“In Hebrew, ‘fear’ and ‘faith’ are synonyms.”
Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness has a lot in common with two great books: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City.
To the Lighthouse is a book about burying ghosts – specifically, burying the ghost of a dead parent. Woolf lost her mother when she was young, and she grew up in the shadow of her very literary, very intellectual father. She didn’t feel like she could really write and express herself fully until after he was also dead. To the Lighthouse tells us what her mother and father were like, and is her reconciliation with them.
Oz is haunted by the ghost of his mother’s suicide when he was 12 years old, and writing this book is the first time in his life that he’s spoken about it to anyone. In meticulously combing through his childhood memories, he’s looking for clues to help him understand why she did it, and to forgive her. And as if his own memories were not enough, he digs and sifts through the memories of various family members to reconstruct the history of his family in Eastern Europe before the First World War.
“In all these recollections, my task is a bit like that of someone trying to build something out of old stones that he is digging out of the ruins of something that was also, in its day, built out of stones from a ruin.”
Woolf’s book is also a book about war – specifically, WW1. However, war is only mentioned obliquely, kind of suggested through intimations of darkness and destruction, unfinished thoughts and pauses. War is overshadowing all of Woolf’s work, and just how much it affected her wasn’t clear until her suicide note in 1941.
War is also part of the darkness in Oz’s book. Eastern European pogroms, Zionism, WW1, WW2, the Holocaust, the bloody birth of the State of Israel in 1948. This being an autobiographical work, he talks about it very straightforwardly, reliving it through the eyes of the child he then was. However, these wars are just an expression of a bigger, deeper darkness: the centuries-long persecution and hatred of Jews. Oz doesn’t attempt to explain it, only remains somewhat baffled by it.
“When my father was a young man in Vilna, every wall in Europe said, ‘Jews go home to Palestine.’ Fifty years later, when he went back to Europe on a visit, the walls all screamed: ‘Jews get out of Palestine’.”
Istanbul: Memories and the City is also an autobiographical memoir where Pamuk invokes memories of his childhood interwoven with memories of Istanbul in the post-WW2 era. For good measure, he includes literary vignettes about writers and artists somehow connected to the city. The work is a love-letter to an Istanbul long gone, deeply nostalgic and melancholic.
Part of the nostalgia stems from the simultaneous burden and awe of history that a city like Istanbul carries in its DNA. Pamuk does a great job of depicting this sense of history permeating the city. In Europe, only one other city can make this claim: Rome. Jerusalem is pregnant with a similar burden.
Oz, however, barely touches on the historical grandeur of his city. His focus is primarily on the Jerusalem he came to know and love as a child in the 40’s. He approaches it with the same melancholy that Pamuk transfers onto Istanbul, because that city no longer exists. Also, both writers at some point abandoned their cities: Pamuk for work, and because of a hate campaign against him (he dared speak openly about the Armenian genocide), and Oz due to a self-imposed exile at age 14, trying to put behind him his family, his upbringing, his name, and his mother’s death.
And yet, A Tale of Love and Darkness is far more sweeping in its scope than Pamuk’s book. The non-linear story arc encompasses over 100 years of Jewish and European history as well as two Eastern European Jewish family lines going even further back. It paints a picture of what it meant to be Jewish in Eastern Europe, and what Jewishness entailed in Jerusalem during the British Mandate for Palestine, and how this dual heritage clashed in the young Amos.
“A double negation in fact, two sets of brakes, as bourgeois European manners reinforced the constraints of the religious Jewish community. Virtually everything was ‘forbidden’ or ‘not done’ or ‘not very nice.'”
Politics is not eschewed, and Oz makes no secret of his right-wing Zionist roots. He also describes how it came about that he changed his views, becoming a staunch supporter of the two-state solution in Israel.
At its heart, however, this is a book about family and love. It’s a book about how we can never escape from our past and where we came from, no matter how hard we try. And Amos Oz really tried: he escaped Jerusalem for a kibbutz, negating his upbringing, and he changed his last name from Klausner to Oz (Hebrew for “strength”), negating his family’s European, Diaspora roots. A Tale of Love and Darkness is a demonstration of how he failed in these attempts, and how embracing his roots actually shaped his writing.
“I understood where I had come from: from a dreary tangle of sadness and pretence, of longing, absurdity, inferiority and provincial pomposity, sentimental education and anachronistic ideals, repressed traumas, resignation and helplessness.”
This is certainly one of the best books, and best memoirs, I have ever read. At 500+ pages, it’s engrossing in its eye for detail, waxes lyrical in childhood minutiae, and so poignant in its recollection of emotional states that it made me shed tears in a few spots. It’s also a great read for someone obsessed with Jewish culture and history, as I am. I promise you, it’s a brilliant book.