In A Tale Of Love And Darkness Amos Oz writes an autobiography of his early years. Though written from a much later perspective, this memoir effectively lives entirely in the first years of the author’s life, covering birth to the age of twelve, when his mother died in 1952. There is also much in the book that is drawn from his adolescence and his work in a kibbutz after leaving home, but these remain like visions of an only partially real future when the narrative returns, often abruptly to those earlier years when his mother was still alive. There are detailed stories of schooling, discovery of literature and a little of his coming of age and his first experiences of an adult life of love and affection. There is much more about his father and his only partially successful life as a writer and academic, plus some other things for which he displayed equally unrecognized talent. There is also a good deal of Jewish history, especially that related to the post-World War II diaspora from Europe to British-controlled Palestine.
But at its core this book is essentially about the relationship between Amos Oz and his mother. It starts with her giving birth to him and ends with her death, just twelve years later, an event that left the author with deep feelings of guilt and loss, of course. But there is more, in that one also feels there has been a lasting psychological scar that has marked much of the author´s work.
A Tale Of Love And Darkness succeeds in many ways – too many for a cursory review as this to list, let alone describe. Its description of family life in the 1940s in Jerusalem must head the list. This was no rip-roaring, unpredictable household. The father was bookish, a man who yearned to be an academic, to feel the social respect that would be conferred with authorship and recognition. Much is made by Amos Oz of his father’s unrecognized talent and, one feels, the son was perhaps prouder than the father when the latter eventually gained his doctorate from the University of London. Both much had passed by before then.
Despite the book’s vivid portrayal of his own and his relatives’ families, Amos Oz seems almost to freeze in mid-sentence when he describes his mother. She was clearly an immense, if rather distant influence on him. She was domestically inclined, very attractive, perhaps aloof and certainly long suffering, as her husband pursued his private dreams in his even more private study amongst his books and papers. She was probably not alone in this situation, but perhaps more alone than she herself or especially others were willing to admit.
These families’ origins where in the Baltic states, Poland, Russia and other parts of Europe. They left for Palestine, pushed by the hardening fist of fascism and, elsewhere, mere intolerance. Most who stayed behind perished. They were greeted by a British administration in the Middle East that was never clear in its priority and where policy was made on the roof. Nothing much changes, it seems. Calls for Jewish statehood were pursued alongside direct action and this era of tension and privation forms the backdrop for the early years of the author’s life. Aged eighteen, he would eventually meet Ben-Gurion, an encounter where the nervous tension, pride and awe jump from the page only to evaporate as quickly.
Amos Oz had relatives who were writers and academics, but they generally did not use their influence to foster his father’s ambitions, though this did not seem to generate tensions. His father’s stoicism would probably not have tolerated comment. Language was always at the core in the home, however, with his father’s command of Hebrew, Polish, Yiddish, Lithuanian and Russian allowing etymology to become breakfast talk.
A Tale Of Love And Darkness is especially memorable for its description of the author´s education. He attended all kinds of establishment, private and public, with both classroom and personal settings. He becomes infatuated with one teacher and certainly educated purposefully by another later on. It becomes an experience powerful enough to live on through a lifetime.
Eventually Amos Oz decided to adopt kibbutz life. This seems to come as a surprise, as much to Amos has his family, we feel. But he embraces the new challenges, appearing to relish the directness of physical work. Perhaps this was a psychological reaction to the face that his father’s rather withdrawn bookishness might have alienated his mother in the household. This is something that is alluded to in the book, but only via the opinions of the author’s relatives. It is certainly not stressed. But through kibbutz life, Amos Oz learns that the most effective way to become a writer is to live life and observe it. The writer then may interpret it.
But there is darkness here as well, a personal darkness that the author regularly alludes to and then quickly avoids. We feel it is surely the memory of his mother’s death which is resurfacing. If there is guilt involved, then its source is surely the perceived inability to influence events, to go back and change the circumstances that gave rise to tragedy. If only …
In the final pages, the author is again just twelve years old. He watches as his mother falls into the sleep that is the end of her life, a memory relived from the distance of middle age, but the memory remains as vivid as it was on the day it happened, illustrating that a silence of sleep, when eternal, is more powerful than any words can describe.
Source by Philip Spires