Lost in the Land of Oz

BELL, PEARL K.

Writers & Writing LOST IN THE LAND OF OZ BY PEARL K. BELL For the most human of reasons, we tend to judge a writer who functions bravely under political duress by standards markedly more lenient...

...My Michael was the story of a discontented marriage, told by the very neurotic Hannah Gonen, who allowed her ambitions as a literary scholar to atrophy after she married a dull geologist...
...His wife Stefa, a beautiful and ferociously ambitious intellectual, teaches German philosophy, sees both sides of every question, corresponds with Heidegger, and regards herself more as a devoted European than as a Jew...
...And so Israeli fiction, like books smuggled out of Communist countries, is frequently overrated...
...Nothing in the earlier fiction of Amos Oz in any way adumbrates his dense and puzzling new book, Touch the Water, Touch the Wind (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 179 pp., $5.95...
...Elisha Pomeranz, a Jewish teacher of mathematics and physics in a provincial Polish town in 1939, spends his spare time on theoretical research, for "the secrets of Nature aroused a powerful passion in him...
...We were spared not the minutest twinge of her resentment and fuzzy dissatisfaction: Her husband, Hannah complained, talked to her as if she were a figment of his imagination...
...A somewhat similar double standard has been evident in the American response to Israeli writers of the younger generation-those who were born in Palestine and reached adulthood after Israel became independent...
...There is an air of meretricious contrivance about the book's jagged discontinuities, its random incidents and inexplicable declarations, as though its author were trying to prove that he, too, can handle the fashionable obscurities of disorientation...
...Does Oz mean this to be immortality or death...
...After endless changes of identity, the wandering Jew, through the necromantic power of music, levitates, in glorious defiance of gravity, and begins a Flight to the Promised Land that finally brings him to Israel...
...They lack the elementary tranquility bestowed like air on most Western novelists, who remain detached from the political and military urgencies of national survival (American writers went to Vietnam as journalists, not soldiers) and who face only a remote possibility that they will ever be threatened by any greater menace than an unfavorable notice in the New York Review of Books...
...Writers & Writing LOST IN THE LAND OF OZ BY PEARL K. BELL For the most human of reasons, we tend to judge a writer who functions bravely under political duress by standards markedly more lenient than the ones we apply to authors in uncensored and unthreatened nations...
...Solzhenitsyn's indomitable and saint-like heroism is one of the ennobling phenomena of our rime, and it led most American and British reviewers to acclaim his most recent novel, August 1914, a masterpiece, although the book was actually muddled and conspicuously inadequate...
...Among those younger Israeli authors who have in recent years been published in the U.S.-aharon Meg-ged, Yoram Kaniuk, Yehuda Amichai, and A. B. Yehoshua-amos Oz has won particularly extravagant praise: For two novels, Elsewhere, Perhaps and My Michael, and the novella Crusade, which appeared in Commentary three years ago, he has been proclaimed "a writer of international importance...
...But a mysterious secret agent convinces her to abandon the false gods of Russia and join her husband in the Jewish homeland...
...Some novels of strangeness, marvels and unreality, like Dan Jacobson's The Wonder Worker, in time disclose astonishing vistas of imaginative clarity...
...Stefa, meanwhile, has been lured by diabolical forces to Russia, where she becomes a powerful apparatchik in charge of propaganda and a flirtatious intimate of Stalin...
...Oz seems to be saying that only through the nontemporal, intellectual magic of the mind-through mathematics, philosophy and music-can the Jew elude his inimical reality and live beyond the threat of death...
...Though the Jewish State is a democracy whose writers are free to slam the government and the society as they please, the Israeli writer's condition is nonetheless very different from that iof other Western intellectuals and artists...
...Yet what he principally offered in Elsewhere, Perhaps was a cross-section of the kibbutz world: young love, middle-aged adultery, brush fires of gossip, the not always successful efforts of well-meaning teachers and poets and farmers and intellectuals to live in productive harmony for the good of their beleaguered country...
...Eventually, he solves a hitherto impenetrable problem of infinity, which makes him world-famous...
...Unfortunately, Oz never persuaded us of the singular qualities he obviously believed her to have...
...he writes, "lay claim to a genuine passport...
...When the Nazis arrive, she stays behind while her more sensibly intuitive husband runs for his life...
...To justify the strain on one's credulity and powers of poetic connection, such fiction must have a consonant richness cf thought and suggestion...
...A gathering of separate conflicts and personalities bound loosely together by the institutional setting, the novel was rather like Grand Hotel set on a communal farm...
...It was well-written but conventional, and Oz's satiric detachment was too often short-circuited by sentimentality...
...After several readings, I am still maddeningly bewildered by Touch the Water, Touch the Wind...
...Oz appears to have abandoned the conventions of realism not out of a deeply felt literary necessity but for the purpose of a technical stunt...
...Hannah was a tiresome and very familiar sort of narcissistic nudnik, and My Michael, far from offering what still another critic hailed as "a fresh insight into the makeup of modern Israel," was too nagejngly limited to the narrow, uninteresting boundaries of its heroine's self-absorbed world to cast any light at all on the society she inhabits...
...How extraordinary it seems to himó"thousands of Jews living in broad daylight . . . openly, unashamed," near Jewish mountains and Jewish streams, on a strip of earth that has been miraculously converted to Judaism...
...to read them is an act of discovery...
...a modern Israeli Madame Bovary . . . that is also a critique of a superficial 'masculine' society...
...When in doubt, call on Flaubert and feminism...
...But neither of these wild reaches into left field was relevant to the work, remarkable only for the flawless plausibility of the feminine-first-person voice that Oz assumed...
...The novella Crusade, set in the 11th century, is far more effective than the novels because the historical framework kept both the prose and the ideas in requisite focus...
...As the Six Day War breaks outó"a noisy performance, tedious, familiar, overplayed, exaggerated, excessive: saturated with pork fat"-elisha and Stefa Pomeranz make their ultimate escape from the world...
...But Touch the Water, Touch the Wind seems more a maze without an exit, a willful act of confusion...
...Yet Oz's metaphor of the Jew in perpetual flight is not profound, and his struggle to impose an innovatory "experimental" texture on this image seems more capricious than genuinely committed...
...Of My Michael one American reviewer declared: "It's quite the last kind of book one expects from a young writer living in the midst of a melodramatic political situation...
...He settles quietly on a kibbutz as a sheep herder and pursues his mathematical investigations in the evening...
...Every Russian, Polish, Czech, or Hungarian novelist banned in his own totalitarian country, whose work slips miraculously through the wall of censorship into English translation, tends to be praised for his literary brilliance when in fact what excites our admiration is his courage...
...It is one of too many questions that for me remain unanswerable...
...For he must do his work in a land that is inexorably tied to the melancholy history of the Holocaust, and that has been under the gun at every point of its brief and bloody existence, never more so than at the present moment...
...His first novel, Elsewhere, Perhaps, was a kaleidoscopic account of life on a kibbutz hazardously close to the frontier, endangered continually by Arab guns from without and the petty, exhausting human frictions of collective life from within...
...Oz was bom in Jerusalem in 1939, but has spent most of his adult life in Kibbutz Hulda, as a teacher and cotton-field worker...
...His fable-if it is a fable-begins in prewar Poland and ends beneath the earth's crust in Israel...
...Again through the sorcery of music, he causes the earth to open up and receive them into its warm depths...
...A Joseph Heller, say, may drone on ad nauseam about human affliction and sorrow in the age of anxiety, but his jittery despair seems forced compared with the brutally immediate, very physical danger confronting Israeli writers...
...In common with other sabra novelists of his generation, Oz regards the older world of Zionist idealists-the patriarchal heroes of the Palmach and the Haganah-with ironic amusement, the characteristically rebellious disdain of children toward the ideology of parents...
...It is at first glance a juggler's act of symbols and magic, less a novel than a series of vaguely dovetailed meditations on Poland and Israel, on philosophy and mysticism, on the Jews as a people in constant flight from a hostile world...
...she wandered abstractedly around Jerusalem, had a baby and daydreamed erotically about Arab twins she played with as a child...
...Can any Jew worthy of the name...

Vol. 58 • January 1975 • No. 1


 
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