Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Amos Oz: a documentary

A few nights ago, I watched a DVD I’d ordered, released in 2008 by a Greek production company, that profiled author Amos Oz. It’s a fascinating complement to Oz’s memoir, one that offers insight into both his creative process as well as his thoughts about the historical and even future importance of the kibbutz ideal.

Amos Oz at work: black pen or blue pen?
As a writer, I enjoyed the chance to hear the famous novelist talk about his working rituals. How he wakes early and goes for a brisk half-hour walk in the desert, near his home in Arad, around 5 or 5:30 am, before settling down at his basement desk to write, in longhand, until noon or one. Then, after lunch and a siesta, he explained, “I come back and destroy what I’ve done before.” To maintain the flow of his process, though, he tries to end each writing day in the middle of a sentence, which he can then complete and continue the next morning.

“I am a domestic writer,” said Oz, one who is interested in exploring the family—”the most mysterious institution in the world.” “I don’t begin a novel with an idea,” he continued. “I begin a novel with a character. I hear voices. … The first sentence is the most difficult. Where does the story begin?… It’s like beginning relationship with a total stranger.”

He keeps two pens on his desk. One is black; the other, blue. “One is to tell the government to go to hell,” he said, with a smile. The other—the blue, I have to assume—he reserves for his storytelling, with  its ambiguities and ambivalence, without the rhetorical certainty of his political prose. Those two sides of the writer, he feels, need to be separated. Still, his novels may serve a social good, even if that’s not why they are explicitly written. “We learn about the internal life of the Other,” said Oz about the function of literature. “And [through reading] there is a certain chance that we might become better neighbours.”

Late in the documentary, he offered a humorous summary of his 32 years as a member of Kibbutz Hulda. How he had rebelled against his conservative father, at the age of 15, by running away to the kibbutz. How—speaking the elevated language of a boy raised in the city by polyglot Europhiles—he came across as a”funny bird” to the more rough-hewn kibbutzniks.
“I had a tough time integrating with the local society,” he recalled, “because they were tough farm boys and beautiful farm girls.”

How, as he began his career as a young writer in his 20s, he asked the kibbutz for a day, free from the work rotation, to focus on his creative output. How the membership had to debate this proposal in the general assembly and finally vote yes or no. (To their credit, the kibbutzniks granted Oz his day of writing—and then more time as his reputation and sales grew.) How, once he became a source of revenue as an author, the kibbutz authorities even offered him the help of two elderly members “to increase production”, as though his novels and stories were like factory widgets that could be manufactured with greater economies of scale. How, when he needed seclusion to finish a book, he would simply make a request to the kibbutz secretary and be granted money to pay for a quiet hotel room away from the community. And how, once he had to relocate from the kibbutz to Arad because of his youngest son’s severe asthma, he “lost that sense of a big family.”

It’s significant, I think, that the documentary ends with a long monologue from Oz, narrated over a silhouette of the author walking through the last light of a desert dusk, about the fall and rise of the kibbutz:
“The kibbutz movement is in a big crisis. Part of this is an external crisis resulting from the fact that socialism is not popular anywhere in the world. I believe for some people there will always be an attraction in a way of life that is like an extended family, where people share everything, where people carry the highest degree of mutual responsibility. In terms of human experience, for me, as an individual, as a writer, it’s like the best university I ever attended. I hope and believe that the kibbutz will have a revival… Maybe in another time. Maybe in a different country. We live now in a world where people work harder than they should work, in order to make more money than they need, in order to buy things they don’t really want, in order to impress people they don’t really like. This leads to a certain reaction, and this reaction will bring back some kind of voluntary collective experience.”

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review: A Tale of Love and Darkness

Last summer, I bought two paperback translations of works by Amos Oz from an independent bookstore/coffeeshop in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. One was Where the Jackals Howl, a thin volume of stories, which I devoured over the final few weeks of  my trip. The second was larger and more recent: Oz’s 500-page memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness

It’s not a book to idly skim through at the beach. Rather, it’s a masterly act of reconstructed memory, both haunting and humorous, a mental reckoning by the author of his family history and his own childhood in Jerusalem on either side of the War of 1948 and the turbulent birth of the State of Israel. The dark heart of the book, which Oz foreshadows and then deftly circles until the revelation of the final few sentences, is the crippling spell of depression that gripped his mother, that drew her away from husband and child, and that ultimately led to her suicide when he was 12.

Oz is known, of course, as both a world-famous author and a kibbutznik—or rather, ex-kibbutznik. He wasn’t kibbutz-born, wasn’t a “child of the dream”. Rather, he ran away to join Kibbutz Hulda, not far from the Latrun Monastery, after his mother’s death. It was in many ways a rejection of the right-wing scholarly nationalism of his father, uncle and grandfather. (He even went so far as to replace his surname “Klausner” with “Oz”: ”strength” in Hebrew.) He lived and worked and wrote and married and raised a family there for 30 years. He only left when his youngest son developed asthma, and doctors recommended a drier climate, so they relocated to the development town of Arad, near the Dead Sea.

A Tale of Love and Darkness doesn’t detail much of Oz’s kibbutz years, but it does offer fascinating glimpses, from this literary giant’s perspective, of how these communities were viewed in Israel at mid-century. He describes using matchsticks and other tidbits to construct imaginary kibbutz settlements as a child. He offers a comic anecdote about how he wrote a rebuttal to a newspaper editorial by founding prime minister David Ben Gurion—and how his entire kibbutz was angered at first by his presumption, until Ben Gurion writes a reply to Oz’s rebuttal and later invites him for coffee. He writes about how his father, who tried to convince him against joining a kibbutz, visits for the first time and is so concerned about fitting in and not offending his hosts that he arrives, not in his usual suit and tie, but in the rough work garb of a pioneer. He also describes the contempt in which the kibbutzniks were held by his grandfather and his nationalistic friends:
“As for the kibbutzim, from here they looked like dangerous Bolshevik cells that were anarcho-nihilist to boot, permissive, spreading licentiousness and debasing everything the nation held sacred, parasites who fattened themselves at the public expense and spongers who robbed the nation’s land—not a little of what was later to be said against the kibbutzim by their enemies from among radical Middle Eastern Jews was already ‘known for a fact’, in those years, to visitors to my grandparents’ home in Jerusalem.” 
Oz’s memoir was a huge literary event in Israel when it was released, and in 2004, to coincide with the publication of this English translation, David Remnick profiled Oz in The New Yorker. At one point, they visit Kibbutz Hulda together and Oz reflects on his early years there:
“Tel Aviv was not radical enough—only the kibbutz was radical enough,” he said. “The joke of it is that what I found at the kibbutz was the same Jewish shtetl, milking cows and talking about Kropotkin at the same time and disagreeing about Trotsky in a Talmudic way, picking apples and having a fierce disagreement about Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. It was a bit of a nightmare. Every morning you would wake up and you were in the same place! I was a disaster as a laborer. I became the joke of the kibbutz.”
Oz’s memoir, like all his writing, is wrapped in this style of wry detachment and humourous retrospection. To Remnick, he describes his earliest years on Kibbutz Hulda as “a teen-age ‘Lord of the Flies,’ with better weather and a sensual permissiveness.” The author leads his guest around the quiet grounds of Kibbutz Hulda. Workers are in the fields. Many of the older buildings lie abandoned, as a generation of kibbutz children have not returned to their communal home. Yet, despite the decline of the movement, Oz still sees a remnant of the kibbutz philosophy, which he defended for so many years, still underpinning much of his nation:
“In a sense, the kibbutz left some of its genes in the entire Israeli civilization, even people who never lived on a kibbutz and rejected the kibbutz idea,” Oz said. “You look at the West Bank settlers—not my favorite people, as you can imagine. You will see kibbutz genes in their conduct and even their outward appearance. If you see the directness of Israelis, the almost latent anarchism, the skepticism, the lack of an in-built class hierarchy between the taxi-driver and the passenger—all of those are very much the kibbutz legacy, and it’s a good legacy. So, in a strange way, the kibbutz, like some bygone stars, still provides us with light long after it’s been extinguished.”

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Shouting Fence

I'd heard about the dilemma of the Druze Arabs of Majdal Shams, first from Druze workers and Jewish friends on the kibbutz when I lived there in 1989, and then from residents, artists and activists of this town in the Golan Heights when I finally had a chance to visit last summer.

I even saw the infamous "shouting fence"—two fences actually, which create a no-man's land between the Israeli-annexed Golan and neighbouring Syria. Friends, neighbours and family members who have been separated by this fence—some for 40 years—come together to call across to each other (some using megaphones) in a poignant symbol of this divided land

The fence was quiet when I visited. Apparently, cellphones and easier access to Syria via Jordan have cut down on its necessity. Still, the story of the Druze of the Golan should be listened to. Theirs is one of the more complex stories in a part of the world where nobody's story is simple.

That's what I was delighted to learn about and am keen to track down this recent Dutch documentary, Shout, which apparently traces the lives of two young friends from Majdal Shams, who cross over to study in Syria and then who must make the difficult decision of whether to stay there or return to their home on the far side of the fence, knowing that this decision is final and likely irrevocable.

Here is the trailer:

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Remnick Does Haaretz

Anyone who knows me also knows I'm a magaholic, and that there's little I enjoy more than a great magazine. (In fact, I take great pleasure in merely good or even flashily mediocre magazines, and my subscription addiction borders on the pathological.)

I also get a serious readerly woody for great newspapers, a love first kindled while fighting for sections around our family's ink-stained, paper-cluttered dining room table in Ottawa.

Finally, as this blog makes clear, I've got a long-standing fascination with Israel and Israeli culture and politics.

So just imagine how many degrees of heaven I was in, when I opened the latest issue of The New Yorker to discover an in-depth feature (by editor-in-chief David Remnick no less!) about the influential left-wing Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz (whose English edition I read on a regular basis online and which I devour whenever I'm in Israel).

It's a fascinating profile of a complex publication -- that rare paper where the publisher actually pushes his editorial staff to be more radical, more provocative, and risk alienating readers more than they often want to. The title says it all: "Haaretz prides itself on being the conscience of Israel. Does it have a future?"

Read it and decide for yourself.