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.