Smoke and Mirrors
A new novella showcases Amos Oz’s wizardry
“Why do you write? Why do you write the way you do? Are you trying to influence your readers, and, if so, how? What role do your books play? Do you constantly cross out and correct or do you write straight out of your head?” This is just the beginning of the long barrage of “commonly asked questions” that opens Amos Oz’s tricky new novella, Rhyming Life and Death. They are the kinds of queries the Author—as Oz calls his unnamed, teasingly autobiographical protagonist—is all too accustomed to hearing from audiences like the one he is about to address, at a small community center in Tel Aviv. And if the Author is a little tired of hearing them, the reader might be forgiven for thinking that he, too, has been here before, especially when it comes to that old chestnut, “Do you draw the material for your stories from your imagination or directly from life?”
For if there is one mystery that has been well and truly exploded, it is the mystery of fictional creation. In the 1960s, postmodernists like John Barth and Italo Calvino wrote programmatic novels to remind us that fiction is, as its name suggests, something made, that fictional characters are just words on a page, that reality cannot be transformed into literature without distorting it. This was not as shocking a revelation as those writers made it seem—Laurence Sterne made the same points, with more humor, in Tristram Shandy—but it is true that, ever since, ambitious novelists have shied away from anything that might seem like naïve realism. In the 21st century, readers know that the only possible answer to Oz’s question, “Do you draw the material for your stories from your imagination or directly from life?”, is “both, and neither.”
Rhyming Life and Death is simply a dramatization of that truth or truism, but it is so modestly and deftly done that it manages to make an old theme yield new pleasures. Some magicians are so skillful that, even after they show you step by step how a trick is performed, you still enjoy seeing them do it. So too with Oz, who has been one of Israel’s most prominent writers for almost half a century. Rhyming Life and Death is a treatise on just how arbitrary and willful the writing of fiction is. Oz shows us how the Author seizes on a random passerby and builds a story around her, how he invents details out of thin air, how he manipulates his characters to gratify his own juvenile desires. Yet even as he is explaining all this, and making himself—or at least, the Author—look rather unlovely in the process, we find to our surprise that we still care about the characters and stories he is so casually summoning up. So profound is our love of narrative, Oz shows, that we are ready to believe any story, even a story we are being told not to believe.
When we first glimpse the Author, he is sitting in a café near the Shunia Shor Community Center, preparing for his reading and for those annoying questions he is sure to encounter. (The time, we eventually learn, is the early 1980s, but in Oz’s wry commentary on Israeli politics, all the references to current events could just as easily come from 2009—corruption, terror, American peace-brokering, and so on.) Soon the Author is distracted by a waitress, whom he begins to ogle: he can make out the outline of her underpants through her skirt. His eyes fix on this barely discernible shape: he finds a slight asymmetry in favor of the left buttock exciting.” This kind of self-pleasuring delectation is something writers of Oz’s generation take for granted as one of the perks of writing fiction—Bellow and Roth both do it constantly—and it is likely to strike younger readers as a little obnoxious. In fact, Oz himself is quite willing to acknowledge this—he writes that the waitress’s face “expresses disgust and entreaty: just leave me alone, for heaven’s sake.”
And the Author is happy to leave the waitress alone, because he is not really interested in her as a person. What he wants is the “barely discernible” detail from which, as Oz proceeds to demonstrate, a whole fiction can spring. For the Author goes on to decide that the waitress, with whom he never exchanges an actual word, is named Ricky, and that when she was sixteen “she fell in love with the reserve goalkeeper of Bnei-Yehuda football team, Charlie, who turned up one rainy day in his Lancia in front of the beauty parlor where she worked and swept her away for a three-day break in a hotel in Eilat (of which an uncle of his was part-owner).” The details multiply and feed on themselves with delightful unaccountability: not just names and places but the make of the car, the name of the football team, even the off-stage uncle. From an idle glance, the Author has created all the cirumstances of a life, and the more arbitrary they are, the more plausible they appear.
But Ricky is just the beginning. The two men chatting at another table, the Author decides, are a small-time gangster and his toady, whom he names Mr. Leon and Shlomo Hougi. They are talking about their friend Ovadya Hazzam, who won a fortune in the lottery and lived the good life for a few years, before getting liver cancer and ending up in Ichilov Hospital. When the Author moves on from the café to the reading, his antic fiction-making continues. He assigns names to the people in the audience and invents biographies for them: this weedy teenager is a budding poet, that middle-aged matron is the neighbor he shares his work with and has lustful dreams about.
There is no doubt about the facility of the Author’s imagination: he has soon peopled the whole community center with characters. It is a problem for Rhyming Love and Death, however, that all of these characters are familiar, bordering on clichés. The “pimply” poet who “loves this Author de profundis, secretly and passionately” and the matron whose “lips are parted with the sweetness of the cultural experience she is undergoing” are stereotypes we have seen before. It is unclear whether we are supposed to think of the Author as having limited powers of invention, or if Oz is setting himself the challenge of inventing stories from such unpromising material.
Certainly there could be no bigger cliché than the sexually repressed spinster who lives alone with her cat. But that is how the Author imagines Rochele Reznik, the professional reader who is on hand to recite passages from the Author’s book. Rochele quickly moves to the center of the Author’s fantasy, and Rhyming Life and Death plays out two scenarios for her. In one, she and the author end up having sex, in a graphic scene reminiscent of the famous, clinically detailed Harold Brodkey story “Innocence.” In the other, she is too timid to respond to the Author’s flirtation, and she retreats back into her loneliness. (In a nice touch, Rochele’s apartment is decorated with a Peace Now poster that bears the slogan “Our sons’ lives matter more than the patriarchs’ graves!” Oz, we remember, was one of the founders of Peace Now, but he is clearly not above poking fun at its high-mindedness.)
While juggling these alternatives, the Author also keeps returning to the many other stories he has invented along the way. We get regular updates on Ovadya Hazzan in his hospital bed and the teenage poet in his nocturnal wanderings. Ricky has an odd telephone conversation with Lucy, the woman who stole Charlie from her long ago. (I don’t know if the name Ricky and Lucy are Oz’s, or if the translator, Nicholas de Lange, chose them as an American equivalent to some Israeli TV reference; either way, they are inspired in their comic banality.) Another audience member, the miserable Arnold Bartok, is seen taking care of his elderly, incontinent mother; he becomes a kind of vengeful Fury in the Author’s mind, interrupting his lovemaking with Rochele, bringing thoughts of bodily decay and death.
Indeed, Oz shows, the Author’s creations may be in his power, but they also hold power over him. “This is a bad business, all of it here, ridiculous and terrible,” the Author reflects near the end of the book. Yet he goes on making stories nonetheless—and despite all the trade secrets Oz reveals in Rhyming Life and Death, we go on reading them.