I was drawn to Rhyming Life and Death when I read on the cover that it reflects on “writing, reading and the elusive chimera of literary posterity” . I have a category of book on this blog entitled “books about books”, and as an avid reader, a new addition to it is a reward in itself.
Amos Oz is renowned in Israel for his courageous political stance as a secular social-democrat, having lived on a Kibbutz for thirty years and being a leading voice in the peace movement. He has won numerous literary awards as listed in his Wikipedia entry.
In his latest novel Rhyming Life and Death, Oz addresses the nature of writing fiction by letting his readers in on the internal reflections of the “Author”, a fictional writer, who is invited to attend a public reading of his work in Tel Aviv. During the following eight hours we read of his preparation for the reading, the event itself and then his wanderings around the city through the night-time.
The Author anticipates the questions he is likely to be asked by the audience after the reading –
- Why do you write?
- Why do you write the way you do?
- Are you trying to influence your readers and if so how?
- Do you constantly cross out and correct or do you write straight out of your head?
- What is it like to be a famous writer?
- Do you write with a pen or a computer?
. . . and so on, and on, and on. The Author sits in a café down the road from the literary centre to try to prepare his answers to these questions, but his thoughts are taken up by the waitress, with her “shapely, attractive legs”. He steals a look at her face, and finds it pleasant, sunny, with her hair tied back with a red rubber band. While he is waiting for his omelette and salad he begins to imagine her life, giving her the name “Ricky” as he writes her personal history in his head. We, the readers, are drawn into the creative process, as “Ricky” takes form before our eyes (this is perhaps a little like looking into a mirror placed in front of another mirror – the fictional “Author” creates a fictional personal for the twice-fictional “Ricky”).
The Author notices two men sitting at an adjacent table, one looking like a gangster’s henchman in a film. The Author names him Mr Leon and another story emerges as the Author lets his two new characters create a conversation (imaginary of course), about a man they know who won the lottery, Ovadya Hazzam, and spent all his winnings on cars and Russian blondes and is now dying of cancer.
After eating his meal, the Author makes his way to the Cultural Centre, stories of his new characters running through his mind as he walks. He is met by an elderly bureaucrat who wastes no time in trying to forge a bond with the Author, on the basis of their shared struggle for values of culture and ideas, “strengthening the ramparts of civilisation”. The Author is introduced to the audience and the reading commences. A professional reader reads extracts from his work (more of her later), and the Author’s mind wanders, looking at individuals in the audience and making up more biographies for them one by one- the young struggling author, a student radical, a trade union official, a culture thirsty woman.
At this point I began to recognise the process going on in the Author’s mind as I thought about my last train journey and remembered wondering about the people sitting alongside and opposite me. We humans are inquisitive about those we encounter and want to know about their family life, their jobs, their homes. Or perhaps we want to classify them alongside others we know, to make instant judgements about them and to fit them into little slots which save us having to get to know them too well. There is much in this book for the literary festival-goer. Do you think the authors being interviewed always give authentic answers to your questions? Amos Oz thinks otherwise –
The Author appears at his best, and replied to the audiences questions patiently, modestly and seriously. Occasionally he uses simple analogies or examples from everyday life. He takes his time as he expounds the difference between explaining and telling a story. He cites in passing, Cervantes, Gogol, Balzac, and even Chekhov and Kafka. As he speaks, he is amazed at everything: that he agreed to take part in this event, that he has not prepared for it properly, amazed at the words that are coming from his mouth, even though as he pronounces them it is totally clear to him that he does not agree with what he is saying, and worse than that, the truth is that he does not have the faintest shadow of an answer to the real, central questions, and he has no intrinsic interest in the things that his mouth is pouring forth, independently of him.
The event comes to an end, and the Author, while not being in the least bit interested in the professional reader, Rochelle Reznik, who has read so many of his words, finds himself manoeuvring to have an encounter with her, by offering to walk her home. The shy and under-confident woman is unable to find the right excuses to avoid getting involved with the Author, and the two lonely people wander around the neighbourhood, the Author trying to persuade himself that he finds her sexually attractive, so desperate is he for authentic human contact (people who live in their minds being so fixated on their imagination they are only able to relate to artificial constructs, avatars of real people, rather than the simple reality that confronts them daily?).
The outcome is sad for all concerned but is mixed up with the fate of all the imaginary characters he has constructed along the way. What is fiction, what is reality, when, as a writer, your daily life is spent solidifying phantoms into flesh and blood?
This book would appeal to anyone who is interested in how fiction comes to be written. It is also a statement about how humans relate to one another, often filling in the gaps in their knowledge with speculation. And finally, it offers some thoughts on what it is to be a male in late middle-age, with fantasy having to substitute for reality when it comes to overcoming loneliness – fortunate are those males who are not casting around for a new relationship when their hair is thinning and their libido is dwindling.
I am not qualified to judge whether the translation by Nicholas de Lange from modern Hebrew is good, but the book certainly reads very smoothly and captures the dry, detached tone of the inner life of the unnamed “Author”.
Christopher Tayler in The Guardian
Elena Seymenliyska in The Daily Telegraph
Julia Pascal in The Independent