A moving, emotionally charged memoir of the renowned author’s youth in a newly created Israel.
“Almost everyone in Jerusalem in those days,” writes novelist Oz (The Same Sea, 2001, etc.) of the 1940s, “was either a poet or a writer or a researcher or a thinker or a scholar or a world reformer.” Oz’s uncle Joseph Klausner, for instance, kept a 25,000-volume library in every conceivable language, its dusty volumes providing a madeleine for the young writer, “the smell of a silent, secluded life devoted to scholarship,” even as his grandmother contemplated the dusty air of the Levant and concluded that the region was full of germs, whence “a thick cloud of disinfecting spirit, soaps, creams, sprays, baits, insecticides, and powder always hung in the air.” His own father had to sell his beloved books in order to buy food when money was short, though he often returned with more books. (“My mother forgave him, and so did I, because I hardly ever felt like eating anything except sweetcorn and icecream.”) Out in the street, Oz meets a young Palestinian woman who is determined to write great poems in French and English; cats bear such names as Schopenhauer and Chopin; the walls of the city ring with music and learned debate. But then there is the dark side: the war of 1948, with its Arab Legion snipers and stray shells, its heaps of dead new emigrants fresh from the Holocaust. “In Nehemiah Street,” writes Oz, “once there was a bookbinder who had a nervous breakdown, and he went out on his balcony and screamed, Jews, help, hurry, soon they’ll burn us all.” In this heady, dangerous atmosphere, torn by sectarian politics and the constant threat of terror, Oz comes of age, blossoming as a man of letters even as the bookish people of his youth begin to disappear one by one.
A boon for admirers of Oz’s work and contemporary Israeli literature in general.