I finished reading last week the memoir by Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness (Vintage paperback 2005 translated by Nicholas de Lange), a whacking 517 pages of rather small print. I had some help from the audiobook, while cooking or exercising, read by Stefan Rudnicki. At the end of 2018, I read David Grossman’s novel, To the End of the Land (Vintage paper 2011, translated by Jessica Cohen), at 576 pages plus postscript, with no auditory help. Oz wrote a long memoir, a history of Oz’s family, his mother’s death, and the birth of Israel. Grossman wrote a long novel, about a woman who takes a hike because her son has gone off to join the Armored Corps during Israel’s war with Lebanon.
What can the two books possibly have in common? Oz’s book is devoted to the family that evaded the Holocaust, on both his parents’ sides, to what shaped the lives of his father and mother and ultimately his own life. Grossman’s novel is a story of family, yes, and of love, and friendship, and also what military service does to youth. Oz glosses over that part of his life: most of the memoir is set before his 30 years on the kibbutz and before his military service. While Oz’s parents have friends, he writes of no friendships of his own. Yet the two books have in common a technique of structure.
I have been trying to name this structural technique. Unfurling. Circling back. It reminds me of a snail’s shell, that whorling from a small point outward to a larger one. Both Oz and Grossman begin with an incident or a reference to an event. Then they go on to another subject, such as a description of the person’s whereabouts, or other people. And then the incident is mentioned again, with another detail added. Like someone turning a gemstone over to admire all of its angles. Again, more story, more description, and we return to the incident, with more detail enlarging it now from a fragment, an incident, to an event. Then a bit more, again, and again. Until at the end of the book the small secretions have built a whole, an event that is important and powerful in all of its ramifications, an event that is not a small snail shell but a knife that stabs you in the heart. I love it. Grossman does this with the roles of Avram and her son in Ora’s life, and Oz does this with his mother’s death.
Oz uses this device of repetition with imagery as well, on a smaller scale, but also to great effect. For example, the fox face. As a child he had a caregiver who liked to take him out into the wide world, the width of which ended up being the changing rooms of clothing shops. She tried on a fox fur stole. The boy: “the look of the tortured eyes in the slain fox terrified me. The fox’s face stirred my soul because it looked both cunning and heartrendingly wretched.” (p. 214) He left his caregiver in her changing room to pursue a girl made up like a woman; he pursued her through the labyrinths of the shop, until at last he cornered her and saw that she was not a girl but a very short woman or a dwarf: she smiled at him, “a kind of twisted poisonous smile that disclosed sharp little teeth among which a single gold incisor suddenly glinted.” Her make-up seemed to him “as though she had suddenly put on the face of the killed fox-fur, that face that had seemed both malicious and heartrendingly sad.” With one stroke, one image, Oz has the boy objectify the woman into a frightening creature. But we are not done. When he turned tail and fled, she chased him, and he feared that she wanted to turn him into a killed fox too. And then: he wonders what happened to her, his first temptress, “who deigned to show me her face, which with nothing more than a look I managed to transform into a horror, the face of a slain fox, both vicious and desperately sad.” (p. 219) Here, in adult hindsight, he mocks his reaction, while again using the image to see the woman’s sadness.
But still we are not done. For now we have her opposite. The boy gets lost in the shop, and hides in a closet, from which he is rescued by a tailor, who “reached out and took my hand that was cold with fear into his warm hand, as though he was warming a freezing chick, and drew me out of the dark recess, raised me high in the air, and squeezed me quite hard to his chest, and at that I began to cry.” (p. 223) He later refers to this man from the Arab part of town as his second father. But we are not finished yet. The adult narrator, writing from Arad, is still thinking about his rescuer: “Who knows what he was called? Or if he’s still alive? Is he living in his home? Or in dirt and poverty, in some refugee camp?” (p. 223) And so he turns and turns his day of getting lost in a clothing shop, biting into it with sharp teeth until it makes a wound large enough to contain the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
(header photo: Tel Arad: Debra Martens)