A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
My response to this memoir written by the great Israeli novelist is complicated. Huge sections of this very long book are five stars in quality, while other sections, not so much. 538 pages to cover mostly childhood and adolescence is simply too much. The book could have used some good editing, particularly because it often repeats a detail, sometimes more than once.
Oz's writing is rich with detail, beautiful descriptions of physical objects and scenes and compelling characters fully drawn. Here is a brief snippet:
"The bird sang with wonderment, awe, gratitude, exaltation, as though no night had ever ended before, as if this morning was the very first morning in the universe and its light was a wondrous light the like of which had never before burst forth and traversed the wide expanse of darkness."
The setting is dramatic--his childhood in Jerusalem before statehood, growing up among people who fled pogroms and the Holocaust, with cultural roots in both European peasantry and European intellectual life. He lives through the War of Independence when the family's basement apartment was filled with a dozen other people taking refuge from the shelling. His family and their friends are a who's-who of Israeli literary and political life. Included are amazing snapshots of, among others, Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin, in memorable scenes. Prime Minister Ben Gurion calls an adolescent Amos into his office and lectures him on the interpretation of Spinoza. As a child, Amos bursts into laughter during a speech of Begin's, embarrassing his grandfather.
Three large themes connect the disparate stories--Amos' love of books inherited from his father (the descriptions of books and libraries are the most beautiful passages in the memoir) and how literature shapes his life, Amos' disenchantment with his family's conservative politics which leads him to join the Left, and the complex relationships of family, particularly the relationships between Amos, his depressed mother, and his frustrated father.
A few weeks ago as I wrote my church column about Our Times and how we don't get to choose them, this memoir was resonating with me. The members of his family had good lives in Europe which they had to leave. They suffered. The endured war and poverty and loss of status. The memoir was a powerful reminder of how little is in our control and how much we in America have taken for granted of the tranquility of our lives.
A compelling volume, filled with delights, which I shall enjoy and return to for years to come.
View all my reviews