Rhyming Life and Death

Amos Oz; Nicholas de Lange, trans.
  • Review
By – January 16, 2012

The one char­ac­ter who has no name in Amos Oz’s meta-fic­tion­al novel­la is also the only one who is real. He is sim­ply called the Author, and in an extend­ed inte­ri­or mono­logue he imag­ines the lives and per­son­al­i­ties of some three dozen peo­ple. He turns peo­ple he meets into invent­ed char­ac­ters, cre­ates oth­er peo­ple to pop­u­late their lives, and watch­es as they cross paths in his fic­tive world. 

As in so much of Oz’s work, a pas­sion for women ani­mates the plot. An extend­ed seduc­tion sets the course for the Author’s per­am­bu­la­tions and his med­i­ta­tions on his char­ac­ters’ lives. But his deep­er sub­ject is the process, effect, and out­come of cre­ative writ­ing. An off­stage pres­ence through­out this sto­ry is a poet named Tse­fa­nia Beit-Halach­mi, once so pop­u­lar that he wrote a week­ly news­pa­per col­umn but now for­got­ten. His best-known col­lec­tion, Rhyming Life and Death,” gives Oz’s book its title. The qua­trains quot­ed rely large­ly on com­fort­ing, opti­mistic plat­i­tudes, in con­trast to the Author’s imag­i­na­tive sym­pa­thies with the mixed mul­ti­tude of human­i­ty. The tran­si­to­ry fame and endur­ing obscu­ri­ty of the poet are an object les­son in one kind of rela­tion­ship between pop­u­lar­i­ty and art. 

Lessons aside, Oz’s cast of char­ac­ters is vast­ly enter­tain­ing. Their his­to­ries reca­pit­u­late Israel’s own past, and their per­son­al­i­ties ring utter­ly true. This new work is only the lat­est rea­son that Amos Oz stands in the front rank of the writ­ers of the world. 


Bob Gold­farb spoke with Amos Oz on behalf of Jew­ish Book World at Oz’s home in Arad, Israel in March 2009.

Bob Gold­farb: In your accep­tance speech for the Goethe Prize in 2005 you talked about the secret plea­sure of imag­in­ing the oth­er.” Rhyming Life and Death, your lat­est book to be pub­lished in Amer­i­ca, seems to exem­pli­fy that plea­sure. Was it on your mind when you were at the Goethe Prize cer­e­mo­ny? 
Amos Oz:
Yes, I was work­ing on that book at that time, and it was very much on my mind. It’s a play­ful book. It’s a book about a trans­for­ma­tion of every­day life into art, which is a strange expe­ri­ence. I nev­er know which kind of encounter, which kind of over­heard con­ver­sa­tion, which kind of casu­al glance at peo­ple will even­tu­al­ly yield some lit­er­ary results. The lit­er­ary result is often not direct: I don’t take snapshots. 

BG: Do some of your friends — let’s say, peo­ple you lived with inti­mate­ly on the kib­butz — see them­selves in your char­ac­ters? 
AO: There were no com­plaints in all the years I lived on the kib­butz and wrote about it. I was care­ful not to use real-life mod­els, or else I wouldn’t be able to live there. 

BG: That seems to be relat­ed to your wider out­look of treat­ing human beings as of ulti­mate impor­tance. 
AO: Human beings are more impor­tant than the claims of art. Human beings are the pur­pose of my life. That’s what I live for: I live for human beings. 

BG: You talk in your mem­oirs, A Tale of Love and Dark­ness, about sit­ting in a café when you were twelve years old and see­ing two old­er women. You imag­ined who they were and their rela­tion­ship to each oth­er. Have you been doing this all your life? 
AO: Ever since I was a lit­tle boy. It all began with ice cream. When my par­ents went to see their friends in cafes in Jerusalem, and took me with them, they promised me a bribe — that I’ll get ice cream if I shut up for the whole dura­tion of their con­ver­sa­tion with their friends. And the con­ver­sa­tion with their friends took some­thing like 77 hours, or so it struck me. So I had to keep myself busy, and I taught myself to spy on the oth­er guests in the café. I was over­hear­ing snatch­es of con­ver­sa­tion, look­ing at peo­ple, look­ing very care­ful­ly at their shoes — shoes always tell me a sto­ry — and look­ing at their body lan­guage, watch­ing what they order, how they relate to each oth­er, and guess­ing who they are. Where do they come from, what do their homes look like, what are they to each oth­er? And that was a won­der­ful pas­time because it nev­er bored me. There were always peo­ple com­ing and going, and more sto­ries. And you get ice cream in the end. 

BG: Was there a time when you were young when you assumed every­one did this? 
AO: Yes, I thought this secret plea­sure which is so won­der­ful is prob­a­bly some­thing that every­body does. But quite quick­ly I real­ized that most peo­ple are not that curi­ous. And it’s a shame. I think curios­i­ty is not only a bless­ing, not only a virtue, it’s a moral virtue. It’s an eth­i­cal virtue. Because being curi­ous — mean­ing, putting your­self in oth­er people’s shoes, or even under oth­er people’s skins, imag­in­ing them as they are — makes it very dif­fi­cult to hate them, when we imag­ine them from within. 

BG: This inter­est in peo­ple, this curios­i­ty, also entails imag­i­na­tion. Not every­one can con­nect the things they see in a way that tells a sto­ry. 
Imag­i­na­tion is anoth­er bless­ing. Curios­i­ty and imag­i­na­tion com­bined are the fac­ul­ties of the artist. I believe every one of us is blessed with imag­i­na­tion. The ques­tion is, do we use it? How much do we exer­cise it? If we don’t, it may fade away. 

BG: Does that sug­gest that, at some point, some peo­ple no longer use their imag­i­na­tion? 
Yes, I think some peo­ple waste their imag­i­na­tion and waste their curios­i­ty and become too absorbed in mak­ing it,” what­ev­er it” may be. 

BG: There’s a char­ac­ter in Rhyming Life and Death with the won­der­ful name Tse­fa­nia Beit-Halach­mi. He is a writer, but it seems that imag­i­na­tion is not his great­est attribute. 
Beit-Halach­mi is a mediocre poet, not to say a bad poet, with some flash­es of very fresh obser­va­tion. At moments he ris­es to some­thing close to Japan­ese haiku. But most of the time he is about clichés. And he stands in the eyes of the Author who is the pro­tag­o­nist of this book as a warn­ing. He stands as a pre­dic­tion: your des­tiny might be the same as his des­tiny. He is total­ly for­got­ten, and you might be total­ly forgotten. 

BG: In the many char­ac­ters you’ve cre­at­ed you seem to have a spe­cial affec­tion for eccentrics, char­ac­ters who have quirks that may make them unat­trac­tive. 
I am fas­ci­nat­ed by peo­ple who are not very attrac­tive. In fact, I write most­ly about peo­ple who, at least out­ward­ly, are unat­trac­tive. They fas­ci­nate me as a sto­ry-teller, they fas­ci­nate me as an observ­er. And I find the unat­trac­tive attractive. 

BG: A new book of your sto­ries, Scenes from a Vil­lage Life, recent­ly appeared in Hebrew but is not yet avail­able in Eng­lish. 
It’s a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, all of them set in the same fic­ti­tious vil­lage. Two of them were pub­lished in mag­a­zines — in The New York­er, actu­al­ly — in the last cou­ple of years. The eight sto­ries are inter­re­lat­ed because char­ac­ters move from one sto­ry to anoth­er. So it reads almost like a nov­el. It’s about an old vil­lage, more than a hun­dred years old, which in some ways is decay­ing and declin­ing. In some oth­er ways, it’s about peo­ple who are search­ing for some­thing they have lost in the past. Per­haps they are look­ing for some­thing they have hid­den from themselves.

Discussion Questions