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By Dr. Avraham D. Horowitz

 
Amos Oz’s Obsession with Eros and Death in a New Short Novel

By Dr. Avraham D. Horowitz, December 4, 2011

“Rhyming Life & Death” by Amos Oz, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, N.Y., translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange, 2009, 117 pages
 

Rhyming Life & Death, published in Hebrew in 2007 and recently translated into English, is one of Amos Oz’s shortest novels. Following Oz’s worldwide popularity after his 2003 autobiographic novel A Tale of Love and Darkness, the new novel has already been translated to eleven languages, from English to Russian.

Oz’s post-modernist experimental novel covers eight hours in the life of its main character, The Author – no name - in an evening in Tel Aviv, where his latest book is discussed at a local Cultural Center of the 1980’s. The author is in his 40’s, same as Amos Oz’s age at that time, but the “author” has been twice divorced, and makes his living as an accountant, unlike Oz, who is married with the same woman for 50 years, and earns a living from writing and teaching.      

The many characters in the novel are of two types.  First are people who interact with the author, such as the waitress Ricky and the timid Rochele (Ruchale) Reznik, a professional young reader of famous writers’ novels at the Cultural Center. A short intimate relationship develops that night between the author and Rochele.

The other type of characters are created by the author while listening to conversations.  For example, at the little cafe near the Cultural Center two men discuss the subject of success in life (p. 7) and mention Ovadia Hazzam, “the man who won half a million on the lottery a couple of years ago, and then he got divorced, had a wild time… lived like a king. Like a lord, even. …he got liver cancer and was taken to the hospital in critical condition.”   Listening to that conversation the author created an imaginary story about Ovadia Hazzam’s suffering in the hospital.

References are made in the novel also to real people who lived in Palestine and/or in Israel such as the writer and politician Berl Katzenelson, poet Lea Goldberg, and a few other personalities, including the poet Tsefania Beit-Halachmi, for his 1950’s book of poems Rhyming Life and Death, the title that inspired Oz for his new novel.    

A large portion of the novel (pp. 69-87) is focused on that sexual episode between the author and the young Rochele, his reader; it’s the most detailed and sensitively written sexual experience Amos Oz has ever written in his novels.  Rochele is a childish timid young woman; perhaps her lack of feminine maturity draws the author’s interest.  The surprise of their sexual interaction is that she is not really childish, as she appears, and he is not the assertive man, as projected from his writing success.  Unfortunately, the author’s imagination during the sexual attempt is focused on his characters in the novel: the image of Ricky, the waitress, gives him sexual power, while that of Ovadia Hazzam, dying of cancer, disturbs him.

Unlike Oz’s previous novels, Rhyming Life and Death is missing a main story line and has no central development. It centers on Eros and death, as well on in-between events, the trivia of daily life, covering no less than 39 characters in such a short novel!

It’s the only Oz novel where the author asks: “Why do you write? Why do you write the way you do? What contribution do your books make to society, to the State, or to the enhancement of moral values? Do you actually only write for the fame? Or for the money?” (p. 88). 

The novel does not provide an answer. However, Amos Oz in 2005, around the time he must have been writing this novel, in accepting Germany’s prestigious Goethe prize, explained the act of writing as follows: “I believe that books that can make us imagine the other, may make us more immune to the ploys of the devil, including the inner devil, the Mephisto of the heart. Imagining the other, is not only an aesthetic tool. It is, in my view, also a major moral imperative.”

Oz’s statement implies a universal psychological truth about relations among friends, husband and wife, parent and child, or, even two enemies: to maintain and/or improve a relation it is crucial for each side, person, group, or nation, to use imagination in order to understand and read the mind of the other side.

The trustworthy translation by Nicholas de Lange, professor at the University of Cambridge, is loyal to the central character, The Power of the Imaginative Mind of the author!  

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Dr. Avraham D. Horowitz lives in Florida, where he lectures on Modern Hebrew Literature and publish reviews in the Florida Jewish Journal.   He grew up in Israel where he served in the Israeli army and studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.S. degree). Later he was awarded M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Experimental Psychology at the University of North  Carolina in Chapel Hill. 
 
Horowitz worked for 27 years at General Motors Research Labs in Michigan in consumer psychology research. Parallel to his research career, he started in Michigan and later in Florida Modern Hebrew Literature Book Clubs, in Hebrew and in English.   In Florida he lectured on Modern Hebrew Literature at the Jewish Federation, the ELDERHOSTEL program, the Distinguished Lecture Series of the Jewish Education Committee, and at Adult Education Programs of various Temples.  



       

 
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