A quarter of a century ago, at a tumultuous time in my life, I used to listen every night on the World Service to Laurent Kabila’s inexorable advance on the capital of Zaire; my girlfriend couldn’t sleep without it being on. Before that came the shipping forecast. I didn’t have much time for reading, but during this time, I read Amos Oz’s novel Black Box. I think the plot concerns events after the death of the central character, in the lives he touched. I really should look it up on Wikipedia, but I’m not going to. The point being, he was a “complex” character, as they say, destructive, lacking in insight into himself, broken without knowing. There was a metaphorical plane crash.
The book made a deep impression on me, but it was only a couple of months ago I picked up another in Leakey’s bookshop in Inverness (“the largest in Scotland”, and a local institution, with its log fire, and shelves upon shelves of books on single malts or tartans) for the train south: To Know a Woman. Not such a good title, is it? Perhaps it sounds better in Hebrew. The structure is an inversion of Black Box: rather than seeing the protagonist from many views, this novel looks out, the view of a man who, like all of us, has many blind spots, as he adjusts to a catastrophic change in his life, and perhaps, softens a little. These are not morality tales, and would be dull fictions if they were. There is no judgment. You don’t get the view from outside (or in the former case, inside; but it is so long since I read it I don’t remember the effect of this, only that it made an impression). This makes a refreshing contrast to much contemporary American fiction, where the characters must learn their lessons and grow.
An old friend said to me once: people don’t change. I found it harsh at the time. If we can’t learn to do better, what hope is there for us? Yet that is often the view from outside. Many of us might think of their parents. Do we ever know what someone is like? I may or may not have posted here the thought that knowledge of oneself is entirely different in kind from knowledge of others, each kind of knowledge frustratingly imperfect. It’s that difficulty, the problem of knowing one another at all, in the most intimate and even lifelong relationships, that seems to be Oz’s subject in both books.
He also has a wonderful thing with leitmotifs. Some sensory detail is mentioned, a detail in the pattern of the wallpaper in a hotel, or it may be, a thought about a person or situation; and fifty pages later it recurs in what might be the ipsissima verba, but probably subtly changed, to bring home an echo perhaps (someone must have written a thesis on Oz’s use of this device), but it feels to me, much more to bring home this aspect of human experience, that we experience a sense of deja vu, which may even be false, at moments that somehow deserve to be underlined; as if our Guardian Angel were tapping us on the shoulder, hoping we take notice. And perhaps these are the moments when we have the opportunity to change, though usually not taken.