Sunday, 22 January 2012

Amos Oz

Amos Oz is a distinguished Israeli writer, whose work includes novels, poetry, political commentary and memoir. The Story Begins is his masterclass in close reading of fiction. There are ten short chapters, each dealing with the style of a story or novel, and the way that the beginning takes us into the work.  Authors examined include Fontane, Gogol, Chekhov, Kafka, Márquez and Carver. There are also critiques of Hebrew writers who some of us may not be so familiar with: Shmuel Agnon, S Yizhar, Yaakov Shabtai. But for the purposes of enjoying The Story Begins it isn't necessary to have read any of the works Oz considers, since his main concern is with how the fictions get going (and plot developments are summarised when necessary).

Oz is interested with the 'contract' any fiction implies at the outset between reader and writer. The brilliant first essay takes the opening of Fontane's Effi Briest, which seems to a modern reader a standard bit of descriptive scene-setting, the kind we have little patience with these days. Then he shows how every detail in the scene contributes through symbol and atmosphere to the development of the story. He shows us how to read Gogol by picking up the mad bureaucratic style, and explains how Márquez (in The Autumn of the Patriarch) dissolves the sense of time on which novels usually depend. A Carver story requires us to look for the emotional life of the characters beneath the surface, in the interstices of the writing. Oz picks up words, phrases and sentence shapes and relates them to the larger life of the story or novel under scrutiny. Each writer requires us to 'tune in', to pick up a series of codes and understandings that makes the reading experience work.

In a postscript, Oz expresses his frustration at dry academic criticism, which takes the pith out of literary texts. He emphasises the fundamental importance of getting lost in a book and picking up the particular pleasures it gives us. (Words like 'examined' and 'scrutiny' above suggest this dessicated world of joyless analysis, and don't do justice to his irresistibly enthusiastic approach: the chapters are based on lectures at high school and university and we hear the ebullient teacher's voice here.) Reading for pleasure doesn't mean being unthinking or unobservant, or falling into belle-lettristic complacency; but it does mean reading slowly and finding our way around in the new and strange world any good fiction writer takes us to. The Story Begins is top notch lit crit, and a writer's introduction tothe art of slow reading. Five stars.