Category Archives: Contemporary Fiction

Book Review: “Judas” / by Amos Oz

I knew that Amos Oz was an Israeli writer, but that was about it, and I’d never read anything by him. On a recommendation (my therapist’s actually) I thought I’d give it a try, as I’d always had an interest in Judas, and am so glad I did. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an unequivocal masterpiece.

It is a novel of ideas (I think you’ll agree that’s rare enough these days) concerning the founding of the Jewish state, the relationship between Jesus and the Jews (and ultimately Judaism vs. Christianity), Judas and the Jews, Judas and Jesus, Arabs and Jews, discussed in unconventional ways, presenting very different (and extremely interesting) perspectives that deviate greatly from the conventional narrative propounded by politicians and religious leaders alike.

Set in 1959 Israel, the story concerns a young Israeli graduate student at a  crossroad in his life: his girlfriend has just left him and married a former boyfriend; he’s dropped out of graduate school mainly because reversals in his family fortunes didn’t allow him to continue, but even then he was stalled on his thesis on Jewish views of Jesus and Christian views of Judas.

Shmuel Ash, the main protagonist, answers an ad seeking a companion for an elderly invalid male. His first name, Shmuel, couldn’t help but bring to mind the prominent place of the schlemiel in Jewish literature, whether Oz intended this or not. He thinks it will just be he and the old man at first but then discovers a much younger woman lives there, whose idea it was to place the ad. She (Atalia) is very mysterious and very beautiful, smelling of violets, and immediately captures Shmuel’s heart.

We gradually find out she is the daughter of one of Ben-Gurion’s arch rivals, the lone dissenting voice in the movement for a state of Israel, believing there could be a two-state solution with the Arabs. For this he was expelled from the Zionist executive committee and branded a “traitor.”

Naturally this interests Shmuel, who has been writing a thesis on the greatest traitor in history, and he spends long hours in the National Library delving into the history of that era. Unfortunately he can find no trace of his papers, no record of his speeches, and has to abandon this research also.

The old man he is taking care of is Atalia’s father-in-law, whose beloved son (Atalia’s husband) was killed in the 1948 war. Although he disagreed strongly with Atalia’s father’s views he invited him to live with him after his fall from grace. The old man comes to love Shmuel as a son during his three-month stay there, and gains Atalia’s grudging admiration also.

It seems Shmuel is the fourth of a succession of young male caretakers, all seduced by Altalia, who had a bit of Estella Havisham about her, then sent away. Things seem to be going differently for Shmuel even though all along he sees her as unattainable.

This is all I will say about the plot, aside from mentioning it has a perfectly ambiguous ending, hopefully it is enough to spark an interest in the book. As a minor spoiler alert I’ll just say there is an incredibly harrowing and graphic chapter devoted to Jesus’ crucifixion narrated by Judas, a real tour de force, which makes the book worth reading for this alone, although there is so much more.

There is not a lot of action, but the story moves apace and Oz tells it carefully and lovingly. As it  turns out, some of the subject matter is taken from the author’s life, as delineated in his 2004 memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” The book wrestles with the big topics of Jesus’ humanity, the basis of anti-Semitism and other prejudice, the hope for eventual peace in the Middle East, and love.

Originally published in 2014, this edition, translated from the Hebrew, was published in 2016, and was shortlisted for the Man Book International Prize in 2017. Oz is a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this book puts him over the top.

Advertisements

Confessions of a Neophyte / Stories by Tom Evans

FYI to anyone interested, I wanted to announce that I have gone the self-publishing route, using Kindle Direct Publishing. The above-titled collection contains 6 stories, 2 or 3 of which I’ve already posted here. My intention is to add more to the collection as they arrive. Disclaimer: there is a nominal fee of $1, but I’d be glad to send anyone free review copies if they’d like one. Just let me know. And if by a miracle anyone should actually decide to purchase a copy I’d appreciate it if you’d leave some comments or rate the book, as this will help move it up the ranks, and, believe me, it’ll need all the help it can get to do so. I’m still not sure how this all works but I believe you can find it if you search Amazon or Kindle under the title or author. If I find a more direct way to provide access I will post what I presume will be some sort of link here. The formatting isn’t that great but until I can get that figured out it looks much better in landscape. As always, thanks in advance for your response, etc. etc.

this link will show you a preview of the book: https://read.amazon.com/kp/embed?asin=B01M98NKOK&preview=newtab&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_9Y5-xbD56BR5C

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams / Peter Handke

I’m not sure how I stumbled onto this book but when I did so in the early 80’s it instantly became one of my very favorite books. The title for one thing- I even love the German title Wunschloses Unglück for some reason, probably because I love the book so much in general. It being out of print and difficult just to get the book from a library back in those days,  I hate to admit that (being a librarian and all, and very cognizant of copyright infringement), after reading and falling in love with it and not knowing if I’d ever be able to get it back again, and wanting to have it with me at all times, instead of stealing it (I draw the line at that) I photocopied the 65 page hardcover copy I had in my hot little hands, justifying it to myself by promising that it ever did come back in print I’d be the first to know and the first one in line to get it, and that in the meantime I’d be telling as many people about it as I could.

I was in the throes of deciding whether I really wanted to be a writer at that time (not realizing you either were or you weren’t), and was reading all kinds of literary theory, including that of the Nouveau Roman movement when I came across this book, which has some of the aspects of that theory in it, particularly in its rigorous demonstration of the failure of language to express the horror of existence, and in its questioning of whether fiction with its artifice can even approximate the nature of existence. He believed less is much more, that you had to do the best you could to tell the truth, and layers upon layers of fiction’s apparatus didn’t solve the problem, rather further obfuscated things.

The book’s story line is a difficult one, that of coming to terms with his mother’s suicide in the most objective possible way. He realizes the task he has set himself and all the way through questions whether he is succeeding in any way in conveying what he is trying to convey. He uses capitals throughout the book for emotive terms he applies to his mother’s life, signalling his futility in trying to capture her reality, and italics for the cliches he purposefully sprinkles throughout, cliches often used (albeit in a well-meaning way) to come to terms with such a tragedy.

Just the facts, ma’am are how he begins, her life having been profoundly impacted by her coming of age in Hitler’s Germany, her son the product of a wartime romance with a much older man, making her an unwed mother in one of the most horrific times in modern history, after which she marries a gruff alcoholic German Army sergeant who never could understand her, meanwhile still carrying the torch for her son’s real father which she would for the rest of her life. Eventually she begins discovering the world and living her life through her son, educating herself by reading the books her son shares with her from the university he is attending, books by Hamsun, Gorky, Kafka, Dostoevsky, then Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner. She then becomes depressed by her experience with this great literature, which she often takes literally, and her son feels responsible. Gradually Handke becomes a success as a writer and, busy living his life, lessens his contact with his mother. No longer having this connection with her son, she loses interest in life and kills herself.

Handke doesn’t feel the relief he thought he’d feel writing the book, nor does he realize much of anything concerning his mother’s suicide. With one of the great rationalizations in literary history he ends the book with this:

Someday I shall write about all this in greater detail.

Both he and the reader know he won’t.

And yes, the book finally came back into print, in a mini compendium  published in 1988, entitled 3 x Handke, and yes, I literally ran out to buy it as soon as I heard.

Originally published in 1972 in German, the Ralph Manheim translation was published in 1974. Handke has gone on to become a major figure in world literature though he probably has had his greatest commercial success collaborating with Wim Wenders on several of his films.

James Salter

Mr. Salter, whom I should have included in my original list of writer’s  writers, died on June 19 of this year. I can think of only one other contemporary writer, Gina Berriault (“Women in Their Beds”), who has written as fine a collection of short stories as Salter’s “Last Night,” published in 2005. His final novel, “All That Is,” considered his most accessible, grounded work, published in 2013, made him moderately successful. Up to then his memoir “Burning the Days” (one of the all-time great book titles) was probably his most well-known book. He also wrote several screenplays, one of which, “Downhill Racer,” made into a movie with Robert Redford, is one you might recognize, but you can be forgiven if you don’t as it wasn’t all that memorable. In all he wrote six novels, a book of poetry, three screenplays (one of which he also directed), two story collections, and his “Collected Stories”  also appeared in 2013. As the title of the Esquire appreciation of him, published two days after his death, has it: “James Salter: The Greatest Writer You’ve Never Read,” and Richard Ford said of him,“Sentence for sentence, Salter is the master.” But don’t take their (or my) word for it, see for yourself, you’ll likely find it an unforgettable experience.