Amos Oz

My Michael (1972) 

Often cited as Oz’s breakthrough book, My Michael was the first of his novels to be published in English and signalled the moment he became a bestselling author. Told from a thirty-year-old woman’s perspective (A. S. Byatt called it ‘A remarkable, percipient picture of the nature of women’), Oz wrote the novel whilst living and working on a kibbutz, huddled into a tiny bathroom writing on a notepad deep into the night. It is a deep, psychological exploration of a misguided marriage between Hannah and the drily academic Michael in 1950s Jerusalem – a marriage that sours as Hannah, beset by lonely days, haunting nightmares and unmet desires, turns away from her life and into a fantasy world. As both the novel and Hannah’s psyche unspool with dreamlike logic, she fixates on two young Arab boys who disappeared soon after Israel declared independence, and is soon unable to distinguish between reality and her fantasies.

 

The Same Sea (2002) 

Formally inventive, The Same Sea is a novel composed of verse and prose, made up of short, precise scenes about the disintegration and reconfiguring of a family when Nadia – wife to Albert, mother to Enrico – dies unexpectedly. Enrico heads off mountaineering to Tibet leaving his bereaved father Albert in the care of Enrico’s girlfriend, Dita. It is a book filled with articulate silences, and is propelled by the strange, surreal pace of life following the death of a loved one. Oz moves between the minds of his characters with deft ease and, in the novel’s restlessness not to be confined by the temporal present, calls up the dead and shakes up the living.

 

A Tale of Love and Darkness (2004) 

Widely considered Oz’s greatest book, and one of the biggest selling works in Israeli history, this novelistic memoir recalls the two formative events of his life and the older writer’s need to understand them: the foundation of the state of Israel and his mother’s suicide when he was just twelve years old. It amounts to the founding story of Israel as seen through a child’s eyes. It is also one of Oz’s funniest books. In Dickensian riffs he captures the absurdity of life in British-ruled Palestine, where his librarian father was writing inflammatory pamphlets against Perfidious Albion whilst hiding Molotov cocktails behind the rows of books that lined their basement flat. It brilliantly entwines the intimate story of an immigrant family with the larger, epoch-defining historical drama.

 

Judas (2016)

Oz’s final novel takes place in a claustrophobic house in Jerusalem through the winter of 1959–60. Shmuel, a feckless but idealistic student, takes a live-in job as verbal jouster for the elderly, cantankerous Gershom. Shmuel meets and falls in love with Atalia, a taciturn, beautiful widow in her forties, also living with Gershom. The history of the house gradually comes into focus: Atalia’s late father opposed the foundation of Israel and was in turn branded a national traitor a decade before. Another deeper story of treachery reverberates through this contemporary tale: that of Judas Iscariot. The Biblical tale was to become a founding anti-Semitic myth, responsible for spilling unimaginable quantities of blood over the centuries. But in Oz’s hands, Judas emerges not as a traitor but a true Christian and a fervent believer in Jesus as a miracle-worker. When Jesus is nailed to the cross, and it becomes clear he is unable to escape his fate, Judas is distraught and, realising his mistake, hangs himself. What was a nasty, ugly tale becomes a tragedy of misapprehension.

 

Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land (2018)

When asked why he writes non-fiction Oz replied, ‘Not because I’m asked to, but because I’m filled with rage.’ Oz’s final essay collection, Dear Zealots, distills many of his long-held political beliefs, each argued with characteristic moral rigour. His commitment to a two-state settlement – the need to turn the house into two separate apartments – is there, even as its likelihood has faded in recent years. It includes an expanded version of his most famous essay ‘How to Cure a Fanatic’ and he puts the case for compromise in the face of intractable political stand-offs: ‘The opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death.’

 

Who was Amos Oz?

Amos Oz was nine-years-old when Israel came into being in 1948, and he and the nation grew up alongside one another. He was one of the first to advocate a two-state solution with the Palestinians in 1967 – a radical proposition at the time – writing a piece arguing for its necessity in the days following the Six-Day War (a conflict Oz himself fought in).

In Oz’s fiction, the land of Israel is a recurring character and presence, but he was quick to dismiss those who saw his novels and short stories as mere political allegory. Like his hero Anton Chekhov, he became his characters in quiet but intense evocations of familial resentment, love triangles, paralysing inaction and how families are weathered by the storms of history.

His gift was to express difficult moral issues with a single metaphor that caught the complexity and tragedy of a situation. He once referred to the Jews and Arabs as like the children of the same abusive father: Europe. And it was Oz the man – charismatic, cool-eyed, scarred by war – that was a vital part of his literary allure. From an early age he sought out this new Israeli identity, changing his name at the age of fifteen from Klausner to Oz: Hebrew for strength. For many around the world, he was the living embodiment of Israel at its humane, courageous best.

Discover the books by Amos Oz

Related articles