A Tale of Love and Darkness

Amos Oz; Nicholas de Lange, trans.

  • Review
By – August 27, 2012

Amos Oz, the promi­nent Israeli writer, has writ­ten a mas­ter­ful dou­ble mem­oir, the sto­ry of his youth and of Israel’s birth and ear­ly years. As the title sug­gests, these par­al­lel sto­ries are suf­fused by the light of love and shad­owed by the pain of per­son­al and nation­al darkness.

Tru­ly a mem­oir, A Tale of Love and Dark­ness is com­posed of mem­o­ries, some­times flash­ing for­ward to link with Oz’s present and his own writ­ings and some­times flash­ing back to his family’s his­to­ry in Europe. Few facts of Oz’s life are told; his mem­o­ries, many cen­ter­ing on the sui­cide of his moth­er, are his story.

Born Amos Klaus­ner, Oz was heir to a strong Zion­ist tra­di­tion. His moth­er attend­ed a warm Jew­ish cul­tur­al school in her native Rovno, Rus­sia, lat­er Poland. His father’s fam­i­ly, from Odessa, was notable for Oz’s great-uncle, Joseph Klaus­ner, a lead­ing Zion­ist the­o­rist, schol­ar and author, and polit­i­cal fig­ure. After the Rev­o­lu­tion life in Rus­sia became impos­si­ble for both fam­i­lies. The Muss­man fam­i­ly sailed to the Lev­ant.” The Klaus­ners made their way to Vil­na. When anti-Semi­tism there became unbear­able, they cast about for a new home. All doors were closed; in 1933 they arrived in Pales­tine. In 1938, wit­ty, ratio­nal Yehu­da Ariel Klaus­ner mar­ried intu­itive, roman­tic Fania Muss­man. A year lat­er the mis­matched cou­ple gave birth to their only child, Amos.

Despite the ardent Zion­ism of both fam­i­lies, in many ways they nev­er left Europe. Pales­tine was a strange land to them, with its sweaty Arab mar­kets, desert creep­ing almost to their back­yards, and over­bear­ing British colo­nial pres­ence. They read the great Euro­pean writ­ers, they gath­ered over tea with cakes and bis­cuits to argue pol­i­tics, they wore care­ful­ly kept suits and ties. The Yid­dish-speak­ing Ortho­dox Jews of Mea Shearim were as for­eign to them as the mus­cled, sun-tanned pioneers.

When Oz was 12, his moth­er com­mit­ted sui­cide after a long depres­sion. Deter­mined to break with his lone­ly, painful, and book-filled life, Oz left for Kib­butz Hul­da. Leav­ing behind Jerusalem and the intel­lec­tu­al aspi­ra­tions of his fam­i­ly, he changed his name to Oz, strength, per­haps in defi­ance of his father’s judg­ment that he was not phys­i­cal­ly fit for kib­butz life.

These years also mark the birth of Israel. Oz’s account of the tense and dan­ger­ous strug­gle after the exhil­a­ra­tion of the UN vote to cre­ate two states is com­pelling and per­son­al; his par­ents’ base­ment apart­ment was home for months to many of their friends, hud­dled in the safe­ty of dark­ness day and night. His life in the kib­butz recre­ates an almost closed chap­ter in Israeli life, and a star­tling sum­mons to David Ben Gurion’s office to dis­cuss Spin­oza recalls what a small world Israel was.

The book is beau­ti­ful­ly con­struct­ed, a series of con­cen­tric cir­cles grow­ing small­er as Oz exam­ines and reex­am­ines his for­ma­tive years. Events are some­times retold, espe­cial­ly his mother’s unset­tling final years, each time at a clos­er range, enriched by the pro­gress­ing sto­ry. Oz works his way into his par­ents’ mar­riage and their lega­cy— his mother’s fab­u­lous tales of witch­es and mead­ows, his father’s wide-rang­ing and always instruc­tive con­ver­sa­tion. Emo­tions are often held under the sur­face but occa­sion­al­ly flare, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Oz’s glow­ing mem­o­ry of his sex­u­al awak­en­ing. Then, as the cir­cles get ever small­er and clos­er to the core of his life, Oz opens up his long-held mem­o­ries, and we share his tri­umph over them.

This is an impor­tant and rich­ly reward­ing book, sen­si­tive­ly told and filled with mem­o­rably drawn characters.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions