(Originally published as “Summer Reading as a Writer: ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness,'” in the September issue of The Practicing Writer newsletter.)
When news came of Toni Morrison’s death in early August, I was already grieving—somewhat anew—another fairly recent literary loss: that of Israeli author Amos Oz, who died at the end of 2018. As with Morrison’s passing, Oz’s death seemed to have left many writers feeling uncommonly bereft. In my case, I realized that one way I could honor Oz’s memory was by rectifying a serious gap in my reading history: Somehow, although I’d admired his short stories and recommended them to others many times, I’d not yet read Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, the bestselling memoir that was first published first in Hebrew in 2002.
This summer, suspecting that I’d want to incorporate the book into my fall undergraduate course on 21st-Century Jewish Literature, I carved out the time and emotional space for the book (which runs more than 500 pages). Reading it during the first part of August, I found myself awed and inspired—and, again, sensing the sadness of loss anew.
Here’s how the marketing copy reads on my paperback edition (an edition translated by Nicholas de Lange):
“A family saga and a magical self-portrait of a writer who witnessed the birth of a nation and lived and lived through its turbulent history, A Tale of Love and Darkness is the story of a boy who grows up in war-torn Jerusalem, in a small apartment crowded with books in twelve languages. The story of an adolescent whose life changes forever with his mother’s suicide. The story of a man who leaves the constraints of his family to join a kibbutz, change his name, marry, have children. The story of a writer who becomes an active participant in the political life of his nation.”
I read this book from multiple perspectives. I read it as a “regular” reader. I read it as a teacher looking for a segment that might lend itself to excerpting and placement in an already-crowded course syllabus. And I read it, as so many of us read, as a writer.
Here are just a few reflections stemming from that last approach.
1. Oz’s sentences inspire me to write better ones of my own. During the time that I spent reading this book, I was prompted to select two exemplary “#SundaySentences,” which I shared at https://wp.me/p4x0h8-c7S and https://wp.me/p4x0h8-c8f.
2. I’m one of those writers who happens to love to read about writers and writing. Oz grew up surrounded by books—within the first two pages, we meet Oz, his parents, and the books that “filled our home.” Even if his own parents weren’t professional writers, they were acquainted with many; from earliest childhood, their only child was, too. Without ever crossing the line into anything resembling “name-dropping”—on the contrary, it’s difficult to imagine more endearing presentations—Oz brings us into rooms and streets where, as a child, he encountered such literary lights as Shaul/Saul Tchernikhowsky (1875-1943), S.Y. Agnon (1887-1970), and “Teacher Zelda” (aka “Zelda the Poet” [Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky, 1914-84]).
3. I can’t yet tell you exactly how he does it, but Oz makes his very personal book a work of history, as well. So much of it is wrenching history: the fate of relatives back in Europe during the Holocaust, the war that surrounded Israel’s birth, the repercussions for Israeli-Arab/Palestinian relations long past the book’s final page. That the reader can withstand it is, I’ll posit at this early phase, due at least partially to Oz’s artistry. And to his empathy.
As difficult as some of this reading is—there’s a lot of pain in A Tale of Love and Darkness—I didn’t want this book to end. (The writer in me always wants to figure out how authors make that happen, too.) I can’t help wondering if, while reading it, I felt companioned by Oz’s first-person voice, and that this is something that I understood, and that I wanted to delay what I knew would happen after I finished reading: that I’d be overcome, again, by a sense of loss. That I’d be bereft.
But the book is still here. I can return to it at any time. And I trust that as a reader, a teacher, and a writer, I will continue to learn from it, too.