Notes from the Green Couch

Amos Oz

Israeli novelist's memoir featured at celebratory conference.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Come to the 3805 Locust Walk any given weekday during classes and you are bound to find an accomplished author conversing over lunch or reading before an evening snack. It is not any day, however, when the Writers House sees a writer like Amos Oz step through its doorway.

In the middle of October 2004, Israel's most recognized and renowned living writer traversed the Atlantic to participate in an international conference, devoted to his life and work, held at the University of Pennsylvania. For four days, Oz bounced back and forth between buildings speaking with various groups and scholars from across the globe. Before getting thrown into his rigorous schedule, however, Oz was able to enjoy an evening of wine and cheese while reading from his A Tale of Love and Darkness in the cozy haven of the Kelly Writers House.

Notes from the Green Couch

Or should I say the Tchernichovsky Writers House? In Al's introduction of the famed guest, he recounted the different senses that comforted Oz in the Writers House of Tchernichovsky. Unable to replicate the smells and sights, Al warmly dropped the "Kelly" distinction for the evening, replacing it with an honorary "Tchernichovsky" title to create a more homey atmosphere for the foreign author.

Following the introduction came a trio of readings excerpted from Oz's recently translated book. Oz himself began, reading from, as he humorously called it, "the raw material of a wonderful translation." His reading, while undoubtedly beautiful (I listened to it), will not be discussed here because it was in Hebrew - a language whose letters I can read, but not comprehend at this point in my life.

Al read next, in English, a chapter telling the story of the time Oz's father wanted to plant a vegetable garden. Finally, the English translator of Oz's memoir, Nicholas DeLange, read an excerpt about the beginning of Oz's path to a life of writing.

In the excerpt Al read, Oz remembers his and his father's vain attempt to grow vegetables in the parched Israeli ground. While the story is meant to be read literally, if read as an allegory, a very moving parallel can be drawn between Oz's gardening and the state of Israel.

In the story, Oz's father is given some vegetable seeds, sparking a desire to produce food of his own in the backyard. Enlisting his son into service, the two wage war against the rock solid earth, fighting tirelessly with makeshift tools - for lack of real tools - to crack open the soil. After a trying victory, the father and son again use whatever resources they have to nurture the seeds: leftover food for fertilizer; a water bottle and strainer for a watering can.

The story's ending is sweet, then bitter. Young Amos' excitement at germination is short-lived, as the sprouting stems wilt and wither soon after. In the middle of the night, father Oz plants grown vegetables to surprise his son, making him believe he has magically revived the plants. However, these 'illusions' die, too.

The ending does not make allegorical sense in the case of Israel; the Jewish state has, against all odds, thrived time and time again in the face of adversity. The similarity can be found in the growing of Amos' garden and the growing of Israeli agriculture. Both became something out of nothing. Growing in arid land, successful cultivation relies on ingenuity rather than tools or the elements. Moreover, in both cases, it was a hard-fought war against the earth; Oz specifically employs military terminology in describing his attempts to plant the vegetables. Whereas Israel prospered, however, the Oz's garden retreated back into the earth.

In DeLange's excerpt, Oz remembers going to the cafe, with his parents and their friends, imagining stories for the fellow patrons as he idly waited for his food. The memories are humorous and remarkable, as young Amos exhibits incredible insight for such a young child in developing stories for each character. A woman drinking and chain smoking becomes an abandoned wife whose husband ran off with a younger woman on a cruise. Two Hebrew speaking middle-aged men playing chess become the last remaining members of a Jewish clan annihilated by Nazi Germany.

DeLange captures Oz's humorous and reflective voice perfectly: Oz tells of leaving stories unfinished once imaginary lovers reached the bedroom doors, while simultaneously explaining these journeys of the mind as the beginning of his writing career. By the end of the anecdote, Oz has developed his own character completely. Despite having aged, he is still the boy in the cafe, continuing creating stories for everyone that surrounds him. And this time, when he matches up a man and woman flanking him at the supermarket, he does not leave the bedroom scene unpainted.