Monthly Archives: December 2018
My daughter telling me that she wants to become a medical examiner / Minha filha me contando que quer ser uma perita – legista !
On Friday afternoon, a text arrived from Israel letting me know of the death of Amos Oz, hailed for decades as that country’s greatest novelist. “The last, best voice of an Israel that is all but gone,” it read.
Oz himself would doubtless have found a way to wave aside such talk, dismissing it as melodramatic. But there’s truth in it. For he was indeed the embodiment of a particular Israel, one that dominated in the first years of the state’s life but which has steadily receded to the margins.
To his internal critics, he was the face of the mainly-Ashkenazi, European Jewish elite that built the country, a bleeding-heart liberal constantly scolding the nation for its ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands, a founder of the Peace Now movement who never stopped demanding his fellow Israelis behave more wisely and more justly. More than once he was denounced as a traitor, an insult he once told me he regarded as nothing less than “a badge of honour”, putting him in the same company as Jeremiah, Abraham Lincoln and Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
Outside the country, however, he could make diaspora Jewish audiences swoon; they saw him as a pin-up for the Israel of their dreams. Ruggedly handsome, his face battle-scarred by service in Israel’s 1967 and 1973 wars, he could have been a model of the “new Jew” the first Zionists longed to forge in the Mediterranean sun. They wanted the new Israeli to be a soldier, farmer and poet. Oz was all three, a member of Kibbutz Hulda where he took his turn picking fruit and washing dishes, turning over the proceeds of his novels to the collective coffers.
In a way, that man was Oz’s first invented character. He was not born an Oz, but a Klausner, growing up not on a kibbutz, but in Jerusalem. His father was a scholar and librarian; the future novelist was raised in what he called “a house full of footnotes”. He fled to the kibbutz aged 15, renaming himself Oz – Hebrew for strength.
The trigger for that escape and reinvention may well have been the suicide of his mother, Fania, when Amos was just 12. Indeed, that event haunted Oz’s fiction. When we met in 2001, he told me that it was the mystery he had spent his life, and his books, “trying to decode”. He confronted it most explicitly in what may well be his finest work, A Tale of Love and Darkness, a novelistic memoir thought to be the biggest-selling literary work in Israeli history.
Throughout Oz’s fiction, the same motifs recur: interlocking love triangles, oedipal longings, unspoken desires, often attached to a protagonist paralysed into inaction and a woman out of reach. A mystery might linger – perhaps a buried scandal, related to the country’s recent past. They are quiet, but intensely evocative stories, full of both the intimacy of relationships and of place, especially the Jerusalem of the author’s youth.
Yet Oz’s novels were fated to be read as manifestos, each one assumed to be a veiled address on the state of the nation. It was not abnormal for Shimon Peres to review an Oz novel; Peres was only one of several Israeli prime ministers known to summon the novelist for what he called “a late night tête-à-tête”. Part of that was what Oz described as “the Judeo-Slavonic tradition”, which insisted a novelist also play the role of prophet, telling the tribe where they were going wrong. Oz chafed against that a bit, once complaining to me that, “No one expected Virginia Woolf to write about the Munich agreement, but everyone assumes my novels are parables about the new intifada.”
But part of it was his own fault, because Oz had a twin career as an essayist and polemicist. He was one of a group of young writers to edit an anthology immediately after the six-day war of 1967 – they called it The Seventh Day – which argued that Israel should immediately give up the land it had won in the West Bank and Gaza, and seek the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. That was an outlandishly radical stance at the time, but within three decades it would become the international consensus. Oz never abandoned it.
His great gift was to express complex moral ideas through compelling metaphor, even in his second language of English. He would argue that after the Holocaust the Jews were a drowning man: they therefore had the right to grab hold of a piece of driftwood, even if it meant forcing another man, the Palestinians, to share it. What they did not have was the right to grab the entire piece of wood and force the other man into the sea – which is what Israel had done in 1967. He would say that Jews and Palestinians both understood that a two-state solution was necessary, the problem lay with their leaders: “The patient is ready for the operation,” he wrote. “But the surgeons are cowards.”
Some found him hard to categorise. In Israel, he was a trenchant critic and dissenter. Outside, he was a fierce defender of his country with little patience for those who could not understand the Jewish need for a home of their own. If he had an ideology, it was hostility to fanaticism and a belief in compromise. He believed that compromise was too often seen “as weakness, as pitiful surrender”. Whereas, he wrote, “in the lives of families, neighbours and nations, choosing to compromise is in fact choosing life”. The opposite of compromise is not pride or integrity, he argued. “The opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death.”
Oz was garlanded with prizes and adoring audiences in Europe especially – his essay How to Cure a Fanatic is taught in Swedish schools – and he was often mentioned as a possible Nobel contender. In Israel, he continued to enjoy a large and attentive readership. But his views, which once reflected those of half of the population, became ever more marginal in his own land. The peace constituency shrank; fewer Israelis rallied to his message of enlightened compromise.
But he never lost his belief that the story of Israel and Palestine would end with resolution. Like so many before him in that part of the world, he insisted the promised land lay ahead – even if he would not live to see it.
On receiving the Kennedy Center Honors:
“I have three things to say.
The first: the arts are the face of America. When you leave this country, you discover that the rest of the world sees America through the arts that come from America—the tremendous amount of music and theater and dance that we just are exporting constantly.
The second: in a very short period of time, the Kennedy Center has become a central place for artists in this country. You could say almost that the altar of the arts is here now. And it’s a perfect place for us to come and to be. I grew up in Baltimore, so it was one of the first places I came to.
And the third thing I wanted to say is that the Honorees this year are amazingly wonderful artists. They’re brilliant, they’re individual, and they’re extremely generous with their genius, which I believe is what it really is. To be invited to be a part of this party is a great honor, but it’s also very humbling.” Philip Glass
THIS IS HOW “FLASH AND CRASH DAYS” SHOULD BE UNDERSTOOD”
I was never really fully satisfied with the way “Flash and Crash Days” was received. Although its reception around the world could not have been better in the dozen or so countries where we performed it, between 1991 and 1995. It was seen as entertainment and / or, by the more serious critics or scholars – such as The Journal de Geneve which described it as a “Wagnerian Tragedy” or the Parisian Liberation which knitted a theory of Freudian stochastic genealogy over and around it and dealt it too much of a superlative blow in the realm of “the playwright and director considers himself a magician of surrealism and, thus, makes us search for far too many hidden meanings”. The New York Times critic raved about the production but subscribed to that same theory – i.e. of the hidden meaning “a master of Latin American Surrealism”, the same old thing all over the place.
There was no surrealism.
There was a surreal pretense to disguise the harsh social critique I was staging. I am not Brechtian. I am not direct.
“Flash and Crash” gave them many nervous laughters but it also frightened their brains. The critics were on a competitive level with me. I much preferred Haroldo de Campos’s off the cuff remarks: “It’s pure Oswald de Andrade, this is the real meaning of antropofagia”. Although Oswald really has very little influence on me, Haroldo does. And so it all comes together in Copenhagen, where Flash and Crash was performed in 1992 and again in 1994 and here, in November 2018 in conversation with my friend Jørgen Teller, I’ve come to realize (28 years after the fact) things that are so crucial about my work that my jaw has dropped and I’ve left it in Denmark.
Jørgen described it best: “Flash” is a post industrial-play past all the royal theaters and opera houses – then back to trashy punk-clubs and now churches…. “
I couldn’t agree more.
In principle, the play is a social-political event. A critique, even. It’s supposed to devour itself. In that – I think – Haroldo meant his remark about the antropofagia or, simply, autofagic – slowly corroding itself, through the old and young, the useless and the useful.
THAT’S THE way I intended Flash and Crash Days to be understood or absorbed. That pretense of calling it the “mother and daughter” show – or, even on the level as successful comedies tackling sexual taboos between generations, well, I can say “thank God for the success” and the acceptance and the vast audiences around the world. I’m not complaining. We played in repertoire with my Empire of Half Truths (which, by the way, contains an even clearer symbol of autofagic cannibalism: i.e. Fernanda Torres being eaten alive like a piglet. THAT IS the and that play came about as an almost automated response to those motherfuckers who LOVED Flash and Crash but missed the point. So, I took to the stage once again and stripped it bare, ripped it open and shat in their mouths.
NYC December 10, 2018