“All Rivers”
by Amos Oz (originally published in 1965)
translated from the Hebrew by Philip Simpson
from the January 14, 2019 issue of The New Yorker

Israeli author Amos Oz died of cancer on December 28. While I’ve read some of his work (see here and here), mostly I know him by reputation. For — oh, I don’t know, the last fifteen years or so and maybe longer — he has been a yearly favorite to win the Nobel Prize, and I’m betting the prize would have been for both important fiction and non-fiction.

“All Rivers” appears in English for the first this week’s New Yorker, though it was originally published in Hebrew over fifty years ago in 1965. Here we get to go back and see a glimpse of Oz at the beginning, when he was in his mid-20s, long before the long list of publications and awards. I have not read the whole thing yet, but I read much more than the initial paragraph as I was intending.

Oz begins this story by having his narrator, a twenty-eight-year-old Eliezer Dror, describing a woman named Tova, a “young poetess,” though she’s five years older than Eliezer. After four paragraphs, he has this:

You see, this is what often happens to me. I’ve tried to describe Tova’s face systematically, following a certain order, and even a casual glance will reveal that, in my haste to move from her hair to her eyes, I missed her forehead. I missed her cheeks, too. Enough said. The story is letting me down, stretching things out one after another, but when you look at Tova you see her face and the rest of her all at once. Also, a face is alive and words are dead. I’m tired of words. You strive to be accurate, and then words come along and falsify everything.

I quite like that. As “All Rivers” moves on, we see that Eliezer is continually concerned with words and structure and the act of dismantling that is involved in the act of constructing with words.

I was discharged from the Army with the rank of lieutenant, and now I’m a reservist in the paras. Blond-haired. A little of what I did in wartime I’ll mention later on, when I write about the things that I told Tova in the café. (You see, I’m getting mixed up again: What I did in the Army came before what I told Tova, obviously. And what I told Tova now also belongs to the past, and just now I promised to tell in the future what I’ve already told in the past. Strange, how it’s almost impossible to write or say anything without distortion or, to put it plainly, without telling lies.)

In the midst of this, Eliezer does tell an interesting story: his work on the kibbutz his parents founded, his time in the army, his reaction to a poem Tova shares with him.

As I said above, I’m still working through it, and I’m looking forward to resting with it further. I’m surprised by how rich I’m finding it; Oz had the gift from the very start.

In the meantime, please comment below to share your thoughts on “All Rivers” and on Amos Oz in general.

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By |2019-01-07T15:32:11-04:00January 7th, 2019|Categories: Amos Oz, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: , |5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. David January 10, 2019 at 1:37 pm

    Knowing this was a very early story of his and one that had not been translated into English in the more than 50 years since it was written suggests that it might not be one of his more significant works. Reading the story supports that suggestion, but at the same time there is enough here for it to be well worth reading and for people who have read and liked a lot of Oz’s work to think it should have been available sooner.
    .
    To describe the plot is to describe a very slight story, bordering on the cliche. But early on what Oz establishes is that the story is not so much about what happens or even who the characters are, but it is about the way of telling the story of the day and this encounter. It feels a bit at times like a stylistic exercise in trying to capture the voice of a storyteller who is completely lost in knowing how to tell the story, but for the most part it works as an exploration of storytelling and the narrative voice.
    .
    I don’t know enough about Israeli culture to know how much significance there is in the line “all rivers flow to the sea” being used in the poem here. I know it is a line from Ecclesiastes and that thirty years later Elie Wiesel used “all rivers run to the sea” as the title of his memoir, but not much more than that. It suggests to me that there might be something more of substance going on in the story I might be missing, but I am not sure what that might be.

  2. Trevor Berrett January 10, 2019 at 1:41 pm

    Your comment is very helpful, David. I loved this story, but I couldn’t quite say why because, as you say, the story itself is rather slight. What I loved, I realize now, is the storyteller and the attention to how to tell the story. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but that’s what pulled me in and kept me going.

    Also, like you, I don’t know the political and cultural context to know what else might be explored here, so I hope someone who does will come along and share.

  3. kurzeroz January 22, 2019 at 11:02 am

    “God collects us,too, one by one arranges us in his album, and enjoys the harmony that hides behind the suffering”. This is the theme of the story described in the meeting of Eliezer and Tova. Eliezer in town to meet a fellow stamp collector, has a chance meeting with Tova. There is a mutual attraction. Tova is dying and as the day progresses, stamps lose their importance. Tova’s “don’t touch me” is a warning to Eliezer that she is death,but her message touches him. “We all end up the same” All rivers flow to the sea; that is we all decline. (Some day your body is going to betray you) and die”
    Amos Oz, early genius at work.

  4. Ken January 25, 2019 at 5:45 pm

    This story amazed me. I’ve enjoyed stories by Oz before but this was incredible. The theme that I picked up on–besides the above-mentioned comments about the story’s reflexivity–was the debate between instinct or passion and reason. There’s no good reason for the narrator to walk off with Tova or to actually take her up on marriage and yet she is the irrational, the momentary, the instant, and he’s hard-pressed to deny it until she literally almost forces his hand by throwing up on him. He will regroup, continue his career and ample love-life, probably settle down and have a family, but always remember this day and the impulse to suicide he felt that evening. Or…will he now stray further from the rational after his meeting with Tova?

  5. Larry Bone January 28, 2019 at 10:41 pm

    Even if this Amos Oz story “All Rivers” is a minor work, there is much to recommend it and make it seem more major than minor.  To me it seems like a little microcosm of the macrocosm of life.  It is sort of short story blood test of a particular societal body politic.

    I like how Tova has a bit of surplus to her body in various places but Eliezer finds her beautiful no body shamer he.  He does have dalliances with some women like she has had the same with some men.

    Oz points how useless words are but as already mentioned, he uses a simple sentence with perfect word choice to render some mens’ basic attitude toward women, “I never yet met a girl who didn’t need help.”  But Tova like Gloria Steinem says, “I’m not a girl,” this in 1963.

    “I’m a woman of thirty-three,” she says demanding respect.  “And I’m twenty-eight years old,” he says perhaps acknowledging that  she deserves as much rather than any less respect than he as a man is entitled to.  I could be wrong but it seems that in Israeli society circa 1963, Israeli men saw Israeli women as more rather than less equal to them.  Isn’t it that Israeli women served in their military before women served in ours.

    This kind of jumps out at me as important because an American man would never respond to “I’m not a girl” the way Elieser did even though he had dalliances.  Women suffered anyway some commenters might say.

    Oz’s trouble with telling the story with words and that a word can tell lies is a great motif in the story.  And he really succinctly points out the difference between how words versus pictures in a film tell a story:  “because words have to come one after another, and it’s in the nature of a picture to appear all at once.”

    Oz has a gentle sense of humor when Elieser says, “for example, that poets are disturbed creatures.”  And Tova agrees, “That’s true especially when people are disturbing them.”  There is a dry sense of humor that morphs into something sad.

    Which kind of leads into the “all rivers” theme of the story which to me means all life or all the life one has lived until one dies.  To me Oz is being very ironic in that Tova has had dalliances with men who gave her some happiness even if not fully meeting her expectations.  And Eliezer has had dalliances and they have both lived, as in rivers flowing into the sea.  But Tova is dying, smoking herself to death and this horrifies Eliezer because they fall in love so simply and so quickly but then the rug is pulled out from under both of them.  This seems reflected when Tova says she designed “a publicity poster for the U.N., on the subject of freedom and happiness” that she considered an “abomination” or horror.  This reflects back to her family and the concentration camps and “no one had survived.”  Tova said,  “she started to feel that the only choice she had was between one form of death and another.”

    And Eliezer is so shattered by the negative impact of his very short relationship with Tova that at the end of the story, he has “this sudden and intense desire to die.”

    All rivers run to the sea is a hymn to survival and that all your bad experiences don’t change you like the sea doesn’t get to big or life too overwhelming.  But concentration camps and a girlfriend dying make this metaphor totally useless and into a horrible lie like words and pictures.

    I googled the all rivers flow into the sea trope and found the following:

    I think it is trying to say that no matter how much we endure (emotionally, spiritually, whatever,) we cannot reach a threshhold or maximum which indicates the “end” of our ability to exist just as all rivers empty their contents into the sea, yet the sea doesn’t overflow or flood. It may also be trying to say that the rivers keep flowing into the sea and it’s not in the sea’s control and the sea is surviving well. In our lives, problems will always exist and enter our lives steadily, but we still survive because we all have the capacity to cope with our problems in some way, just as the ocean continuously accepts water from all the rivers and still remains an ocean.

    Someone named Molot who used to live in Chicago but moved to Wisconsin posted this.

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