“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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