Stumble across any list and you know that always there lives a list beyond all lists: the list of books which you, reader, are unable to explore until you find some Kryptonlike strength over your own autobiographical impediment. This strange year, 2011, offered me force enough to pull the rock away from the cave entryway to two unparalleled literary voices, and now I wonder how I managed to live so long without these books, arising from such different universes: Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, translated by Nicholas de Lange, and Lorrie Moore’s fictive paean to lost friendship Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?
To consider Oz first: when the intellectual history of our time is written, not on electronic tablets but on pop-up holograms, someone will wonder why our era dedicated itself to the declaration of moribund genres, most especially the memoir, pundits forever attending the flickering of the patient’s stats and vitals. Could the greater diagnosis be that we suffered a spate of memoirs written in haste, lacking the wisdom of sufficient retrospect, devoid of the doubleness, whether of persona or timeline, that invariably creates meaning? In the case of memoir, we have shown love for the premature epitaph. Repeatedly we declare the patient dead until once again it rises, our own favorite dirt-spattered zombie.
Oz, in his Rabelaisian memoir, could not be considered guilty of writing too close to some original timeline: with his form of genial chuckle, he is happy to say that he encompasses the entirety of modern Israel, that it’s as if he shook hands with George Washington, fought in the Revolutionary War, and has survived to see two tea parties come, and, perhaps (please?) go.
So that if all memoirs rise and fall in their treatment of time, time in Oz is untraceable, more wormhole than line or even double helix, much in the same way that the history of Israel presents such conundra, both ancient and present, lost and continuously redefined. You finish the memoir and realize the mother’s desperate end, a suicide in Oz’s teen years, casts a shadow forward and back, a lacuna in the overarching story. And yet Oz doesn’t play needlessly coy, nor is he melodramatic: the narrative of his one family cannot creak under history if history is the family’s blood. Elegant and excessive at the same time, Oz’s wit soars, his curious attentiveness that of a lover, his moral compass unwavering. While surely some might say the work would benefit from editing, it is in the excesses of history, happy or desperate, its atavistic claws forever seeking the living, that his saga lives with such reckless accuracy.
As for his politics, Oz says elsewhere that he does not wish to exist merely as a symbol in the minds of others, to represent either the shrewd, gifted, repulsive vampire or the sympathetic victim deserving both compensation and atonement. The Zionist enterprise, as he sees it, is that of a drowning man who has no other objective justification than to grasp at a plank, and yet for Oz, a crucial moral distinction hews to the man who does not grab the whole plank for himself and push others to the sea. Recently, despite all the flak he received from all sides, Oz sent his memoir to Marwan Barghouti, considered, depending on your perspective, either an activist or a terrorist. In sending the book, Oz — who benefits from a cultural landscape akin to Latin America’s, in which a writer can truly be an engaged citizen, helping to shape public discourse — hoped his memoir might be a peace token of sorts, a book acting as a bridge toward understanding. Is this act not the opposite of the recent razing of the Occupy Wall Street library?
But back to the subject: Oz’s memoir succeeds in transcending symbolism. In writing so specifically about both nations and the nations of literature, his memoir articulates the possibility of understanding beyond nation. In the meanest flower blows the most universal wind and so on. Yet maybe, for a final verdict on this, we should wait to hear not from another dead man, Wordsworth, but rather from the living Barghouti.
To end with something a bit more personal: last year, in these pages I wrote about the death of my father. As a footnote to that piece, when this same father was already a living cadaver, some two years ago, his brain easing the fear of death by transporting him to diverse sociocultural milieus, he nonetheless managed to keep a firm grasp on a voice of clarity. In his case, such clarity was equivalent to the name Amos Oz. Edie, you must read the most recent piece by Oz. That Oz had been such a literary celebrity in our house for so long, his biography partly overlapping with my father’s, with their family friends in common, meant that the name Oz had come to mean all of the following things: lost turf, mind, glory. This concatenation meant that, so long as my father lived, I found it impossible to read more than snatches of Oz. Until randomly, or as randomly as such things work, someone asked me to introduce a speech by the great Oz himself, passing through our small upstate New York hamlet in honor of the apparition of Scenes from Village Life, the recent book of unsettling short stories, structured like Winesburg, Ohio, which could be read as a parable of uneasy coexistence. And the power of his earlier memoir transformed what had been mere epitaph — the name Oz — into living conscience, something mutable and present standing guard over the equally uneasy dead.
If Harold Bloom is right in saying that writers must come to grips with their literary, oedipal parentage and slay the masters in some crucial misreading of such masters, if our original thinking really could be structured in such clear-cut fashion, then where is the anxiety? For the space of this reductive review, let us think Bloom wrong and consider instead the pleasure of the choir, of many voices raised in praise of one unseeable supreme force. I came across Lorrie Moore’s amazing novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, written relatively early in her career, in one of those pleasurable serendipitous moments that only actual books can occasion. In a rare occurrence, I was clearing off bookshelves and out it tumbled, a British paperback with one of those faux-innocent covers the English favor, washed through with a murky yet childlike gloom, as if a painting created by a child the day she realized that there would be little more to look forward to than a spate of iron-gray skies and perhaps a teatime sweet.
I knew of Moore’s later work; she had been extolled to me by many I respected, but I had not yet had the crucial stumble. Coming across an overlauded author is like entering a romance with, take your pick, a movie star or a beachside house: one wants to make sure one’s appreciation arises from some deep inner lexicon of romance and not merely from the prefab, debased currency of everyone else’s adulation. Love is discovered but never curated. So it was for Moore and me and may it be, somehow, for you, unimaginable reader, despite this praise-song. For whatever this may be worth, before my crucial stumble, I had just sent away, finally, a novel I’d written which laid to bed whatever I wanted to explore about the primacy of friendship (of the female, wanton variety) and now felt the topic exhausted in myself: I was a perfect readerly receptacle. Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, as well as some of the disconsolate stories of the late Gina Berriault, had explored some of the terrain I had wanted to explore, and yet, even if there is no scarcity to such turf, they had left vast blissful spaces. And so to find Moore was to find some new voice exploding in the choir, someone with vulnerable humor and psychological brilliance to spare, with a tender heart, a poet’s ear, and a comic’s timing, a lost wife in Raymond Carver’s realist attic, both mad and wise, spinning deceptively simple ironies.
A line, chosen in aleatory fashion:
. . . , and I again remembered that night last year, the one with the man and the gun springing up like a jack-in-the-box, the light summer midnight just beyond and past the branches. We had run, always heading for the next group of trees, and then for the next and then the next, like an enactment of all of life.
Note the dynamism, the use of what linguists call iconic language (and then for the next and then the next not being an apprentice’s tic but rather a visual representation of a stand of trees) and the widening out, subtle, cadenced, into the abstracted end of the line, where, pace Aristotle, we are forced to identify with the characters, experience catharsis, and reflect on our own categories, all in one lucid heartbeat.
We might not notice what happened. We might, as new neurological studies show, have increased social cognition after reading such fiction. We might find ourselves in James’ world, our sense of nuance refined. Or we might simply fall in love.
Reader, can fiction do anything more?
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