The Western Coast
Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness
I Come as a Thief
Here are five books of fiction that offer news from elsewhere. As in some Warner Brothers B-17 crew, all the groups are represented: we have a Jew (Israeli), a woman, an “ethnic” white, a patrician wasp, and a black, a diversity which should provide any reader with sufficient remoteness. But each writer is more than his or her background, more distant than any gross differentiation can indicate.
In My Michael Amos Oz considers the stubborn persistence of private desires and needs in the midst of a public condition that demands their limitation. The novel was published in Israel in 1968, shortly after the Six-Day War, and even from a distance one can see why it aroused such excitement and controversy. Oz tells the story of Hannah Gonen’s first decade of marriage, from 1950 to 1959, to Michael, a geologist, a steady, patient, good-natured but not witty or imaginative man, whose achievement of a professional career vaguely parallels the consolidation of the Israeli state. Unable to penetrate Michael’s decent kindness and reliability, Hannah (who majored in literature in college) grows increasingly alienated from him and his life in the “objective” world of knowledge, work, personal relations, and national concern. Unable to identify herself in that world, she devotes herself to memory as a way of possessing time and an identity for herself in it—“I have not forgotten” is the refrain of her narrative, since “to forget means to die.”
Devotion to memory, however, leads her into a private drama of fantasy and dream inside the glass dome she conceives of as separating her from Michael and his life. Hers are acquisitive fantasies of power and dominance, converting personal memory (the Arab twins she played with as a child), literary images (Moby Dick, Captain Nemo, and Michael Strogoff), and scraps of history (British destroyers from the War of Independence) into a pitifully melodramatic and self-centered inner life in which her will to exist can have room. At the end, depleted by nervous illness and a second pregnancy, she entertains her most overtly subversive fantasy of her Arab twins, matured into a composite lover-terrorist, infiltrating Israeli lines and dynamiting a water tower on her orders.
Oz’s dazzling control of imagistic patterning and texture makes Hannah’s reveries very beautiful as she struggles to preserve a sense of passion and adventure. But the practical conditions that impinge on that sense are solidly and fairly rendered too, and Oz sees that a struggle like hers risks not only madness but romantic triviality:
As for me, I move the sugar bowl towards one or other of the visitors and utter absentmindedly some such remark as:
“Where will all these fashionable ideas lead us?”
“One has to move with the times.”
“There are two sides to every question.”
I say these things so as not to sit silent all evening and seem rude. The sudden pain: Why have I been exiled here? Nautilus. Dragon. Isles of the Archipelago. Come, O …