties. Oz describes grow­ing up under the Man­date in a one-bed­room base­ment apart­ment in a run­down Jerusalem neigh­bor­hood. His par­ents, immi­grants who met at Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty, were unsuit­ed for one anoth­er. His father was a pedan­tic aspir­ing schol­ar and a fol­low­er of the hard-right Herut par­ty; his moth­er was a sen­si­tive and roman­tic woman who told her son imag­i­na­tive and spooky sto­ries grew increas­ing­ly inward and dis­con­nect­ed. When Oz was twelve, she died by sui­cide, leav­ing an indeli­ble mark on her only child. Two years after her death, he left the sti­fling apart­ment in which he grew up and joined a kib­butz. He broke with his father polit­i­cal­ly and changed his sur­name from Klaus­ner to Oz, mean­ing strength.” He wrote A Tale after hav­ing kept his silence about his mother’s sui­cide, and his haunt­ing sense of aban­don­ment, for almost fifty years. 

Poet­ry was Oz’s ear­li­est genre. By age twen­ty he turned to fic­tion, but his poet­ic impulse is appar­ent all through­out his work. His first book, Where the Jack­als Howl, is a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries set in a kib­butz. Pub­lished when he was twen­ty-six, it marked the arrival of a new voice in Israeli fic­tion. Unlike the first gen­er­a­tion of native Hebrew writ­ers, Oz, while writ­ing in a mod­ern voice, also draws on tra­di­tion­al Hebrew. His lan­guage is rich in adjec­tives, some­times exces­sive­ly so; he had the abil­i­ty to cre­ate an extra­or­di­nary sense of place. Over the years, Oz respond­ed to crit­ics by ton­ing down his style, but his mas­ter­ful use of Hebrew remained a hall­mark of his work. 

From the time he was young, Oz was pas­sion­ate­ly engaged in Israel’s fraught sit­u­a­tion, as were the major Israeli nov­el­ists A. B. Yehoshua and David Gross­man. He lec­tured and wrote con­stant­ly — some­times one or two opin­ion pieces a week. A Zion­ist but also an opti­mist and a real­ist, he believed in the two-state solu­tion and hoped that the com­ing gen­er­a­tion might find the solu­tion to end­ing a cen­tu­ry of bit­ter hatred. We are not alone in this land,” he said. His biog­ra­ph­er sug­gests that, in the end, Oz may have seen his lega­cy not as a nov­el­ist but as an advo­cate for peace and resolution.

Alter brings to this infor­mal biog­ra­phy a por­trait rich in can­did mem­o­ries. He deals even­hand­ed­ly with Oz’s youngest daughter’s angry and painful break with him, as well as the pos­si­bil­i­ty that his mother’s death might have been an acci­den­tal over­dose. The book’s strength lies in Alter’s close read­ing of Oz’s work and in his per­son­al mem­o­ries of both their friend­ship and Oz’s pub­lic voice. Amos Oz is an inti­mate and mov­ing analy­sis of a com­pli­cat­ed man, a life­long activist, and one of Israel’s most promi­nent and wide­ly read authors. 

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

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