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A Tale of Love and Darkness
by amos oz
harcourt, 544 pp, $26

Just over forty years ago, a university literature student named Amos Oz summoned the courage to ring S.Y. Agnon’s doorbell. Upon hearing the young man’s name, the Nobel Prize–winning novelist asked: “Aren’t you the child who, having been left an orphan by his poor mother and distanced himself from his father, went off to live the life of the kibbutz? Are you not he who in his youth was reprimanded by his parents in this very house, because he used to pick the raisins off the cake?”

Readers of Oz have long known the autobiographical background to many of his fiction’s most memorable characters. The sad or manic heroines—such as Hannah Gonen in My Michael and the mother in “The Hill of Evil Counsel”—harken back to Oz’s mother, the doomed Fania Klausner, who took her life when her only son was twelve. The voluble pedants—such as the father in Fima, addicted to explicating the “point” of his lengthy anecdotes—recall Oz’s father. And the odd adolescents—such as the boy who appears out of nowhere to join a kibbutz in A Perfect Peace —retell some of Oz’s own experience.

But now, in A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz has set aside fiction to write a straightforward memoir. His mother’s descent into depression is the central story, but Oz’s book—one of his longest and most complex—attempts much more. He traces the family back to Europe, describes the social life of his lower-middle-class Jerusalem neighborhood and the political hopes of his parents’ generation, retails first-hand gossip about the personalities he encountered as a youngster, and sketches the inner landscape of a precocious, troubled boy who became a major writer.

In a town glutted with émigré intellectuals, Arieh Klausner—compulsive explainer, walking etymological dictionary and maker of puns, author of books on comparative literature—eked out his living as a librarian. He sarcastically called his son “Your Highness,” and in winter warmed the boy’s freshly squeezed orange juice in a pan to ward off the chill. Fania kept house, charmed her social circle, and read a lot.

Oz means the “darkness” in his memoir’s title literally: a description of the Klausners’ cramped, two-room basement apartment opens the book. During the 1948 siege of Jerusalem, these two rooms accommodated refugees from more vulnerable neighborhoods, who stepped over the sleeping family at night on their way to the toilet that could not be flushed for lack of water. One of the refugees was Arieh’s uncle, the childless Professor Joseph Klausner. In normal times, Uncle Joseph lived in a nearby neighborhood among the privileged intellectuals. On Sabbath afternoons he would be visited at home by his many admirers, including his nephew. Uncle Joseph’s admiring books on early Christianity had made his name among non-Jews. At the Hebrew University, which was dominated by anti-war Jews who had come from Germany, the hawkish and Odessa-born Klausner felt insufficiently esteemed. Lampooned mercilessly as “Professor Bakhlam” in Agnon’s novel Shirah, Uncle Joseph gets tough but sympathetic treatment in Oz’s memoir.

The militancy of the Klausner family was more talk than deeds. The contribution of Oz’s father to Menachem Begin’s underground insurgency against the British was limited to helping with the occasional propaganda leaflet. In a passage written to be quoted, even by those who do not share the mature Oz’s leftist convictions, he reports his father’s tearful response (the only time he ever displayed emotion to his son) to the public broadcast of the U.N. vote partitioning Palestine between Jews and Arabs: “Bullies may well bother you in the street or in school someday. They may do it precisely because you are a little bit like me. But from now on, from the moment we have our own state, you will never be bullied just because you are a Jew. From tonight that’s finished here. Forever.” The impact of this utterance has less to do with the doctrines of Revisionist Zionism than with its expression of the Jewish consensus.

Nonetheless, the Klausners were apart from the mainstream. Labor Zionists expended effort, ideology, and pride on the formation of a Jewish infrastructure in mandatory Palestine. That effort was especially visible in the collective agricultural life of the kibbutz and in the Hagana, the “official” Jewish defense arm. But the Revisionist Zionism of Vladimir Jabotinsky—the Zionism of the Klausner family—concentrated on the political goal of establishing a state.

And yet, while they yearned for a national paradise where everything would be different, the languages and landscapes of Europe still possessed their psyches. For all their rhetoric about the “New Hebrew Man,” their culture and self-image was still perceptibly bourgeois. Eventually the old Revisionists accepted Menachem Begin as Vladimir Jabotinsky’s rightful successor.

But in the period covered by Oz’s memoir, they were still not quite at ease with their new leader. Despite his daring deeds, he reminded them too much of the pale-faced, bespectacled Diaspora Jew, and they distrusted his populism, which seemed to appeal to the lower-status, culturally traditional oriental Jews.

The Israeli government, led by David Ben-Gurion, encouraged the Hebraizing of surnames. It is telling that members of the rightist opposition, the Begins and the Klausners, mostly kept their European names, unwilling or unable to cast the past behind them. The child Amos internalized this ambivalence about his family’s place in Israel.

In spite of his early and short-lived embrace of nationalist sentiment and language and the military games he played with household objects, he knew that history was elsewhere, away from Jerusalem and what it represented. It belonged, he thought, with the blond, blue-eyed kibbutzniks he later joined.

In A Tale of Love and Darkness, he quotes a mentor at the kibbutz, who says that Begin, with his faith in oratory and clever argumentation, is repeating the mistake of the exilic Jew—hoping to impress the Gentile world with an arsenal of words. So when, as a teenager, young Amos Klausner went off to the kibbutz and reinvented himself as “Oz” (which means “boldness”), it was not only a repudiation of his previous name. It was a resolution to adopt the Hebrew identity from which he felt excluded.

The political leadership of Revisionism at this time was secular and sometimes unlettered about Judaism; it generally chose to “respect” religion from a distance. Begin’s positive attitude towards tradition had not yet progressed to the point where it changed the profile of his movement. When danger of street violence prevented Arieh Klausner from sending Amos to the school attended by the professors’ children, he chose an Orthodox religious institution—not because he wished to initiate his son in religious practice, but because of animus against the alternative socialist orientation. Convinced that religion was moribund, he did not fear its lasting influence—rather, he was alarmed about education that reinforced government ideology.

Oz’s account of his elementary school seems accurate enough. Yet his perspective throughout is that of the outsider. The only religious individual to capture his attention is his second-grade teacher Zelda, a remarkable woman who was the object of his first crush and who opened his mind to literature and language. When he relates his one adult visit to her—he by then a rising literary lion, she a well-known poet—Oz recognizes her flat as the home of a religious woman but conveys little sense of what that might mean. At one point Oz mentions his study of Agnon’s treatment of God, The Silence of Heaven, whose thesis is that “Agnon believes in God and fears him, but he does not love him.” And Oz takes pride in almost confessional responses to his book from Orthodox readers. Nonetheless, despite his success in puncturing the naïve, pious image that Agnon cultivated, here too Oz’s vision of religious life betrays nothing of his youthful exposure to it.

A childhood memoir written half a century after the events it describes is inevitably novelistic, and Oz explicitly alludes to the shaping of his narrative in fictional terms. It is not surprising that he sometimes errs in his descriptions of religious behavior. Remembering a rally of the early 1950s at the Edison Cinema on Isaiah Street, Oz has Begin employing a microphone on a Saturday morning—an act that would disconcert and offend the many traditional Jews in the audience. In those days, even staunchly secularist assemblies in Jerusalem did not exhibit microphones on Sabbath; an inaudible speaker would be urged to “talk to the flowerpot” where electronic amplification might be concealed. Likewise the few appearances of Arabs in the narrative have a dreamy, allegorical quality.

As much as any Israeli novelist of his generation, Amos Oz is responsible for liberating his country’s fiction from the heavy hand of politically driven “socialist realism.” And thus it is unfair to pick the political and cultural raisins from this rich cake of an autobiography. Throughout the book, Oz circles around his mother’s breakdown and suicide. His strongest apostrophes of rage, guilt, and frustration occur midway through a narrative interspersed with background stories: tales about his ancestors and their adventures in Europe, his mother’s education, the lives of his friends and neighbors, his grandmother’s obsession with cleanliness, and his grandfather’s eccentricities.

It is as if Amos had conjured up his father’s stock of garrulousness and his own narrative talent to stave off the final account of his mother’s abandonment. But the chronicle of insomnia, migraines, lack of appetite, and listlessness cannot be evaded. The details of coping with housework, the doctors and pills and rest cures, Arieh’s search for female company away from home, and Fania’s nocturnal migrations from her room to that of her pubescent son are presented, from Amos’s perspective, without pity and with an admirable avoidance of retrospective commentary and diagnosis.

Near the end, on a rainy day brimming with false hope, Fania and Amos dropped in on Arieh at work, and she treated him to lunch to celebrate her recovery. Her appetite was still not good, and as always, Arieh stubbornly chased away the silence. The only other customers were two elderly ladies conversing in German, perhaps mother and daughter. Suddenly the younger woman at the other table “raised her voice and hurled a single German word at the old woman opposite. She pronounced it with venomous, piercing rage, like a vulture pouncing on its prey, and then she threw her cup against the wall. In the deeply etched lines on the cheeks of the older woman tears began to run.”

Amid the ensuing silence, Amos notices that his mother’s face “had turned very pale again, as it was all the time she was ill.” Three hundred pages earlier, Amos had observed a parallel scene. Then it was the older woman, his mother’s mother, who lost her temper at Fania, “and spat terrible words at her in Russian or Polish mixed with Yiddish,” while his mother “sat there like a scolded child, and as her mother shot one venomous question at her after another, all of them soaked and sizzling with sibilants, she said nothing in reply.” Suddenly Fania stood up and began punishing herself, slapping her face and tearing her hair.

With this scene, and dozens like it, recollected and re-imagined, the orphaned writer Amos Oz brings his parents and his childhood back to life.

Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish Studies and Philosophy at Yeshiva University in New York. He is also the editor of Tradition.