Issue 140, Fall 1996
Amos Oz lives in Arad, a small new town of twenty-two thousand inhabitants, built in 1961 in the Negev Desert. To reach him, I took the bus from Jerusalem to Beersheba, then another to Arad. At the bus station everyone knew his house, and a man directed me to it: uphill along a wide tree-lined road flanked with medium-sized apartment buildings in white sandstone, to the top, where rows of family houses back onto the desert in lateral streets. Roses and huge feathery chrysanthemums grow in his front garden, shaded by a peppertree.
Inside, the house is simply furnished and welcoming. Stairs lead from the sitting room to Oz’s study below: a tidy, womblike room, entirely lined with books, like wallpaper. One long shelf contains dozens of Oz’s own books, in various editions and translations. A comfortable sofa and armchair in gray velveteen, a coffee table, a large desk, and a lectern in one corner complete the furniture. Patio windows open onto a small beautiful garden, like a bower, with rosebushes and shrubs, overhung with plumbagos. Beyond is the desert. “I’m proud of my garden,” he said. “I created it. There is no topsoil here, so it had to be brought specially.”
Amos Oz speaks perfect English, with a slight accent. The clipped, well-rounded sentences, clearly enunciated, indicate the punctuation, as if he were writing. He was born Amos Klausner in 1939 to a family of scholars who had emigrated from Russia in the early 1920s and later settled in Jerusalem. At fifteen he left home for Kibbutz Hulda, where he lived until a few years ago, when his younger son’s asthma made the move to Arad necessary—the clean desert air alleviates his condition. Oz studied philosophy and literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and later fought as a reserve soldier in the 1967 Six-Day War in Sinai and on the Golan Heights in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Apart from a dozen novels and some collections of short stories, he has published three books of essays, mostly concerned with the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is one of the earliest activists of the Peace Now movement, advocating a compromise between the two communities based on mutual acceptance and cooperation, and the sharing of land.
When he began to publish his work he took the name Oz, meaning strength. He met his wife Nily at the kibbutz, when they were both fifteen. They have two daughters who have grown up and married, and a teenage son—“the child of our old age”—who lives with them. Nily runs the International Artists’ Colony in Arad, where artists from all over the world live and work for a period of eight months.
Amos Oz is a professor of Hebrew literature at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Beersheba, and has been visiting professor at universities in Britain and the United States. He is much in demand for lectures and conferences, last year traveling to several European countries—France, Poland, Belgium, Germany, and Italy, among others.
"He looks like Mel Gibson,” his London publisher suggested. Oz has turquoise-blue eyes, short blondish hair, and a gentle smile. His courtesy and courtly manners, his acute intelligence and knowledge, made the afternoon I spent with him a delight. It took place in December 1994.
Your traveling schedule is formidable. Yet you produce books at regular intervals. How do you divide your time? First during the year, and then daily?
The first rule is never to travel when I’m pregnant with a book. I tend not to travel abroad when I’m writing, and even within this country I limit myself to three or four times a year. It doesn’t always work out, but that is my pattern. As for my day, I start at six a.m. with a forty-minute walk in the desert, summer and winter.
Does it ever snow in the desert?
Oh yes, every two or three years. And then you should see the expression on the faces of the camels crossing the desert! That is when I understand the real meaning of the word bewilderment! But even without snow, it is bitterly cold in winter, a savage place at dawn, when stormy winds seem determined to sweep away the whole town into the desert. But walking alone knocks things into proportion. If later on I read in the morning papers that some politician has said this or that will never happen, I know that this or that is going to last forever, that the stones out there are laughing, that in this desert, which is unchanged for thousands of years, a politician’s never is like . . . a month? Six months? Thirty years? Completely insignificant.
I then have my coffee and come down to this room, sit at my desk, and wait. Without reading, listening to music, or answering the phone. Then I write, sometimes a sentence, sometimes a paragraph—in a good day, half a page. But I am here at least seven or eight hours every day. I used to feel guilty about an unproductive morning, especially when I lived on the kibbutz, and everyone else was working—plowing fields, milking cows, planting trees. Now I think of my work as that of a shopkeeper: it is my job to open up in the morning, sit, and wait for customers. If I get some, it is a blessed morning, if not, well, I’m still doing my job. So the guilt has gone, and I try to stick to my shopkeeper’s routine. Chores like answering letters, faxes, and telephone calls are squeezed in an hour before lunch or dinner.
Perhaps poets and short-story writers can work with a different pattern. But writing novels is a very disciplined business. Writing a poem is like having an affair, a one-night stand; a short story is a romance, a relationship; a novel is a marriage—one has to be cunning, devise compromises, and make sacrifices.
What about the evenings? Arad doesn’t seem crackling with exciting nightlife. It seems fast asleep even on this sunny afternoon.
Don’t you believe it! It is an exciting little place: three restaurants and three banks, a brand-new shopping mall, a barbershop, and a bookstore. We have had an influx of overqualified Russian Jews in recent years. We say that if a Russian arrives who is not carrying a violin, it’s only because he or she is a pianist. So we have good concerts.
Sometimes I come down here after dinner and read what I have written during the day. I demolish mercilessly, to start again the next morning. Sometimes I go out and sit myself at the local parliament: a couple of benches at the café where people argue about the meaning of life, the significance of history, or the real intention of God, and that’s my favorite pastime.
When do you fit in your journalism?
I write articles not because I’m asked to, but because I’m filled with rage. I feel I have to tell my government what to do and, sometimes, where to go. Not that they listen. Then I drop everything and write an essay, which is always published here first, then picked up by The New York Times, or England’s Guardian or another publication. You see, I’m not a political analyst or commentator. I write from a sense of injustice and my revolt against it. But I can write an article only when I agree with myself one hundred percent, which is not my normal condition—normally I’m in partial disagreement with myself and can identify with three or five different views and different feelings about the same issue. That is when I write a story, where different characters can express different views on the same subject. I have never written a story or a novel to make people change their minds about anything—not once. When I need to do this, I write an essay, or an article. I even use two different pens, as a symbolic gesture: one to tell stories, the other to tell the government what to do with itself. Both, by the way, are very ordinary ballpoint pens, which I change every three weeks or so.
Unlike stories, articles are written in one burst, over six or seven hours. It is like having a quarrel with my wife—we scream and shout and later make up. We live in a Fellini movie, not an Ingmar Bergman one: anything is better than silence and sulking and making each other feel guilty. I act upon the same principle in politics.
How do you write? Standing at that lectern, like Hemingway, or sitting down? Do you write in longhand or with a word processor?
I write in longhand. That machine on my desk [a word processor] is for typing out, not composing. For years I had my portable typewriter on which I typed the final draft, so that others could read it. Now I do the same on the word processor. I don’t even edit on it, but rewrite and rewrite in longhand. After many drafts I finally type it out. The word processor is, for me, nothing but a typewriter, only you don’t have to use Typex to erase or correct a mistake.
I walk round the room, then stand by the lectern and put down a sentence, and walk round again. I sway between the desk and the lectern.