A Tale of Love and Darkness

A Tale of Love and Darkness

3.5 8
by Amos Oz

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"Touching, haunting, wrenching, amusing, and sometimes downright hilarious . . . This book is both richly panoramic and intensely personal . . . one of the most enchanting and deeply satisfying books that I have read in many years."—Robert Alter, The New Republic

Tragic, comic, and utterly honest, A Tale of Love and Darkness is at once a family

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"Touching, haunting, wrenching, amusing, and sometimes downright hilarious . . . This book is both richly panoramic and intensely personal . . . one of the most enchanting and deeply satisfying books that I have read in many years."—Robert Alter, The New Republic

Tragic, comic, and utterly honest, A Tale of Love and Darkness is at once a family saga and a magical self-portrait of a writer who witnessed the birth of a nation and lived through its turbulent history.
It is the story of a boy growing up in the war-torn Jerusalem of the forties and fifties, in a small apartment crowded with books in twelve languages and relatives speaking nearly as many. The story of an adolescent whose life has been changed forever by his mother's suicide when he was twelve years old. The story of a man who leaves the constraints of his family and its community of dreamers, scholars, and failed businessmen to join a kibbutz, change his name, marry, have children. The story of a writer who becomes an active participant in the political life of his nation.

"It is impossible to give a full account of this book's riches."—The Washington Post Book World

"A[n] . . . ingenious work that circles around the rise of a state, the tragic destiny of a mother, a boy's creation of a new self."—The New Yorker

"Detailed and beautiful . . . As he writes about himself and his family, Oz is also writing part of the history of the Jews."—Los Angeles Times

Amos Oz is the author of numerous works of fiction and essay collections. He has received the Koret Jewish Book Award, the Prix Femina, the Israel Prize, and the Frankfurt Peace Prize, and his books have been translated into more than thirty languages. Amos Oz lives in Israel.

Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times
[An] indelible memoir

—John Leonard

The New Republic
Touching, haunting, wrenching, amusing, and sometimes downright hilarious...the best book Oz has ever written

—Robert Alter

New York Times - John Leonard
"[An] indelible memoir"
The New Republic - Robert Alter
"Touching, haunting, wrenching, amusing, and sometimes downright hilarious...the best book Oz has ever written"
From the Publisher

"Detailed and beautiful . . . As he writes about himself and his family, Oz is also writing part of the history of the Jews . . . We are in the hands here of a capable, practiced seducer."—Los Angeles Times

"This lyrical saga . . . succeeds both as a revelatory tale of the artist as young man and a gripping portrait of the young Jewish state itself."—The Miami Herald

Alberto Manguel
It is impossible to give a full account of this book's riches. Oz has allowed his autobiography to flow along a rocky course, with numerous starts and various endings. Wisely, he does not impose the restrictive method ordered by another of Wonderland's creatures: "Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end, then stop." Oz knows that every autobiography is circular and that, even though the writer begins telling his story at the moment when the book must end, the points of entry are legion.
— The Washington Post
John Leonard
Oz has never written about his unhappy mother and the January day in 1952 when she walked back through the rain to a moldy flat and an overdose of sedatives. Nor had he and his father ever discussed it: ''From the day of my mother's death to the day of my father's death, 20 years later, we did not talk about her once. Not a word. As if she had never lived. As if her life was just a censured page torn from a Soviet encyclopedia.'' He will make up for that erasure with this indelible memoir, circling so often around the wound, inching up and closing in, that finally Fania's furious son has no other ground to stand on.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
This memoir/family history brims over with riches: metaphors and poetry, drama and comedy, failure and success, unhappy marriages and a wealth of idiosyncratic characters. Some are lions of the Zionist movement-David Ben-Gurion (before whom a young Oz made a terrifying command appearance), novelist S.Y. Agnon, poet Saul Tchernikhovsky-others just neighbors and family friends, all painted lovingly and with humor. Though set mostly during the author's childhood in Jerusalem of the 1940s and '50s, the tale is epic in scope, following his ancestors back to Odessa and to Rovno in 19th-century Ukraine, and describing the anti-Semitism and Zionist passions that drove them with their families to Palestine in the early 1930s. In a rough, dusty, lower-middle-class suburb of Jerusalem, both of Oz's parents found mainly disappointment: his father, a scholar, failed to attain the academic distinction of his uncle, the noted historian Joseph Klausner. Oz's beautiful, tender mother, after a long depresson, committed suicide when Oz (born in 1939) was 12. By the age of 14, Oz was ready to flee his book-crammed, dreary, claustrophobic flat for the freedom and outdoor life of Kibbutz Hulda. Oz's personal trajectory is set against the background of an embattled Palestine during WWII, the jubilation after the U.N. vote to partition Palestine and create a Jewish state, the violence and deprivations of Israel's war of independence and the months-long Arab siege of Jerusalem. This is a powerful, nimbly constructed saga of a man, a family and a nation forged in the crucible of a difficult, painful history. (Nov.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Award-winning Israeli author Oz (The Same Sea), whose childhood ambition was to be a book, has constructed a memoir full of family wisdom, history, and culture. Oz's father was a librarian and, like his mother, a member of the local literary community. In the 1940s, a time of great upheaval in Jerusalem, young Oz believed that if he were a book there would be a good chance that one copy of him would survive and "find a safe place on some godforsaken bookshelf." The influence of Oz's parents on his career as a writer dominates this warm, funny, personal history; a standout anecdote involves Oz's grandfather, who revealed to his grandson the key to being admired by many women: be a good listener. As much as this distinguished book details the lives of the Oz family, it also captures the history of Israel. For biography, literature, and history collections in academic and public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/04.] Joyce Sparrow, Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas Cty., FL Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A moving, emotionally charged memoir of the renowned author's youth in a newly created Israel. "Almost everyone in Jerusalem in those days," writes novelist Oz (The Same Sea, 2001, etc.) of the 1940s, "was either a poet or a writer or a researcher or a thinker or a scholar or a world reformer." Oz's uncle Joseph Klausner, for instance, kept a 25,000-volume library in every conceivable language, its dusty volumes providing a madeleine for the young writer, "the smell of a silent, secluded life devoted to scholarship," even as his grandmother contemplated the dusty air of the Levant and concluded that the region was full of germs, whence "a thick cloud of disinfecting spirit, soaps, creams, sprays, baits, insecticides, and powder always hung in the air." His own father had to sell his beloved books in order to buy food when money was short, though he often returned with more books. ("My mother forgave him, and so did I, because I hardly ever felt like eating anything except sweetcorn and icecream.") Out in the street, Oz meets a young Palestinian woman who is determined to write great poems in French and English; cats bear such names as Schopenhauer and Chopin; the walls of the city ring with music and learned debate. But then there is the dark side: the war of 1948, with its Arab Legion snipers and stray shells, its heaps of dead new emigrants fresh from the Holocaust. "In Nehemiah Street," writes Oz, "once there was a bookbinder who had a nervous breakdown, and he went out on his balcony and screamed, Jews, help, hurry, soon they'll burn us all." In this heady, dangerous atmosphere, torn by sectarian politics and the constant threat of terror, Oz comes of age, blossoming as a man ofletters even as the bookish people of his youth begin to disappear one by one. A boon for admirers of Oz's work and contemporary Israeli literature in general. Agency: Deborah Owen Ltd.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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I WAS BORN and bred in a tiny, low-ceilinged ground-floor apartment. My parents slept on a sofa bed that filled their room almost from wall to wall when it was opened up each evening. Early every morning they used to shut away this bed deep into itself, hide the bedclothes in the chest underneath, turn the mattress over, press it all tight shut, and conceal the whole under a light gray cover, then scatter a few embroidered oriental cushions on top, so that all evidence of their night's sleep disappeared. In this way their bedroom also served as study, library, dining room, and living room.

Opposite this room was my little green room, half taken up with a big-bellied wardrobe. A narrow, low passage, dark and slightly curved, like an escape tunnel from a prison, linked the little kitchenette and toilet to these two small rooms. A lightbulb imprisoned in an iron cage cast a gloomy half-light on this passage even during the daytime. At the front both rooms had just a single window, guarded by metal blinds, squinting to catch a glimpse of the view to the east but seeing only a dusty cypress tree and a low wall of roughly dressed stones. Through a tiny opening high up in their back walls the kitchenette and toilet peered out into a little prison yard surrounded by high walls and paved with concrete, where a pale geranium planted in a rusty olive can was gradually dying for want of a single ray of sunlight. On the sills of these tiny openings we always kept jars of pickles and a stubborn cactus in a cracked vase that served as a flowerpot.

It was actually a basement apartment, as the ground floor of the building had been hollowed out of the rocky hillside. This hill was our next-door neighbor, a heavy, introverted, silent neighbor, an old, sad hill with the regular habits of a bachelor, a drowsy, still wintry hill, which never scraped the furniture or entertained guests, never made a noise or disturbed us, but through the walls there seeped constantly toward us, like a faint yet persistent musty smell, the cold, dark silence and dampness of this melancholy neighbor.

Consequently through the summer there was always a hint of winter in our home.

Visitors would say: It's always so pleasant here in a heat wave, so cool and fresh, really chilly, but how do you manage in the winter? Don't the walls let in the damp? Don't you find it depressing?

Books filled our home. My father could read sixteen or seventeen languages and could speak eleven (all with a Russian accent). My mother spoke four or five languages and read seven or eight. They conversed in Russian or Polish when they did not want me to understand. (Which was most of the time. When my mother referred to a stallion in Hebrew in my hearing, my father rebuked her furiously in Russian: Shto s toboi?! Vidish malchik ryadom s nami!-What's the matter with you? You can see the boy's right here!) Out of cultural considerations they mostly read books in German or English, and presumably they dreamed in Yiddish. But the only language they taught me was Hebrew. Maybe they feared that a knowledge of languages would expose me too to the blandishments of Europe, that wonderful, murderous continent.

On my parents' scale of values, the more Western something was, the more cultured it was considered. For all that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were dear to their Russian souls, I suspect that Germany-despite Hitler-seemed to them more cultured than Russia or Poland, and France more so than Germany. England stood even higher on their scale than France. As for America, there they were not so sure: after all, it was a country where people shot at Indians, held up mail trains, chased gold, and hunted girls.

Europe for them was a forbidden promised land, a yearned-for landscape of belfries and squares paved with ancient flagstones, of trams and bridges and church spires, remote villages, spa towns, forests, and snow-covered meadows.

Words like "cottage," "meadow," or "goose girl" excited and seduced me all through my childhood. They had the sensual aroma of a genuine, cozy world, far from the dusty tin roofs, the urban wasteland of scrap iron and thistles, the parched hillsides of our Jerusalem suffocating under the weight of white-hot summer. It was enough for me to whisper to myself "meadow," and at once I could hear the lowing of cows with little bells tied around their necks, and the burbling of brooks. Closing my eyes, I could see the barefoot goose girl, whose sexiness brought me to tears before I knew about anything.

As the years passed I became aware that Jerusalem, under British rule in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, must be a fascinatingly cultured city. It had big businessmen, musicians, scholars, and writers: Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, S. Y. Agnon, and a host of other eminent academics and artists. Sometimes as we walked down Ben Yehuda Street or Ben Maimon Avenue, my father would whisper to me: "Look, there is a scholar with a worldwide reputation." I did not know what he meant. I thought that having a worldwide reputation was somehow connected with having weak legs, because the person in question was often an elderly man who felt his way with a stick and stumbled as he walked along, and wore a heavy woolen suit even in summer.

The Jerusalem my parents looked up to lay far from the area where we lived: it was in leafy Rehavia with its gardens and its strains of piano music, it was in three or four cafés with gilded chandeliers on the Jaffa Road or Ben Yehuda Street, in the halls of the YMCA or the King David Hotel, where culture-seeking Jews and Arabs mixed with cultivated Englishmen with perfect manners, where dreamy, long-necked ladies floated in evening dresses, on the arms of gentlemen in dark suits, where broad-minded Britons dined with cultured Jews or educated Arabs, where there were recitals, balls, literary evenings, thés dansants, and exquisite, artistic conversations. Or perhaps such a Jerusalem, with its chandeliers and thés dansants, existed only in the dreams of the librarians, schoolteachers, clerks, and bookbinders who lived in Kerem Avraham. At any rate, it didn't exist where we were. Kerem Avraham, the area where we lived, belonged to Chekhov.

Years later, when I read Chekhov (in Hebrew translation), I was convinced he was one of us: Uncle Vanya lived right upstairs from us, Doctor Samoylenko bent over me and examined me with his broad, strong hands when I had a fever and once diphtheria, Laevsky with his perpetual migraine was my mother's second cousin, and we used to go and listen to Trigorin at Saturday matinees in the Beit Ha'am Auditorium.

We were surrounded by Russians of every sort. There were many Tolstoyans. Some of them even looked like Tolstoy. When I came across a brown photograph of Tolstoy on the back of a book, I was certain that I had seen him often in our neighborhood, strolling along Malachi Street or down Obadiah Street, bareheaded, his white beard ruffled by the breeze, as awesome as the Patriarch Abraham, his eyes flashing, using a branch as a walking stick, a Russian shirt worn outside the baggy trousers tied around his waist with a length of string.

Our neighborhood Tolstoyans (whom my parents referred to as Tolstoyshchiks) were without exception devout vegetarians, world reformers with strong feelings for nature, seekers after the moral life, lovers of humankind, lovers of every single living creature, with a perpetual yearning for the rural life, for simple agricultural labor among fields and orchards. But they were not successful even in cultivating their own potted plants: perhaps they killed them by overwatering, or perhaps they forgot to water them, or else it was the fault of the nasty British administration that put chlorine in our water.

Some of them were Tolstoyans who might have stepped straight out of the pages of a novel by Dostoevsky: tormented, talkative, suppressing their desires, consumed by ideas. But all of them, Tolstoyans and Dostoevskians alike, in our neighborhood of Kerem Avraham, worked for Chekhov.

The rest of the world was generally known as "the worldatlarge," but it had other epithets too: enlightened, outside, free, hypocritical. I knew it almost exclusively from my stamp collection: Danzig, Bohemia, and Moravia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ubangi-Shari, Trinidad and Tobago, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika. That worldatlarge was far away, attractive, marvelous, but to us it was dangerous and threatening. It didn't like the Jews because they were clever, quick-witted, successful, but also because they were noisy and pushy. It didn't like what we were doing here in the Land of Israel either, because it begrudged us even this meager strip of marshland, boulders, and desert. Out there, in the world, all the walls were covered with graffiti: "Yids, go back to Palestine," so we came back to Palestine, and now the worldatlarge shouts at us: "Yids, get out of Palestine."

Copyright © 2003 by Amos Oz and Keter Publishing House Ltd.
Translation copyright © 2004 Nicholas de Lange

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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