Forethoughts: Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz

*Please note, I’ve now posted my afterthoughts for Scenes from Village Life.

And so I take a first tentative step into this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize as a ‘shadow judge’, by reading one of the shortest books on the longlist, Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz (Chatto & Windus; translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange).

Given the international prominence of Amos Oz (he’s officially the most translated Israeli author), one would be forgiven for thinking that he has been on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist before, but this is in fact the first time that a work of his has been selected.

Despite being thrilled at the prospect of reading Scenes from Village Life, I do have slight reservations, but I’ll share these later. I’d like to open these forethoughts if I may, with a rundown on the cover blurb:

Amos Oz’s new fiction presents a surreal and unsettling portrait of a village in Israel. A picture of the community takes shape across seven stories, in which a group of characters appear and return. Every villager is searching for something, yet in this almost dreamlike world nothing is certain, nothing is resolved.

An old man grumbles to his daughter about the unexplained digging and banging he hears under the house at night. A stranger turns up at a man’s door, to persuade him that they must get rid of his ageing mother in order to sell the house. A man goes to his neighbours for regular evenings of music and old pioneer songs, but is overwhelmingly drawn to the tragic heart of the house.

Behind each episode is another, hidden story – a glimpse of what goes on beneath the surface of everyday existence. The book concludes with an eighth story, shocking and strange, from another place and a distant time. In beautifully simple, poetic language, Amos Oz peers into the darkness of our lives in this powerful, hypnotic work.

Not surprisingly, given my love for short fiction, what appeals to me from the outset is the fact that Scenes From a Village is described as a series of eight interlocking short stories (Oz himself describes it as a ‘novel in stories’). It’s not the first time that such a format has found its way onto the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist (springing immediately to mind is Jenny Erpenbeck’s magnificent Visitation (Portobello Books), and Pietro Grossi’s testosterone-oozing Fists (Pushkin Press)), and generally I prefer these shorter works to the bigger tome-like novels which inevitably pop up every year (there are two significant doorstoppers on the longlist this year – Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (Harvill Secker) and Peter Nadas’ Parallel Stories (Jonathan Cape)), so I’ll always be more naturally drawn t works like this.

I must say however, that when adjectives such as ‘surreal’ and ‘dreamlike’ are used in a jacket synopsis, I become a little wary (and even more so when they’re linked to Amos Oz), because I often find that a book described as such, usually ends up being a little puzzling and abstract, at best. And of what I’ve picked up on the ‘grapevine’ so far, I’m led to believe that this work of fiction is a highly political one – as much of Oz’s work is – and quite frankly this scares me because I do find heavily political fiction to be something of a drag.

So going into Scenes from Village Life I guess I’m split between excitement and trepidation, which if I’m honest is the mood I normally find myself in when I’m about to begin a new book, especially from an author whose work I’ve never really read much of before. However it turns out I can only hope that Scenes from Village Life is exactly as its title suggests i.e. a novel in which village life is explored, in contemporary Israel. The blurb kind of hints at this, so fingers crossed.

So what of this titan writer from the Middle East? Well, Amos Oz was born Amos Klausner, in Jerusalem in 1939 (he changed his surname to Oz – meaning ‘strength’ – when he began publishing his books), to a family of scholars who had emigrated from Russia in the 1920s. He went on to study philosophy and literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, before serving as a reserve soldier (as most Israeli Jews do of course) with the Israeli Defense Forces. He has seen action both in the 1967 Six-Day War, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Married to his wife Nily since 1960, the couple have two daughters and a son, and have lived for the past 26 years in the small city of Arad, which is located on the edge of the Negev Desert, 69 miles south of Jerusalem.

Obsessively ordered in every respect (in his life, in his writing and in his appearance), Oz is a strong Zionist, and his beliefs on this are often reflected in his political writing. Oz is also recognised – by some more than others – as a dedicated peace activist. He is founder of the Peace Now organisation.

Regarded as one of Israel’s most prominent intellectuals, Oz has to date published 18 works of fiction, and over 450 articles and essays. He has also picked up a myriad of prestigious awards during his career, including the Prix Femina, the Prix Méditerranée Étranger (for this very novel), the Israel Prize and the Frankfurt Peace Prize.

All said and done, I think we can safely declare that Amos Oz is the ‘David Beckham’ of the Israeli literary scene (albeit with more intellect, and less flash :)).

Nicholas de Lange is the eminent translator of Scenes from Village Life. A professor at the University of Cambridge, De Lange has not only translated many works from the Hebrew language – including those of Amos Oz – but has also himself published and edited several works on the subject of Judaism. In 2007 he was awarded the prestigious Risa Domb/Porjes Prize for Hebrew-English Translation, for his work on Oz’s autobiographical novel, A Tale of Love and Darkness (Vintage). This gives me great hope that Scenes from Village Life has been rendered into English as perfectly as it can be (Oz declares Hebrew to be a language so poetic that it’s impossible to translated into another), and even more so when I think of how well Oz can speak English too.

That’s all I have to say for now so it’s on with the reading. As I’ve said above I’m really looking forward to this one, but I’m worried that it’s going to be a bit stuffy and/or abstract in its meaning. I’ll be back to let you know as soon as. Meantime, if you want to know more about Amos Oz, then check out the links below.

Chatto and Windus | 14th July 2011 | £12.00 | HARDBACK | 272 PP | ISBN: 9780701185503

Learn more about Amos Oz:

This book is being read as part of my involvement in 2012 with the ‘shadow jury’ for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. To find out more about this, and the judging panel that I’m involved with, please visit my ‘Shadowing the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize’ post.

A note about forethoughts
‘Forethoughts’ offer an insight into what my initial thoughts and impressions of a book are before I begin reading it. Informal, and largely written as a stream-of-consciousness exercise in a single sitting, my ‘forethoughts’ capture an important stage of the reading experience for me – the anticipatory period before the book is first opened, when my excitement is piqued for the reading experience which lies ahead.

Blissfully ignorant my ‘forethoughts’ may well be, but when combined with my eventual ‘afterthoughts’, the result is a unique and comprehensive record of a very personal literary ‘journey’ through a particular book; a literary journey which will hopefully be of some value to other readers.

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).