When Amos Oz’s moving and frank autobiography—partly family saga, partly Bildungsroman, partly self-portrait—was first published in Israel two years ago, it was praised as his finest book so far. In a review in Haaretz, the novelist Batya Gur drew attention to the illustration on the cover of the Israeli edition: Pablo Picasso’s 1903 painting, now at the National Gallery in Washington, entitled Tragedy. Three barefoot figures are seen stranded on a desolate, pale-blue beach: a gaunt man and woman with sagging heads and a small child. The man and the woman avoid facing each other, their arms are crossed in a gesture of loneliness and alienation. The child is lightly touching the man’s thigh in what seems a desperate attempt to make contact.
One can imagine Oz identifying with that child. He grew up as a lonely boy, the son of unhappy, ill-matched parents. He taught himself to read and write when he was five and then read a book, and sometimes two, almost every day. His autobiography concentrates on the private tragedy of his mother’s suicide and at the same time, as Gur puts it, it also reflects upon a greater national tragedy, the troubled, disappointed lives of European Jews who, like Oz’s parents and grandparents, escaped in time to the Promised Land but never found there what they expected. Instead of tranquillity and peace they lived in an atmosphere of endless war. This may have happened anyway, but in my view it may have been largely caused by the shortsightedness of successive Israeli leaders and their indifference to the fate of the Palestinians, and by the moral blindness that marks practically all ethnocentric movements.
This is a sad book, a tale of twisted lives and stunted hopes. The Eurocentric prejudices of Oz’s grandmother provide a few moments of comic relief; she was so obsessed with the “germs” infecting everybody and everything in the Levant that she took three hot baths a day and forced her husband to shake out the carpets twice a day. Oz powerfully evokes the sounds and sights of the 1940s but we hear none of the clichés about heroic young men and women, silent, thoughtful, and self-disciplined, fighting for independence and making the desert bloom in remote outposts. Instead we are among the confused, largely destitute, dislocated city people who made up most of the Jewish population. His father is tortured by his failures to make a decent living; his mother is depressed because she feels poor and is in failing health. We meet other uprooted middle-class businessmen and professionals who have also become poor through emigrating to an underdeveloped country.
Oz has much to say about their sometimes bizarre politics and he describes certain proto-fascist intellectuals, dismissed or ridiculed at the time as marginal, but harbingers of things to come. Rowdy young men march through the streets dressed in brown shirts, chanting “In blood and fire Judea fell, in blood and fire it will rise …