In the United States the writer tends to become an entrepreneur, competing with other literary vendors marketing their characters and language, their humor or drama, to a skeptical and distracted public. In Israel, it seems, they order things differently. For a nation perpetually in crisis, with an ancient prophetic tradition behind it, the serious writer remains something of a sage, a wisdom figure who speaks with authority. Amos Oz has been such a presence on the Israeli scene for close to four decades, publishing not only novels and stories but political journalism, literary essays and Op-Ed columns, never wholly disengaging his state of mind from the state of the nation. Yet his public pronouncements, always as beautifully crafted as his fiction, have never laid to rest the inner demons that power his creative work. This is especially evident in his newest novel, The Same Sea. Despite its deceptively light tone, it reads like one of the most personal books he has yet written.
The Same Sea is at once spare and lushly experimental, an unusual mixture of hard, precise prose that drives the story forward and often lyrical, evocative verse that bathes us in the mental glow of each of the characters. The musical qualities of this verse, strong in Hebrew, are largely lost in translation, but its strategic line-breaks and numerous biblical echoes, especially from the Song of Songs, save it from becoming altogether prosaic. The story is so simple that the author can sum it up in his opening lines. It centers on a triangle familiar from some of Oz’s earlier books–the mild, practical father; the languid, troubled mother, who has recently died; and their only son, who has fled home in the wake of her death and, in this case, gone off mountaineering in Tibet. It would not seem possible for a writer to build his novel around three characters whom we never see in one another’s company: the widowed father, trying half-heartedly to resume his life, the deceased mother, not yet fully accepting her death, and the distant son, surrounded by his mother’s palpable presence, sleeping with women who bring her back to him, trying aimlessly to outrun his grief.
Yet this is a book in which the dead are never wholly dead, where memory and meditation are more vibrant than action, while time and distance are seen less as objective facts than as constantly varying states of mind. It’s also a book in which the fictional narrator, who resembles the author in every biographical detail, repeatedly emerges from behind the proscenium to sort out his own memories, which are precisely the ones that fed into the story. Just as the characters swarm about him, they inhabit one another’s minds as well, communicating across continents with some of the mobility and omniscience an author usually reserves for himself.
In short, this is a book about someone writing a novel, showing us how it lives within him while it is also spilling out onto the page. Yet somehow, even at this remove from direct storytelling, the characters resonate. Amos Oz has written other versions of this father, this mother, this boy, in Hill of Evil Counsel, for example, but never has mingled them so clearly with his own past, which instead of fading has grown more insistent with time. Confronting mortality himself, he feels more impelled to take stock of his own dead. The loss of his parents, especially his mother’s suicide when he was 13, still obsesses him as he approaches 60. The narrator even has one of his characters, the son’s carefree 26-year-old girlfriend, try to talk him out of his brooding mood. “Your mother killed herself/and left you quite shattered…. But for how long? Your whole life?/The way I see it being in mourning for your mother for forty-five years is/pretty ridiculous.” The narrator sees it differently. How can he bail out? “How can you jump from a plane/that’s already crashed and rusted or sunk under the waves?” For him the dead continue to haunt the living. Yet what she says has the authentic ring of the younger generation, and the author, with the warm generosity of Chekhov, respects its callow wisdom and healthy insensitivity, which part of him would love to emulate.
The Same Sea is magnanimous toward characters who could just as well be brutally satirized or dismissed–the coarse yuppie always on the lookout for a good deal, the ill-favored film producer, hopelessly unlucky with women, who becomes fixated on a character in a script, the girl who casually sleeps with nearly all the male characters, including (almost) her boyfriend’s widowed father. An underlying tenderness softens their hard edges. As in a Renoir film or Chekhov story, they somehow surprise the reader into sympathy and a wistful tolerance. Unexpectedly, too, they begin to nurture one another.
One feature of this enchanting book that I have already mentioned stands out most strikingly. As the story unfolds, the author keeps intervening in it, at first pushing his pad aside and wondering “how on earth/he came to write such a story,” but gradually interacting with his characters, commenting on the film script that the girlfriend is trying to sell, offering little scenes from his writing life and recollecting his own parents and childhood. At first it seems he is playing a postmodern game, violating the boundaries of the novel by wantonly mixing poetry and prose, fact and fiction, puncturing our suspension of disbelief. Worse still, we wonder whether the writer is simply losing interest in his own story, taking it over. But it soon becomes clear that, on the contrary, the story is so real to him that the people in it have invaded his life, and not only when he sits composing at his desk.
As he works in the garden, all the people in his head, real and imagined–where to draw the line?–the dead and the living, his children, his grandchildren, the characters from the novel, all his own selves, seem right there with him, tossed up from the same sea, pitching in despite their different views of how the gardener’s work should be done. This is a fanciful conceit, often used in the Renaissance for poetic creation, yet something about it rings ingeniously true. This is no symbolic landscape of ideas and images but a scene showing us the writer himself, away from his work but with his mind still abuzz. In this flux, paradoxically, he feels a contentment that allows him to set his demons aside, the dead who will not stay dead, the characters who insist on a life of their own, the fears for the future that poison the present: “Grief fear and shame are as far from me today as one dream is/from another,” he says. “Whatever I have lost I forget, whatever has hurt me has faded,/whatever I have given up on I have given up on, whatever I am left with/will do.” For the time being, at least, he can dwell in the moment. “Later I’ll go back to my desk,” he concludes, “and maybe I’ll manage to bring back/the young man who went off to the mountains to seek the sea/that was there all the time right outside his own home.”