A Sustained Belief in the Unbelievable


By Amos Oz
Translated by Nicholas de Lange
120 pages. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $23.

At the Prague Writers Festival in 2003, Israeli writer Amos Oz endured the slings and arrows of an audience curious about his writing life. He was humorous, patient, and even, to this audience member, achieved moments of impressively humble profundity. When asked about his daily routine, for instance, he compared himself to a shopkeeper. “Some days the customers come, some days they don’t,” he said. Oz shows up every day, whether the customers do or not.

Rhyming Life and Death, a slim new novel translated by Nicholas de Lange, revolves around precisely such an event—only substitute 1980s Tel Aviv for Prague, and an unnamed writer, known as Author, for Amos Oz. The book opens with Author mulling the typical questions lodged at writers during conversations of their work: “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 write with a pen or on a computer? And how much, roughly, do you earn from each book? Do you draw the material for your stories from your imagination or directly from life? What does your ex-wife think of the female characters in your books?”

These questions give way to an erotic longing for a waitress at the café where Author is awaiting his event. His observation of her “slight asymmetry in favor of the left buttock” turns into an imagined narrative about a failed love affair with the reserve goalkeeper of the Bnei-Yehuda football team. Although a seemingly casual riff, Author’s fantasy has three purposes: it signals that Author is at heart a writer, given to invention and narration; suggests that Author’s perception of the world would not match up with any objective notion of reality; and prepares us for a novel comprised of stories about characters whom Author doesn’t really know, but who nevertheless serve as the jumping off point for Author to spin tales about their lives. As Author himself explains: “The characters in this book are all just the Author himself: Ricky, Charlie, Lucy, Leon, Ovadya, Yuval, Yerucham, they are all just the Author and whatever happens to them here is really only happening to him.”

Indeed, the emotionally engaging aspects of the novel—descriptions of the once-vibrant Ovadya Hazzam, who is presently dying of cancer; Arnold Bartok, who shares a bed with his invalid mother—are entirely fictional constructions derived from Author’s mind. Even interactions with one ‘real’ character, Rochelle Reznik, who reads Author’s work at the literary event, seem questionable. Author walks her home and, after some awkward discussion, does not accompany her upstairs. Later, having second thoughts, he returns to her building. Oz gives us three possible outcomes of this scenario: Author flees; Author leaves Rochelle a note; Author, about to knock on Rochelle’s door, is invited in by Rochelle. Oz settles on this last version, and a steamy tryst ensues—or does it? “Even you, Rochelle, are just a thought in my mind,” Author thinks, “and whatever is happening to you and me is actually only happening to me.”

So often, critics talk about the suspension of disbelief: the mental labor performed by readers to make a book ‘work.’ Oz gives us the inverse of this operation, the way it looks from the novelist’s point of view: a sustained belief in the unbelievable which, through repetition and revision, becomes real. That’s what’s happening as we watch Author’s seemingly superficial and somewhat silly construction of Ricky’s past evolve into a nuanced tale with emotional heft. By book’s end, we feel that Ricky, Ovadya, Yuval, and the rest are “real” characters, rather than mere constructions of Author’s mind – even though that’s precisely what they are, and in spite of the seams and stitches Oz intentionally reveals in getting us there.

Which brings us to the meta-moment: these characters, along with Author, are, in turn, constructions of Oz’s mind. Pursuing this line of thought to its inevitable conclusion, one stumbles upon philosophical arguments regarding the value, and ethereality, of literature—a process not unlike pondering the rationale of flight while cruising 40,000 feet above the Atlantic.

Other writers—Kafka, Roth, the list is long and illustrious—have taken on the meta-everyman before. But what makes Oz’s effort interesting is that his objective, at least in part, is to earnestly illuminate the rather opaque business of the imaginative process. “Why do you write?” asks the second line of the book – a question in the mouth of a fan. Although Oz is poking fun at that genre of question, he’s also, with sincerity that nicely tempers the irony inherent to such a meta-construction, setting forth to answer it. And his answer seems to be what any teacher worth her salt will tell a student contemplating the sorry business of writing: you do it because you have no choice. For the act of narrating  for some, among them Oz’s Author, is a natural and automatic function.

Throughout the book, Oz marries his existentialist questioning regarding writing with a similar, if subtler, probing of death. The often unstable barrier between fiction and reality, the many points of view that bleed one into another—these are metaphors for the greatest, and most mysterious, boundary of all. In a passage that evokes both themes, Oz writes: “You see the dim outlines of hills. Stars. Flickering lights in windows. A witless traffic light changing color aimlessly, amber, red, green. Barking of distant dogs and a faint smell of sewage. Why write about all these things? They exist, and will go on existing whether you write about them or not, whether you are here or not.” Why, Oz seems to be asking, given our inevitable end, bother with the writing at all?

In How to Become a Writer, Lorrie Moore poses similar questions, though for her, death plays a background role; the difference, perhaps, between a young writer’s take on the subject (Moore was 26 when her collection was published) and one whom, at 70, has been writing for more than 40 years. Nevertheless, given the terror that Oz evokes, it seems palliative, if not instructive, to cite some Moore. “Begin to wonder what you do write about. Or if you have anything to say. Or if there even is such a thing as a thing to say.” Her advice? “Limit these thoughts to no more than 10 minutes a day. Like sit-ups, they can make you thin.”