Non­fic­tion

What Makes an Apple?: Six Con­ver­sa­tions about Writ­ing, Love, Guilt, and Oth­er Pleasures

Amos Oz with Shi­ra Hadad, Jes­si­ca Cohen (Trans­la­tor)

  • Review
By – June 6, 2022

For many devo­tees, the seis­mic loss of Amos Oz, the pre­em­i­nent nov­el­ist of Israel’s post-state­hood gen­er­a­tion, remains stag­ger­ing. There is so much to miss — the obsti­nate teller of dif­fi­cult polit­i­cal truths, the rad­i­cal empa­thy, lyri­cal melan­choly, the ded­i­cat­ed wit­ness of kib­butz life’s moral tri­umphs and decay. No won­der that soon after his death from can­cer, Pres­i­dent Reuven Rivlin eulo­gized Oz as the Dos­to­evsky of the Jew­ish peo­ple.” For­tu­nate­ly, we now have the pre­cious gift of a final word of sorts, in the posthu­mous form of Jes­si­ca Cohen’s sparkling trans­la­tion of What Makes an Apple, wide-rang­ing and pen­e­trat­ing con­ver­sa­tions on a vari­ety of sub­jects with Shi­ra Hadad, his edi­tor and fre­quent interlocutor.

Oz gave many inter­views in his life­time, but what makes this final book so essen­tial for his devot­ed read­ers is its deeply prob­ing, even con­fronta­tion­al nature. Rarely has Oz been quite so intro­spec­tive and can­did when it comes to con­fronting his ingrained bias­es as well as per­son­al defi­cien­cies. Hadad proves a sharply obser­vant and tough inter­locu­tor, press­ing Oz on oth­er crit­i­cal points, such as the com­pli­cat­ed role of eros and the fem­i­nine in his work. Else­where, though a com­bat vet­er­an of two wars, 1967 in the Sinai and 1973 on the Golan Heights, he reveals his sur­pris­ing inca­pac­i­ty to ever write direct­ly about war.

Giv­en the fre­quen­cy with which he was labeled a trai­tor by many Israelis for his staunch advo­ca­cy of com­pro­mise with the Pales­tini­ans, the title of Oz’s tri­umphant final nov­el, Judas, might have been a wry self-indict­ment. The beat­ing heart of this nov­el is Jerusalem, and he explains to Hadad why he sought to memo­ri­al­ize the fever­ish inten­si­ty of a long-fad­ed gen­er­a­tion of cos­mopoli­tans who sought to cre­ate a new cul­tur­al real­i­ty: I want­ed that to be remem­bered. That Jerusalem of the fiery intel­lec­tu­als, who stood with one foot in Yosef Haim Bren­ner and one in the Bible, and anoth­er foot in Ben-Gurion’s court and yet anoth­er in Niet­zsche, and anoth­er in Dostoevsky.”

While nev­er quite suc­cumb­ing to despair, Oz does emerge as a wea­ried pes­simist. He bemoans the cur­rent state of acad­e­mia that reduces lit­er­a­ture to a strug­gle for pow­er and con­trol … agen­das or a cun­ning attempt to dis­guise agen­das.” Whether or not they agree, his glob­al read­er­ship will sure­ly con­tin­ue to mourn the loss of his prophet­ic voice amidst the uncer­tain­ties and insta­bil­i­ties that lie ahead. Yet at least we now have this last­ing coda to his life and art, an elo­quent yet inti­mate por­trait of one of the most impor­tant Jew­ish artists and pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als of our time.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and his lat­est book is Imag­in­ing the Kib­butz: Visions of Utopia in Lit­er­a­ture & Film.

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