Amos Oz in conversation with Shira Hadad
shira hadad: I want to ask you about your family name, which you changed from Klausner to Oz when you left your father’s house to go to a kibbutz at the age of fourteen and a half. You write about that only very briefly in A Tale of Love and Darkness. How did you choose Oz, a name that means courage or strength?
amos oz: I don’t remember exactly, but maybe when I felt I was going to leave home to go to a kibbutz, courage and strength were what I lacked the most. It was like jumping off a diving board at night without knowing whether there’s water in the pool. So that name, Oz, was a bit of wishful thinking. Besides, maybe – and I’m not quite sure about what I’m about to tell you, because really, it’s been more than sixty years – maybe because there was a slight similarity between the middle letters of Klausner and the word oz. Maybe, but I’m not sure. It’s the name a fourteen-year-old boy chose, like whistling in the dark. Today, I would never choose such a resounding name for myself.
hadad: What name would you choose today?
oz: A much quieter one, even a bit more common: Oren. Gal. Evin.
hadad: Amos Oren. Amos Gal. Maybe you would be a different man and a different writer if that was your name. Was it clear to you that you were going to change your name?
oz: Yes, absolutely. When I decided to cut all ties and leave home, I didn’t want to belong to them. Not to the famous, esteemed professor and not to the one who craved to be a professor. I didn’t want to belong to them. The only person I felt bad about was my grandfather Alexander: I didn’t want to cause him pain.
hadad: In 1970, you wrote, ‘I abandoned the Klausner name only because I thought that a young man who is beginning to write well, to walk on his own feet, should not be borne into literature on broad shoulders.’ Meaning that you connected the name change to writing, to the need to make a place for yourself as a young writer. And today your explanation is a little different, maybe deeper. Do you remember how your father and your great-uncle reacted?
oz: My father took it very badly. He suffered a great deal. He said, ‘Amos Klausner, that’s not a name you just throw away. You’re an only son.’ At the time, I was an only son. My cousin Daniel was murdered by the Nazis, my great-uncle Josef had no children and my uncle Bezalel had already changed his name to Elizedek, so who was left? ‘Only you,’ he told me. It wasn’t easy. Not for me either. It hurt me, what he said: that no one was left to bear the name Klausner. Later, my father remarried and my sister Marganita and my brother David were born, but I changed my name even before that.
hadad: Were you ever sorry for that?
oz: No. But I think that while I was writing A Tale of Love and Darkness, I made up for it because anyone can find out what came before Oz. Half made up for it. But no, I never regretted it. When I went to the kibbutz, I said that was my name, and two days after my sixteenth birthday, I went to the Interior Ministry office in Ramla and changed it on my identity card, because according to the law, you can’t legally change your name until you’re sixteen.
hadad: But on the kibbutz, they called you Oz even before you did that.
hadad: You just told them that was your name?
oz: Yes. I think even the kibbutz didn’t know. Except for the school principal, Ozer Huldai, who had the documents. I asked him not to tell the other boys, and they didn’t know my real name. But somehow, I have no idea how, they found out that I was from a right-wing Revisionist family, and Revisionism was the ideological enemy of the labor Zionists who founded the kibbutz movement. So some of them suspected I was a kind of fifth column, maybe I’d come to spy. It really wasn’t fair, because I was the most left-wing person in Kibbutz Hulda. I can tell you another secret: in Hulda, at elections, the entire kibbutz always voted for the center-left Mapai Party, and they were very proud that Mapai received one hundred percent of the votes. In the evening, right after the votes had been counted, they would post a note on the bulletin board: ‘This time too, Mapai received one hundred percent of our votes.’ That’s how it was until the 1960 elections, when there was a huge scandal in Hulda. As the votes were being counted, they suddenly found one vote for the left-wing party, Mapam. The entire kibbutz moved heaven and Earth to find out who the traitor was. But they never did. They suspected Elyosha, suspected Honzo, but it was me. That was the first time I had the right to vote, and I simply betrayed them and voted for Mapam, and I didn’t tell anyone. I was that kind of fifth column. Today they’re gone, that older generation in Hulda. If they had known about it, they would have killed me. I never voted for Mapai in my life. Ever. Shimon Peres and I were friends for almost forty years, but I never voted for him or his party. And he knew it.
hadad: When you moved to the kibbutz as a teenager, you also decided to stop writing stories.
oz: I started writing when I was a child. Even before I was taught how to write, I would make up stories and tell them, because that was the only thing I had to offer: I wasn’t tall, or athletic, or a good student, and I didn’t know how to dance or make people laugh. The only way I could impress girls was to tell them stories. I used to make up stories and tell them in installments. The children – even the girls – would gather to hear my stories because I put a lot of suspense, action and violence in them. And even sometimes, a bit of romance. So as a child in Jerusalem, I would stand in Pnina’s kindergarten during recess and tell suspenseful stories in installments to the other children, boys and girls. Later, in the Tachkemoni religious elementary school, during every recess a circle of boys would gather around me, even those who, before or after the stories, used to hit me. Maybe because I expressed myself well and that annoyed them.
Later on, in Kibbutz Hulda, I started to write in the back room of the kibbutz culture hall. That distressed me very much because, after all, I had left my home in Jerusalem in order to cut all ties with the entire world of books and writing. When I left my father’s house, I was done with writing. I didn’t want to be a writer, didn’t want to write stories, I wanted to be a tall, suntanned tractor driver. What I wanted most of all was to be very suntanned and very, very tall. So girls would finally pay attention to me too.
hadad: And you failed at that. I don’t mean at being suntanned or tall, but at not writing stories.
oz: In the end, I did manage to get a bit tanned, but I failed miserably at being tall. And writing stories – that urge was stronger than I. Stronger than the shame. I would walk over to the back room at night, the reading room in the culture hall at the far end of the kibbutz. The boys were out playing basketball or chasing girls, and since I had no chance at either, I sat there alone in that back room of the culture hall and wrote poems. I was fifteen or sixteen, and so ashamed. As ashamed as I was when I masturbated. What are you doing? What on Earth are you doing? What the hell are you doing? Are you crazy? Just a minute ago you promised yourself you were done with it, that you’d never do it again, so what’s all this now? Again? When will you ever stop? But I couldn’t stop. In fact, in that back room I stopped writing poems and began to try prose. Sherwood Anderson freed my writing hand, but I think I’ve already written about that in A Tale of Love and Darkness.
When I was in the army, I started publishing stories in the very prestigious literary magazine Keshet, edited by Aharon Amir. I think I sent him one story, which he rejected. Then I sent another one, and he wrote me a postcard with five words on it: ‘Well done! It’s being printed.’
One of my first stories published in Keshet was ‘The Way the Wind Blows’, a story about a paratrooper who lands on live electric wires. It was partially based on a disaster that happened in the fields of Kibbutz Hulda during a parachuting show on Independence Day. Maybe three or four years after that story was published, it was suddenly added to the Ministry of Education’s required reading list for the literature matriculation exam. I took my matriculation exams while I was doing my compulsory army service. If I had done it a few years later, I most likely would have been tested on that story. And I probably would have failed.
I wrote a story, then another story, then another one. And I received two or three letters that were some help to me in overcoming my dread that maybe I wasn’t any good at all. Although I didn’t know her, the poet Dahlia Ravikovitch wrote one of her heartwarming Dahlia-esque letters that began with the words, ‘I hear you’re an extraordinarily young person.’ I fell a little bit in love with her because of her poems and that letter, and that was even before I met her. But I remember cutting her picture out of the newspaper literary supplement and putting it between the pages of her book, The Love of an Orange. (In my mind, I always called Dahlia Ravikovitch ‘golden apple’, the original Hebrew term for orange.) But I never told her I was a little bit in love with her, and I never told her she was a golden apple.
More than fifty years ago, when my first book, Where the Jackals Howl, came out, I went to the kibbutz secretariat and asked for one day a week to write. A heated argument broke out, but not between good and bad people, or enlightened and ignorant people. Those who were against my request had two reasons: first, anyone can say he’s an artist. And who will milk the cows? One will want to be a photographer, one a dancer, one a sculptor and one a movie maker. So who will milk the cows?
Besides, that kibbutz committee said, and justifiably so, that they weren’t qualified to decide who’s an artist and who isn’t. ‘If we give Amos time to write, we’ll have to give time to everyone else who asks for it. After all, we have no way of ranking self-proclaimed artists.’ That was a solid argument. I had no answer for it. I couldn’t stand there like a gorilla pounding its chest and say, ‘No, but I’m special. I’m not like anyone else.’ There was an old man sitting there – when I say old, I mean forty, forty-five, because we all called the founders old, even they called themselves old. His name was David Ofer, and he said – I’ll never forget it – ‘Young Amos might be a new Tolstoy. But at the age of twenty-two, what does he know about life? Nothing. He knows nothing. Let him work in the fields with us for another twenty, twenty-five years, and then he can write War and Peace for us.’ That was a weighty reason. To this day I’m not entirely convinced there wasn’t something in what he said.
There were discussions, there were arguments, votes and appeals, and in the end, it reached the kibbutz general meeting, where I was granted one day a week, provided that on the other days I worked twice as hard. And so I was given one day a week to write and on the other days, I worked in the fields. Later on, I taught in the local high school, known on the kibbutz as ‘advanced education’.
I used to go into the bathroom to write My Michael. At the time, we lived in a one-and-a-half-room apartment and the bathroom was the size of an airplane toilet. And I didn’t sleep half the night. I would write in the bathroom and smoke until midnight, or one o’clock, for as long as I could hold out. I would sit on the toilet seat cover, a Van Gogh album we’d received as a wedding gift on my lap, a pad of letter paper on the album, a ballpoint pen in one hand, a lit cigarette in the other. That’s how I wrote My Michael. At least most of it.
Often, when people tell me they’re traveling somewhere to find inspiration for a book, a place of mountains or lakes or forests or the ocean shore, I recall that tiny bathroom of ours in Hulda.
When My Michael was published, I summoned the courage, went to the secretariat again and said, ‘I’d like one more day a week for writing.’ Again a long debate, again an argument. People said, ‘It’s a dangerous precedent.’ Some said, ‘Others will want the same thing.’ But since there was already some money coming in, the members of the secretariat agreed. ‘Let’s say we’re adding another small branch to our economy.’ And now I had two days a week to write. Then I published another book and another one, increasing the kibbutz income, and in the end I was given three days to write, which was the maximum. It was a creeping annexation, not of territory, but of time: three days of writing and three days of high-school teaching, plus the regular shifts all kibbutz members had to do, night-guard duty, helping with fruit harvesting and weeding the cotton fields, and on vacations, I either drove the tractor in the fields or worked in the orchards.