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Book review: Amos Oz: Writer, activist, icon by Robert Alter

24 November 2023

Richard Harries reads a Bible translator’s account of a novelist

AMOS OZ, who died in 2018, was the best-known Israeli novelist of his time, and equally renowned as a peace activist with an unwavering commitment to a two-state solution.

He grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in Jerusalem under the British Mandate, then spent much of his life on a kibbutz, before moving to the Negev Desert. But this is not a conventional biography detailing a life story, and is much the better for it. It is, in essence, a study of Oz’s complex, troubled character as reflected in his fiction and interviews. The author, no less distinguished than his subject, is a literary scholar and translator of the Bible, Robert Alter.

One result of this happy match is an emphasis on the Hebrew in which Oz wrote, drawing on the ancient riches of the language — and, as a result, adopting a style that, for some, is too lyrical and over-written. For Oz, what united the fractious, quarrelling Israelis was the fact that they were a people with a common language. This language, spoken by only a few hundred in the 19th century, is now spoken by most of the population of nine million.

When Oz visits the Colosseum in Rome and finds details available in 26 languages, including Hebrew, but not Latin, he breaks into tears. The Romans thought that they had destroyed the country, but now it is Latin that is dead, while Hebrew is alive in a vibrant community.

Central to Alter’s study is the suicide of Oz’s mother, when he was only 12, but which he could not face writing about, or even telling his wife about, until he was in his sixties. Alter sees the effect of this in many ways, not least in the admission when Oz was dying that he never had any sense of self-worth. “Nothing can fill that pit. No success and no praise and no words. You are simply not worth anything as a person . . . because the most important woman in the world for you got up and slammed the door on you and went away.”

This is closely linked to the painful self-awareness that Oz had, late in life, that, despite his success and his position as an icon in Israeli society, he was just a public performer, with little authentic about him. He told someone about to interview him: “Write that this guy was a walking masquerade ball.”

Alter disputes that, and argues that, in his relationships with his wife, family, and close friends, his continuing interest in other people, and his commitment to rational debate in politics, Oz was both real and worth knowing about. It is this, as well as the dark side of his personality, which is reflected in his best fiction.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. His latest book is
Majesty: Reflections on the life of Christ with Queen Elizabeth II (SPCK, 2023).


Amos Oz: Writer, activist, icon
Robert Alter
Yale £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29

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