Rhyming Life and Death, By Amos Oz, translated by Nicholas de Lange

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The Independent Culture

Amos Oz is a giant in Israel for the wealth of his literary achievements and for his courageous political stance. His outstanding memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, allowed us to understand how this child of the Israeli Right had become a major figure of the Left. It also explored the tragedy of a boy whose mother had committed suicide. It linked the political and the emotional. However, his latest novella is a surprisingly tiny conceit. Set in Tel Aviv during the 1980s, it focuses on eight hours in an anonymous, 40-something writer's life before, during and after a public reading. The central character is The Author. Or perhaps it is Oz?

Waiting for the event, he kills time in a café fantasising about the waitress, whom he names Ricky. Obsessing about her knickers, he uses his erotic stirring to get him through the night. The problem is The Author's fixation on "Ricky" is puerile, even verging on soft porn. If his imaginings of women are superficial, this is not true of the male lives he creates. Their characters, conflicts and dreams jump off the page with more authenticity.

Central to the story is an encounter with a fan, Rochele Reznik, who wears high-necked blouses and a simple plait. Using the device of multiple possibilities, he allows the reader to experience both a chaste and a sexual meeting. Oz/The Author tantalises the reader with what might or might not have happened between semi-strangers. Again his descriptions of sex are full of purple passages but, occasionally, he redeems the writing when his hero endearingly becomes self-mocking. Will The Author's erection embarrass the inexperienced woman - or himself?

Oz strongly evokes a man's compulsion to hunt down his younger female prey. He also shows how, once she is conquered, she must be dropped before she makes emotional demands. But there is an unsatisfying tension.

Rochele is an adoring acolyte. He is a literary god and she just a woman who, The Author insists, "is never quite attractive enough". Though he is compelled to possess her, when it comes to the act, he is not sure he really wants it. In order to fake arousal he fantasises sex with Ricky or as a voyeur, watching Ricky with her imaginary twin. There no irony here. The sexuality feels tacky.

Yet Oz is playing. Clearly his aim is to loosen boundaries between urge, fantasy and reality. The game is mildly amusing but, despite touching on themes of death and sex, the ambition is never realised. Added to this frustrating narrative, the title is an allusion to a book written by an invented, newly-deceased, once-famous poet. Oz uses fragments of the poet's rhymes to ask about posterity and the role of the artist, but this additional imaginary presence sits uneasily.

Rhyming Life and Death may be a useful tool for writers with problems constructing characters but, as mature fiction, it is irritating. Certainly, Oz wanted a distanced and anonymous hero, but what started out as an amusing device ends up as maddening.