Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Genealogy of Genius

                                              Amos Oz

The Genealogy of Genius: Expression of Literary DNA through Seven Generations of a Writer’s Family

Amos Oz is the highly regarded Israeli author of numerous works of fiction, journalism, and essays. He has received several international awards. Oz writes in Hebrew, his native tongue, and has been translated into more than thirty languages. He is Professor of Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev.

“If I had to tell you in one word what my work is about, I would say family.
                                                    – Amos Oz, “The Art of Fiction No. 148,” The Paris Review, 2009

Sometimes the family Oz writes about is his own family. In autobiographical works such as A Panther in the Basement (1995) and A Tale of Love and Darkness (2004), he explores the 'perpetual rotation of love and hatred, jealousy and solidarity’ within a small family more loving than it is riven by tensions between passionate rivals. Sometimes the family Oz writes about is the archetypal dysfunctional family that appears in The Same Sea (1999): torn by loss, tempted by incestuous longings, exalted by echoes of Biblical poetry in their daily lives, connected by the same sea, the novel’s characters are as real and contemporary as they are timeless.

In A Tale of Love and Darkness, Oz tells the tale of his family by beginning at the beginning.

Amos Oz was born in Jerusalem in 1939, descendant of renowned kabbalist Rabbi Alexander Ziskind of Grodno, Lithuania (b.1793), Oz’s great-great-great-great-great grandfather, and ultimately descendant of Yehuda Arieh Klausner of Jerusalem: scholar, librarian, writer, and father of Amos Oz. In between the famous mystic and the seventh succeeding generation that produced the internationally acclaimed writer, the paternal line brought forth a second Lithuanian scholar of Torah; an enlightened trader who allowed his daughter to study; the daughter, who settled in Odessa along with the family of her atheist brother, a factory owner; and Amos Oz’s grandfather, a petty trader and secular hedonist who ultimately settled in Palestine. 

As a teen-ager, reacting to the trauma of his mother’s suicide when he was age twelve, Oz broke with his paternal heritage and moved to a kibbutz, where he lived with another family; when he began to publish his own writing, he changed his name to Oz, meaning “strength.” By the time he emerged as a writer, Oz thus appeared to be an independent agent. Working outside the imperatives of his particular iteration of family history, the author chose identification with the existential crisis of the Jewish people (Unto Death, 1971), and became preoccupied with the current reality, and politics, of Jews living in Israel (A Perfect Peace, 1982; Black Box, 1987). Yet it was his father, the student of literature, combining as he did the scholarship of the ancestral rabbis with the enlightened outlook of the secular businessmen, who must have served Oz as a role model. Oz had likely internalized the history of his paternal ancestors, from their intense confrontation with the divine to their embrace of secular ideals and business success. As a contemporary scholar puts it:

“So there you have it. The entire recent history of our spiritual and intellectual journey as Jews encapsulated in just four paragraphs [of Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness] covering eighty years from 1805 when Oz’s great great great great grandfather was seventeen and living in Lithuania, to 1885 when his great grandfather was living in Odessa. From faith stronger than the agonies of self-imposed deprivation and affliction, to faith fragmented into a hundred irreparable shards.” 
(‘God has Survived the Enlightenment, but Whose God?’ Rabbi Dr. Tony Bayfield, 2009) 

Faith may indeed have become fragmented by the Enlightenment, but beyond the scope of religion, it has been the work of major Israeli novelists – such as David Grossman, Amos Oz, and A.B. Yehoshua – to repair the fragmented condition of the individual, familial, and national identity. And so literature, with its inquiry into the eternal questions and championing of the human spirit, here picks up where faith leaves off.

Oz also writes of his maternal ancestry in A Tale of Love and Darkness. His mother, Fania Mussman, was the granddaughter of a simple miller in Ukraine; Herz Mussman, the miller’s son and eventual father of Fania, became successful as the steward of a large estate. Herz Mussman was ruined in the 1930s, but reinvented himself as a carter after emigrating to Palestine. Oz’s mother grew up in Ukraine, where she was harshly treated by her own mother, Itta Schuster. Fania studied philosophy and history in Prague, and later at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where she met fellow scholar Yehuda Klausner. They married in 1938.

Why should a writer’s genealogy matter? Isn’t it an author’s literary pedigree that counts? No doubt, but in the case of Oz, a great deal of the spiritual and intellectual history that informs his writing has been transmitted precisely through the author’s personal ancestry. Part of what gives this author his authority is the way in which he has come to terms with the history of European Jews, as represented by the trajectory of his forebears: from religious preoccupation to disavowal and rebellion to accommodation. If Oz’s reckoning with the vast cultural inheritance of prior generations, and by extension with the Jewish past in Europe, is a more recent development, his novels have centered upon childhood and the nuclear family (A Panther in the Basement), or its precursor, the couple in love, (My Michael, 1968) or have pondered family life in Israel amidst struggle and loss (The Same Sea, 1999) from the beginning of his career.

Who is this family whose tale Oz tells?

You can begin to know this family by getting to know the father.

You can get to know Oz’s father, the librarian, in A Panther in the Basement, and enjoy his contradictory character: that of an Anglophile who hated the occupying British. Such contradictions are part of the story of the survival of the Jewish people. Indeed, Oz’s father hid a terrorist’s explosives behind his library books, where the British failed to find them during a search. A man divided against himself, Yehuda Klausner could not appreciate the irony of his contradictions. But that irony was clear to his son. Yehuda Klausner was, as Oz remarked, a man who wrote “fiery illicit pamphlets against perfidious Albion, calling the British every name in the book, quoting Shelley and Keats and Byron to prove how hypocritical and unjust they were.” (‘The Art of Fiction No. 148,’ Paris Review, 1994).

Or you can get to know the archetypal, conflicted father of Oz’s experimental novel The Same Sea. Recently widowed, the father longs for his ghostly wife and his son, missing in the Himalayas, and in a different way he longs for his daughter-in-law, who may or may not be pregnant with his grandchild.

Reading The Same Sea is a dreamlike experience. Full of the sensory detail of Mediterranean life, the novel is nevertheless vague, almost tenuous, in its evocation of character. Reading The Same Sea is more like reading a cycle of poems than becoming absorbed in a novel. Each page of the book contains a prose poem that advances the story, yet is readable on its own, for its own delights.

Following are a few passages from The Same Sea, translated by Nicholas de Lange.

Through us both

Before excuse me is this seat taken,
before the color of your eyes, before can I get you a drink,
before I’m Rico, I’m Dita, before the fleeting touch,
of a hand on a shoulder, it passed through us both
like a door opening a crack in your sleep.

He isn’t lost even if he is

Crystalline silence, transparent and blue.
The wind has died. Over deserted plains
a veil of glassy frost descends.

Cold and empty. Vast. Just over the horizon
according to the map there is a little village.
There is no sign of the village. Perhaps he is lost.

He will press on a little further. If he is lost
never mind: he will give up and go back
silently. The way he came.

The road is level. The frost is fine and bright.
Beside the sea his father is waiting
and beyond, in the depths, his mother.

But Albert stops her

Her hand so light in the hay of my chest. On the back
of her hand my shriveled hand. She’s on my own. I’m on her own.
On my veranda. We are alone. The sea has taken, the sea
has given. A slim silhouette and a little shadow. A timid
shadow. That turns. Escapes. The sea gives and the sea

Never far from the tree

The apple never falls far from the tree. The tree stands
at the apple’s bedside. The tree turns yellow and the apple turns brown
the tree sheds damp leaves. The leaves shroud
the apple. The cold wind leafs through them.
Winter comes autumn is over the tree is eaten the apple
rots. Very soon it will come. It will come it will hurt.


Jenifar said...

As I am quiet new in Jewish, looking around for some Jewish information> Got something important here. Nice to get it.
Have you seen this video It helped me get over my internal anger.

Linda Colman said...

Thank you for the video reference.