On a hot summer evening somewhere in Tel Aviv, a famous writer sits in a cafe imagining a life for his waitress. He decides that her first love was a reserve goalkeeper who ‘taught her to slow-dance, and to wear a micro bikini’ before he went back to his beauty-queen girlfriend. In time the waitress becomes more interested in the girlfriend than the goalkeeper. But that’s another story, the relationship between two women who have shared a man, and one the writer is not so sure he understands. He names her Ricky but he himself is given no name beyond his title – the Author.
Anyone who has ever seriously attempted to write fiction will recognise the magpie process in which the Author pulls characters from glances and stories from pieces of conversation, then moulds them with his obsessions, fantasies and prejudices. Of course the Author is a character too, a famous middle-aged novelist who believes he can only create his characters by hiding himself like the old-time photographer under a black cloth taking a group portrait in sepia. He tells an anguished young poet that he ‘must write as if the person writing the poems and the suffering young man are two different people, as though the former observes the latter coolly, distantly even with a measure of amusement’.
The novel is the Author’s journey of one night, from the cafe to the cultural centre where his writing is read and dissected, through the silent streets, up to the flat of the lonely professional reader and finally to morning when the Author returns exhausted to his room and tries to piece together his stories of a gangster’s henchmen, an elderly culture-merchant with a blood disease and a brash self-made businessman who now lies dying in hospital. It begins with the questions he might be asked by the audience at the reading: Why do you write? Do you use a pen or computer? Are your books autobiographical? And what about your first wife? They probe every aspect of his life, these naïve questions, yet even if he answers honestly he will never reveal himself. In fact as they sit there he takes from them, stealing ‘an embittered expression here, a lascivious one there, catching a pair of legs just as they uncross, spotting a rivulet of perspiration running down deep into the crack between a pair of breasts’. But he remains a stranger even to himself.
Throughout this comic, sexual yet always spiritual journey, he is haunted by the lines of the once-popular poet Tsefania Beit-Halachmi, whose book gives the novel its title. Intolerant of left-wingers and dissident Zionist organisations, he wrote verses in the back pages of a newspaper celebrating ordinary people’s lives and ‘addressing the problems of the day with good-natured somewhat condescending amusement’. His work seems clichéd and transparent, yet there’s an odd, almost Buddhist quality to his lines which once touched so many people. ‘Sometimes his rhymed column was infused with a hint of something that was neither political nor ideological, a mysterious tinge of sorrow.’ Nobody remembers him now. And it is clear that his leap into obscurity troubles the Author, who ponders his own literary longevity. Did Beit-Halachmi die suddenly years ago or is he living in a nursing home content to sit in the sun and eat crustless white bread? The Author discovers in the morning newspaper that he died in his sleep aged ninety-seven.
Implicit in this story of authorship and creativity is the voice of Amos Oz, who is and is not the Author, the young poet and even the dead rhyming poet. He writes with his usual lucid prose, skilfully managing the Author’s many characters with their hypothetical lives and complex names. Oz keeps the Author from settling on one story, or even one version of a story, so that the creative journey resembles the physical one in its restlessness, its sense of discovery. This is why he provides a list of characters with descriptions only at the end of the novel. The Author heads the list but there is no information about him, as if to say that all the others are merely parts of him or that he only exists through them.
This short journey of a novel can seem too slight to bear the Author’s (and Oz’s) weighty themes. Yet there is playfulness in the tone and in Oz’s refusal to give certainties that keeps the novel beautifully balanced between humour and sorrow. Did the Author really return to the flat of the professional reader, a young woman in a buttoned-up nightgown who lives with her cat? Did he give her pleasure but become impotent with thoughts of mortality and illness? In this scene as in the whole novel, Amos Oz’s mockery is only the other side of his compassion.