As Ariel Sharon is elected, Amos Oz publishes his new verse novel in Britain. Inside its ordinary domestic setting lies a plea for quiet in Israelby Kate Kellaway / March 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Amos oz once gave a lecture in which he suggested that fanaticism begins at home. It starts, he argues, as the “desire to make other people change.” He believes it is important, instead, to try to “imagine the other.”
It is typical of Oz to try and domesticate the idea of fanaticism, to put us on familiar terms with it. He knows how to bring uneasy truths home. He is a plain speaker and “imagining the other” is what he has always done best, not only in his fiction. He has been a steady, humane, liberal voice in Israel, critical-in work such as The Slopes of Lebanon (1987) and Israel, Palestine and Peace: Essays (1994)-of both Israelis and Palestinians. In the wake of the elections, he blames Arafat for Sharon’s victory. “Imagining the other” is not the same as forgiving all.
His new novel The Same Sea, published in Hebrew last year, has been a critical success in Israel. On the face of it, this is surprising because it is a hybrid work, written in loose poetic slabs and sporadic verse. And novel-poems, in Britain at least, tend to be enjoyed only by an enthusiastic minority (think of Craig Raine’s History: The Home Movie or Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate).
Before I embarked on it, I supposed this to be a perilous departure for a writer who has always seemed to revel in prose. Oz once said he had two pens: one for fiction, the other for non-fiction. Now he appears to have acquired a third. He last wrote poetry as a teenager (he is said to have composed verse, inspired by the Old Testament, about taking vengeance on all enemies of the Jews). His first novel, My Michael, was published in 1968. Its narrator was a woman one critic described as a “Jewish Madame Bovary.” It was a portrait of a disintegrating marriage and it revealed an understanding of women, and an interest in marriage that Oz has never lost. (In 1991, he even wrote a novel called To Know a Woman.) His most recent novels (Panther in the Basement and Don’t Call it Night) have been domestic too-but inching towards poetry. Noa, in Don’t Call it Night quotes from poems written by a friend. I even remember the unpromising line: “And where are we meant to be shining and by whom is our shining required?” Oz’s own…