I received a copy of Amos Oz’s Rhyming Life and Death from a dear friend for my birthday. I had not read any of prizewinning author Oz’s work before, and was suitably intrigued by the blurb of this novel, which was first published in 2007, and has been translated from its original Hebrew by Nicholas Lange. The Guardian calls Rhyming Life and Death ‘A master class in interlocking character sketches, and a fable on the themes of sex, death and writing pitched somewhere between the fictional universes of JM Coetzee and Milan Kundera.’ The Scotsman declares it ‘a meditation on the art of writing, the relationship between literature and life, between life and death.’
In the novel, which is set during the 1980s, an unnamed author spends a window of time, before he is due to give a reading, waiting in a bar in Tel Aviv ‘on a stifling hot night’, making up ‘the life stories of the people he meets.’ The story culminates in his asking a woman who declares herself a huge fan of his work for a drink. Although she declines, he ‘walks away, only to climb the steps to her flat that night. Or does he? In Amos Oz’s beguiling, intriguing story the reader never really knows where reality ends and invention begins…’.
Rhyming Life and Death opens with a wealth of frequently asked questions which have been posed to ‘the Author’, as he is referred to throughout. They include: ‘Why do you write the way you do?’, ‘Do you constantly cross out and correct or do you write straight out of your head?’, and ‘Why do you mostly describe the negative side of things?’ There are many such questions, and a lot of them cross the line between public and personal.
Oz’s writing errs on the sensual. He seems particularly concerned with evoking the smells of Tel Aviv. Of a man lying in the terminal ward of a hospital, he writes: ‘With every breath his lungs are invaded by a foul cocktail of smells: urine, sedatives, leftover food, sweat, sprays, chlorine, medicines, soiled dressings, excrement, beetroot salad and disinfectant.’ Sounds, too, are important to Oz’s descriptions of Israel, and they are paired in the novel with musings about the Author, and the strange power which his fans believe him to possess: ‘The night is pierced by the staccato alarm of a parked car struck by sudden panic in the darkness. Will the Author say something new this evening? Will he manage to explain to us how we got into this state of affairs, or what we have to do to change it? Can he see something we haven’t seen yet?’
In this novel, Oz certainly gives insight into elements of what it is like to be a writer, and to be known. The public throughout have quite unrealistic expectations of him, as, indeed, he has of others. The stories which he invents of people whom he meets are often overly detailed. I found some of these inventions more interesting than others, but the constant repetition of details did become tiresome rather quickly. There are scenes here which are rather cringeworthy, and crammed with a series of cliched metaphors.
Whilst the novel was interesting enough to read, and I could never quite guess in which direction it was going, it has not made me want to pick up any of Oz’s other work in a hurry. I found Rhyming Life and Death rather rambling and peculiar in places, and the story meanders rather than takes a natural path. There is, however, a definite feeling of purpose to Oz’s chosen structure. The novel is gritty at times, and muses upon the meaning of life. I can certainly see why his writing has been compared to Kundera’s, but I must admit that on my experience of reading this book alone, I far prefer Kundera’s work to Oz’s.