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Monday, 4 January 2010

Rhyming Life and Death

Book Cover

I get up every morning very early, I drink a cup of coffee, I sit myself by my desk, and I start imagining, 'what if I was him? What if I was her?' That's how I make a living: by imagining the other. I imagine the other. That's my professional life. And my hobby, as well: I sit myself in street cafés, and when I have nothing else to do, when I'm waiting for someone..."[1] - Amos Oz


The role of writer in the production of a book is an intriguing one. I say this as a writer. I am desperately interested in the whole writing process. It doesn't matter that I have written four novels whereas many of you reading this won't have managed to get that one novel that's supposed to be inside all of us out of you and onto paper yet. I know how I write. But what about everyone else?

Let's find some common ground for a moment. Sex. We've all had it or something that passes for it. I've had it several times myself and would wholeheartedly recommend it. But when I read books, like the one I've just finished by Amos Oz, and watch films – oh, so many films – I note that what passes for sex in those books and films isn't what I've been doing for the past forty years. Maybe I've been doing it wrong. It does feel like something I invented rather than discovered. But you can't – unless you're in a Woody Allen film – walk up to a total stranger and ask them about their sex lives – well, I can't – and yet so many people feel they can ask me, plain as day, how I write.

I get it. I totally get it. I got it right from the very first page of this novella; it gripped me and held my attention to the very end because this was an author bearing his soul for us all to see. Correction, this was an author bearing the soul of a fictitious Author for us all to see. Isn't that the same though? Isn't all writing autobiographical whether we mean it to be or not?

denies that the character is in any way autobiographical, although in a 1990 newspaper interview in Haaretz, he made this point about himself: "There's always a part of me that's uninvolved, that sits on the sidelines and observes. Sometimes it looks on from the distance, almost hostile. Very chilly."[2]

I love author interviews. I devour them. It's the unrepentant voyeur in me. It doesn't matter how many naked souls I get to see, I'm always happy to see more in poses contrived or au natural; I'm not that fussy. I want to know how they do it, where they do it, when they do it, how often, with what, on what, on their own or in collaboration with others. More than anything I want reassurance. I know I'm not like the people around me but I want to know there are others like me.

Amos Oz is like me. I don't care if this is a work of fiction. No one who isn't like me could have written this. This guy understands. It's nice to be understood.

Now there will be those of you out there who will say, “No, he's making all this up, he's writing what he thinks we want to hear. His writer is a caricature. He's pornographicising the whole writing process. This is not how real writers behave.”

Seriously, “pornographicising”? You made that up.

Amos Oz works in a study that has the subterranean feel of the basement flat in which he grew up in 1940s Jerusalem - except that up the stairs and outside there are no narrow streets full of refugees fleeing the pogroms of eastern Europe, but blue sky and rocky ochre desert and the clearest air, through which the sound of fighter jets resonates for miles. He was a bookish child, wanted to grow up to be a book; here in Arad, where the Judaean desert meets the Negev and drops towards the Dead Sea, he has created a burrow lined with books, most in Hebrew, a good number by him.[3]

Oz in study

Out of that study came Rhyming Life and Death, a book about the writing process. If Oz wanted to be a book this is probably, considering his age (he's seventy), going to be it. It's 1983. We're in Tel Aviv. It's a stifling hot night. Our protagonist is an unnamed (but clearly popular) author who has been invited to the latest “meeting of the Good Book Club at the refurbished Shunia Shor and the Seven Victims of the Quarry Attack Cultural Centre” which is devoting the entire evening to discussing, answering questions about and reading from his work; he only needs to do the middle bit as the literary-critic, Yakir Bar-Orian, will talk about his writing and a professional reader, Rochele Reznik, will follow him and read selections from his novels.

But what questions will they ask? The book opens with the Author sitting in a local café – as is his habit he's arrived too early – and he's going over in his head what he expects they'll want to know:

These are the most commonly asked questions. Why do you write? Why do you write the way you do? Are you trying to influence your readers, and, if so, how? What role do your books play? Do you constantly cross out and correct or do you write straight out of your head? What is it like to be a famous writer and what effect does it have on your family? Why do you mostly describe the negative side of things? What do you think of other writers, which ones have influenced you and which ones can't you stand? And by the way, how would you define yourself? How would you respond to those who attack you, and what do the attacks do to you? 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?

I'll stop there. There's more but I want to draw your attention to the last question. I was asked that selfsame question only last week. I was tired when I was asked so I shrugged it off. You would think after all these years I would have had a pat answer ready but I didn't. If I'm honest it's not a question I have ever felt the need to answer for myself but it is the focus of Oz's book. From where we meet him, sitting in the café, and for the next eight hours, we listen to a stream-of-consciousness narrative – what goes on in an author's mind: we get to see a writer write.

Writing is not very exciting. Those of you who have written anything will know that it consists of hours and hours of sitting alone with a pen and paper or more likely a computer and hammering it out. But that's at the coal face. Oz is looking at the bit before the chore of writing the stuff down: he's looking at the raw stuff here.

The fact is we learn very little about the Author in this book. We know he's been married twice, that he works as an accountant and so clearly is not successful enough to earn a living from writing alone, that he smokes, drinks coffee, likes omelettes – and that's about it.

In a radio interview the interviewer pressed Oz about the Author's day job since she noted that this was the second time recently he has included an accountant in this book. Oz makes this point:

[T]he accountant in The Same Sea is a man who accounts not only calculations but also accounts his life because he sees the pros and cons of his life and so is the accountant also in Rhyming Life and Death.[4]

This is a book about writing – literally rendering an account – but the fact is that very little happens in the book. The actual events in the novel could probably be summarised in a couple of pages, 500 words max. Everything else is pure imagination: what if this, what if that, what if the other? We only get to sit in on the first part of the process. But perhaps that is the sexy part of being a writer the bit, given half a chance, we're more likely to wallow in, the foreplay if you will before all the hard work, the bumping and grinding, begins.

Let's see what the Author does once he's ordered his omelette:

logo While he waits for his omelette, the Author imagines the waitress's first love (he decides to name the waitress Ricky): when Ricky was only sixteen she fell in love with the reserve goalkeeper of Bnei-Yehuda football team, Charlie, who turned up one rainy day in his Lancia in front of the beauty parlour where she worked and swept her away for a three-day break in a hotel in Eilat (of which an uncle of his was part-owner). While they were there, he even bought her a sensational evening dress with silver sequins and everything, that made her look like a Greek singer, but after a fortnight or so he dropped her and went off again to the same hotel, this time with the runner-up in the Queen of the Waves contest. Eight years and four men later, Ricky has never stopped dreaming that one day he will come back: he had episodes where he would seem to be terribly angry with her, really scary, dangerous, as if he was about to go crazy, and she was quite alarmed at times, but suddenly in an instant, his mood would lighten and he would forgive her, cuddling her with childlike happiness, calling her Gogog, kissing her neck tickling her with his warm breath, gently parting her lips with his nose, like this, which gave her a warm sensation that crept over her body, like honey, then suddenly he would toss her up in the air, hard like a pillow, until she screamed for her mother, but he always caught her at the very last moment and hugged her, so she wouldn't fall. He liked to tickle her with the tip of his tongue, slowly for a long time behind both ears and inside her ears and on the nape of her neck where the finest hairs grew, until that feeling crept over her like honey again. Charlie never raised a finger against her or called her names. He was the first man who taught her to slow-dance, and to wear a micro-bikini, and to lie naked face down in the sun and think dirty thoughts, and he was the first man to teach her what drop earrings with green stones did for her face and neck.

And then our author moves onto Charlie's story and when he's finished with Charlie he notices at a nearby table two men both in their fifties. He decides one, the “dominant one . . . looks like a gangster's henchman in a film” – he names him Shlomo Hougi – the other man becomes his boss, “an agent of sorts, or perhaps a hairdresser salesman”, Mr Leon; they're discussing Ovadya Hazzam who “won half a million on the lottery . . . got divorced, had a wild time, moved house, started investing, offered unsecured loans to all and sundry, joined the party and manoeuvred to become head of department, and lived like a king. Like a lord even.” Then apparently he got liver cancer and at that very moment the Author pictures him in Ichilov Hospital dying. Having only eaten half his omelette the Author pays and leaves. Outside he wonders what Ovadya Hazzam's lfe might have been like. And this is how the book continues, character after character.

In 2005, in accepting Germany's Goethe Prize around the time he would have been writing the novella, Oz delivered a powerful apologia for the act of imagination: "I believe that imagining the other is a powerful antidote to fanaticism and hatred. I believe that books that make us imagine the other may make us more immune to the ploys of the devil, including the inner devil, the Mephisto of the heart. … Imagining the other is not only an aesthetic tool. It is in my view, also a major moral imperative."[5]

Oz's Author embodies this ethos. He imagines more and more “others”. He even reinvents the people he meets and imagines new ones who then interact with the ones he already has running around in his head many of which he decides are related to each other. Put it this way, we've not seen the last of Ricky or Charlie or Suzy, the runner-up in the Queen of the Waves contest.

He's late. He knows he's late but he's in no hurry to go into the centre. He's met outside by the cultural organiser, and annoyingly effusive old man; Oz describes as a “fireman’s hose aiming jets of enthusiasm and social commitment in every direction”. The Author says they could have started without him. It's assumed he's just being droll but we know he's deadly serious. One wonders just how many events similar to this he has had to attend in his life.

Why have you come here this evening, the Author asks himself, what can you get out of it? You ought to be at home right now, sitting at your desk, or lying on your back on the rug, making out shapes on the ceiling. What obscure demon drives you to come out again and again to these gatherings? Instead of being here, you could be sitting quietly at home, listening to Cantata BWV 106, the 'Actus tragicus'.

Oz describes this as “a playful book about a man who is strongly attracted to the limelight and at the same time never feels good in the limelight.” That, by the way, was all he had to say in a recent interview[6] about this book. The rest of the time he was answering questions about politics. I'm sure if he was an American writer or a British writer no one would care that much about his politics. Those of you who know Oz will realise that he is outspoken on political issues so it would be a surprise if this book didn't touch on some: corruption, terror, American peace-brokering etc. all get a mention in passing conversations but that's not what this book is about.

The Author is introduced to the literary-critic and the reader. He notes, for future reference, that the reader “withdraws her fingers from his clasp quickly, as though she's been burnt” and that “the handshake made her slim neck blush more than her cheeks.” I once wrote, “Writers don't have lives, they have ongoing research.” This man exemplifies that. Everything is fodder. Everyone is fodder. Little by little he assembles his dramatis personæ and Oz very kindly provides a list of these at the end of the book; I wish I'd know it was there as I read through it because a couple of times I'd forgotten who a particular character was if he hadn't appeared for a few pages.

The person who receives the most attention from the Author both in real life and in his imagination is Rochele Reznik, the reader, who serves as a proxy for 'Ricky' the waitress, the real object of his desire. (For some reason VPL – 'visual panty line' – turns this guy on.) In the real world he makes a half-hearted pass at Rochele but it's in his head that the real action takes place. I'll come back to that.

If you were to criticise the Author's characterisations it would have to be for including a number of stereotypes, e.g. the “pimply” poet who “loves this Author de profundis, secretly and passionately”, who only wants a minute to share a few of his poems with him, who just wants to know that the object of his affections understands who he is. Yes, you could criticise him for that or you could simply acknowledge that characters like that do exist; every famous author will find themselves pestered by them. For Christ's sake, even I sent Philip Larkin a bundle of my poems when I was sixteen only to get a polite letter back from his secretary letting me know that she was under strict instructions to return all unsolicited manuscripts unread. And could there be any bigger cliché than the sexually repressed spinster who lives alone with her cat? I couldn't resist putting one of those in my first novel although mine didn't have a cat; I should've remembered the cat.

Does this mean that the Author is running out of ideas? I don't think so. I think Oz wrote this with his tongue firmly in his cheek. Consider this comment he made about his daily routine:

I get up at 5 in the morning, every day, winter and summer, without an alarm clock. This habit from the kibbutz has stayed with me, but it's also biological - I'm a morning person. I go out to walk a little in the desert near the house in Arad, not long, 20 minutes, half an hour, as much as I can, and return to drink coffee and glance at the paper. By 6, I'm already sitting at my desk and I write until noon. In the afternoon I eat and read a bit, and go back to my basement to erase what I wrote in the morning.[7]

Peane Now He clearly doesn't take himself too seriously. That said he has serious points to make but he's also making fun of himself and his profession. Let's take that sexually repressed spinster for example, in her flat (which he may or may not actually enter depending on how you read the story) there's a Peace Now poster on the wall; Oz was one of the founders of Peace Now. A nice touch, but if he wasn't really there, was the poster really there?

Let me explain. When this book begins we are quite clear on what's real and what is imaginary. We know that Rochele Reznik is real (he shakes her hand), we know that the waitress is real (he eyes up her backside), we know that 'Charlie' is a figment of his imagination but then there's the character of 'Rochele Reznik' that begins to make her way into the narrative to the point that I really wasn't sure if the Author did or did not go up to her flat and fail to have sex with her. I went back and reread that bit to see if it was me but I believe it was a deliberate ploy on Oz's part. From the moment he goes back to her flat and starts imagining what might happen later it becomes unclear what actually does happen. I have my opinion – I think nothing happened (which makes his failure in bed all the more interesting) – but you might think differently and that's fine.

Why do we imagine? Why do ostensibly sane people willingly and on a recurrent basis fill their heads with voices? When Samuel Beckett was just a little older than Oz he covered similar ground in his novella Company:

Devised deviser devising it all for company. In the same figment dark as his figments.

People say that writing is a lonely profession and of course it is. On one level. On another we writers are never completely alone, we always have company, the figments, the “others” we have devised. Occasionally though they leave us and that fear is that one day they will completely forsake us and leave us, as the final word of that particular novella puts it: “Alone.”

This is how Oz's book ends too with the Author, alone in his room anticipating “broken cries of alarm from a parked car that can no longer bear its loneliness”. In the next-door flat he hears “the low weeping of a man” and as he flicks through the evening paper that's waiting for him he learns of the death of an old, once-popular poet. The voices have all gone and the future is rushing in on him:

Tomorrow will be warm and humid too. And, in fact, tomorrow is today.

To sum up, in interview he has said:

This is a novel about unhappy people, it's not a novel about happy people, and I don't know many novels about happy people. Unhappiness is much more fascinating than happiness, and unhappiness attracts us much more than happiness does. This is a novel about old age, about loneliness, about desolation, about love and longing and lust and desire, the great and simple things in life, the elemental things in life.[8]

My gut feeling is that this will be a bit of a love-it-or-loathe-it kind of a book. Personally I loved it. I could have written it. I wish I had. Now I can't. Damn. But the lack of a real plot will drive some people mad. Some of the Author's musings actually pan out into short stories but most are just character sketches that simply merge into one another. And then it just stops. Well, it doesn't really but it reaches a point where the author is stopped in his tracks; someone is dead – what more is there to imagine?

I can't envisage a writer not enjoying this book. I can't speak for non-writers but they're not that different from us I've found, desperately curious about other people. Why would shows like Big Brother attract such large audiences if we didn't all have the 'peeping Tom' gene? We writers can't content ourselves with spying, we need take notes and write them up later.

The book is only available in hardback at the moment but come April 2010 you'll be able to get your hands on the paperback. That said there are used copies on Amazon right now at pretty reasonable prices so why not treat yourself?

In the meantime I'll leave you with a short video where Amos Oz talks a bit about this book:


[1] Johann Hari, 'Israel's voice of reason: Amos Oz on war, peace and life as an outsider', The Independent, March 19, 2009

[2] Ethan Bronner, interview in The New York Times, April 12, 2009

[3] A life in writing: Amos Oz Interview by Aida Edemariam

[4] Interview with Ramona Koval on The Book Show, ABC National Radio. You can download the interview and a full transcript is also available.

[5] Judith Shulevitz, 'Why Write While Israel Burns?', Slate, April 6, 2009

[6] Gerald Jacobs, interview in The Jewish Chronicle, February 26, 2009

[7] Maya Sela, interview in, April 10, 2009 (Nisan 16, 5769)

[8] Interview with Ramona Koval on The Book Show, ABC National Radio


Rachel Fox said...

Thanks for this Jim. I might even link to the Hari interview myself later on this week. Fascinating.

John Ettorre said...

Thanks for this interesting riff, Jim, which I'll be sure to share with some friends.
While it's true that writing itself is not very exciting, I'm of the opinion that having written sometimes is, well, if not exciting, than at least quite satisfying.

Kass said...

I love books about writing SO much that I have to impose limits on buying them. I think it has become an avoidance of getting down to task.

I REALLY liked your comparison of the process to sex. Great stuff.

I'm reminded of Nora Ephron's quote about life:
"Everything is copy."

I loved hearing your enthusiasm coming through in this piece. I was bouncing from line to line.

June Calender said...

Frankly, my dear, I don't give a flying fig how other people write. Sometimes I care a great deal what they write, and something not at all, it depends...I have little patience with those who sit in public places looking angst ridden, wear the burka of Writer that hides who they are completely. If it's not there ready to be written they need to do some living, they need to know people other than themselves, they need to read and read and read, they need some sex, lots of sex, probably, of many sorts. They need some physical work, they need to listen to real people, no canned on the screen people. Real writing comes from real life. Real life is interesting and boring and more precious than most people imagine, it's the subject of real writing.

Elisabeth said...

A terrific review here, Jim. I'm one of the one's who loves the sound of this book. Unlike June, above, I enjoy reading about a writer's backstory, the story of how the writing comes into being. I think of others like Amos Oz who have written on this topic, writers like J M Coetzee's and his novel,'Elizabeth Costello', about an aging Australian writer doing the literary circuit.

I also appreciate Amos Oz's ideas on the significance of putting oneself into another's shoes - imagining the other - as a possible antidote to fanaticism.

To me books without a plot resemble life more than those that are so plot driven. Life is plotless. Things happen and we create a narrative around them or imagine one into the future but more often than not things just happen. I wrote a story about this once. I might yet put it on line.

The video at the end of your post made me like the author as much as I imagine I'd enjoy the book. It's now on my list of must reads.

By the way, it's good to have you back in force again.

Rachel Fenton said...

I love finding out about authors. I find it interesting when writers write about writers, just as I am fascinated by self - portraits of artists. It's an elaborate mirror, I think, a way of (hopefully) finding a little of what we recognise in ourselves reflected back at us in someone else's experience. Possibly it's some sort of validation that we haven't ambled along through a bunch of years for nothing. I thoroughly enjoyed your review Jim and thanks for the hours you must have put into it. Well worth it though.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Rachel, and you make use of what you can.

Yes, John, I’d go with that.

I love being able to enthuse, Kass. I’ve been quite lucky recently being able to read some new authors that have really excited me. Even the book I’m reviewing just now, which I was dreading picking up, has proved an unexpected pleasure. But I’m like you. I like to hear how other people do it. As for the sex paragraph – I’d forgotten I’d written that. It really applies to everything which is why we’re so fascinated by the lives of others. I’m always fascinated by other people’s houses, how they decide a home should look and how they choose to behave in those homes, especially when I was a kid because I was convinced our family was doing it all wrong.

I see where you’re coming from, June, but I have lived and I have written and I’m still fascinated how other people do it. I’m not going to change how I write not after all these years but I still like to see how other people approach the problem. Personally I rarely do what Oz describes here but then I’m not really a storyteller once you get down to it and I’m not really interested in the lives of others, I’m interested in intellectual puzzles and my characters are just players, pieces I shove around until I solve my problems. I have little doubt you would hate this book and that’s fine, my review has done its job, you know what the book is about and you can make an informed choice not to read it. Maybe the next one I do will pique your interest or the one after that.

On the other hand, I knew you’d find it interesting, Elisabeth. I often say about my writing that it may not have a plot but that doesn't mean it doesn't have a point. It makes writing that much harder and there are times I wish I had an outline that I could just fill in but that’s not the way I think. Of course when I’m done you can usually identify a plotline albeit not much of one but if we could all write our books with hindsight I’m sure they’d be a lot better.

Rachel Fenton, yes, a few hours went into that but they were enjoyable hours. I really don’t mind putting in the time if I’m getting something out of it. I agree too that we are looking to see if we recognise ourselves in some other writer. I’ll be honest I rarely do, they’re all far more disciplined than I am. I can write non-fiction at the drop of a hat – well, usually – but I have to be in the mood to do creative writing and especially over the last few years while I’ve been poorly my moods have been all over the place. The good thing is that now I have so much more stuff milling around in my head and it’ll all come out in a book or something; nothing’s wasted.

Dave King said...

Nice to have you back Jim - and what a humdinger of a review to come back with!

I was with you completely when you talked of sex feeling like you'd just invented it. I think that is a fairly common experience - and in most cases, no doubt, absolutely what it is. Not many of us studied a How to manual before taking the plunge, I guess!
I have the same feeling sometimes about writing. And the FAQs interested me: I am not too interested in questions about the mechanics of writing, it's what goes on in the head that I find exciting.

You obviously got much out of this book, and I think I see why. Great review.

R.H. said...

"I have little patience with those who sit in public places looking angst ridden, wear the burka of Writer that hides who they are completely. If it's not there ready to be written they need to do some living, they need to know people other than themselves, they need to read and read and read....Real writing comes from real life. Real life is interesting and boring and more precious than most people imagine, it's the subject of real writing."

June Calender has the goods.

Dick said...

Well, you've certainly been taking some deep breaths during your blog-leave, Jim. This post is a tour de force and, as usual, you instil a powerful desire in this reader to rush out to Waterstone's (deep snow no obstacle) and grab whatever they've got by your selected author - this time Amos Oz! I'm on the final lap of the entirely wonderful 'The Children's Story' by A.S. Byatt so the time is right. Wellies on and down the hill...

Jim Murdoch said...

Good to be back,Dave, and glad you liked the review. Sex, yes, now couldn’t we all write volumes on that topic? Thankfully I take quite a hard line with myself and stick to literary topics. God alone knows what I’d end up wittering on about otherwise. I will confess that I did study a How to manual beforehand. I even remember buying it. I was with my parents at the time and we wandered into some charity shop where I discovered it. The problem was how to buy the damn thing and secrete it about my person without them seeing and without the woman behind the counter giving me away seeing as what I would have been about fourteen at the time. Suffice to say I managed it, studied it diligently and performed adequately the first time thankfully without having to consult the manual whilst in the process.

Each to their own, Reyes. I have no problem with people not being interested in some of the books I review. I loved the thing and I’m happy to say so. The real question is what’s the rest of Oz’s output like? This is clearly a one-off.

And, Dick, I’m glad it did appeal to you. Unless you’re dead flush you might want to wait till April when the paperback comes out though. You’ve gotta watch those pennies.

R.H. said...

'Reyes'? Do you mean RH? I've said nothing about the book.
I was referring to June Calender's comment. (I don't know why she shoved sex in there but the rest is brilliant advice.)

Jim Murdoch said...

Sorry for the mistake with the name, R.H.. I have a friend who goes by R.C. and I misread. Easily done.

R.H. said...

No, I'm not offended.

And congratulations on your reviews.

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