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Oz on Oz

Israel’s wizard of fiction at 92Y

Miriam Krule
October 27, 2011
Amos Oz last night.(Nancy Crampton/92Y Poetry Center)
Amos Oz last night.(Nancy Crampton/92Y Poetry Center)

You may not think it at first, but the similarities between Amoz Oz and Woody Allen, two Jewish wordsmiths born between the two world wars who each have come to define specific eras and geographies of Jewish culture, are striking. When Oz was in New York for last night’s 92nd Street Y event, he was definitely channeling Allen with an ode to one of Judaism’s most famous traits: “As a Jew,” he remarked, “I feel guilty about the invention of guilt.”

Guilt wasn’t the only emotion on Oz’s mind while he joked about about his more than 40 years of work with New Republic senior editor Ruth Franklin. For one thing, he always came back to the theme of unhappiness. At one point he offered, “If you asked me to describe my work in one word, it would be ‘families.’ If you gave me two, it would be ‘unhappy families.’ ” His latest work, Scenes From Village Life, recently translated into English, capitalizes on this Tolstoyan trope. It was born out of a dream, which he morphed into a novel-in-stories about the fictional village of Tel Ilan. Like many of his other books, it is about love, loss, and loneliness. (In one story, an Arab character, Adel, tells an Israeli character, Pesach, “Our unhappiness is partly our fault and partly your fault. But your unhappiness comes from your soul.”)

The evening also centered around translation. Oz read long portions in both Hebrew and English; when asked whether he was happy with the English translation, he responded in the affirmative, saying that one must be “unfaithful in order to be loyal.” He also told the now famous story of how one of his most successful books, A Tale of Love and Darkness, was translated into Arabic (the family of an Israeli Arab victim of anti-Semitic terrorism paid for it).

Oz is quick to separate his fiction from his politics: “I have two pens on my desk,” he insisted (no, he doesn’t use a computer), “one pen to tell stories and another pen to tell the government to go to hell.” As Franklin pressed him, though, it became clear that truly decoupling these two things is almost impossible. Oz conceded as much, saying that, as an author, all he can do is disclaim that his fiction is not an allegory of Israeli life. “People will read it that way anyway,” he sighed. “I can’t help it.”

Miriam Krule is on the editorial staff of Slate Magazine where she edits the religion column Faith-Based. Follow her on Twitter @miriamkrule.