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scenes from village life

18 january 2021

I had never read anything by the late Amos Oz, so I randomly began with a slim novel from late in his career that I bought at a used-book store: Scenes from Village Life. In the tradition of George Crabbe, Henry Murger, Ivan Turgenev, George Eliot, and Amara Lakhous, Oz describes a small community one character at a time, sometimes tying them gently together and more often leaving a handful of loose ends.

"Tel Ilan, a pioneer village, already a century old, was surrounded by fields and orchards," says Oz's narrator, but he says that on page 111 (in Nicholas de Lange's fine translation), and we already know it from exposition that Oz has repeated from different perspectives. Tel Ilan is reachable by bus from Tel Aviv, but it's at the end of the line, and the line isn't very important; the bus driver parks his vehicle outside his house every night to go back to the city the next morning. The pioneers were Zionists, and central to their founding philosophy is the insistence that they had settled on virgin territory:

There was nothing here. Just a desolate plain covered in scrub. There were not even any Arab villages in this valley; they were all on the other side of the hills. (10)
Through irrigation and hard work, the settlers transformed the barren land into those fields and orchards (and vineyards and pastures), and then watched their work and their homes fade in various ways till the village was revitalized, in the novel's near past, by wealthy people from Tel Aviv seeking a pleasant place for country homes and a cute market for upscale foods and crafts.

"It could not be dangerous to be living / in a town like this, of simple people," as Marianne Moore said, but undercurrents trouble the lives of everyone that Oz checks in on. Arieh Zelnik has finally achieved some equilibrium in his life, retiring to care for his aged mother and build his model airplanes – till a stranger turns up with an extraordinarily invasive proposition. Rachel Franco cares for her own aged father, and seems to have friends and a fulfilling job as a teacher – but something is digging at the foundations of her old farmhouse. Digging, hiding away, and losing loved ones are themes in more than one story: real-estate agent Yossi Sasson descends into the cellar of another venerable house and loses his bearings there; Dr. Gili Steiner loses track of her problematic nephew; Mayor Benny Avni's wife drifts away for no apparent reason.

In the next-to-last story, the unnamed narrator of another story wanders into a host's spare room – even the existence of this character, who observes most of the others as they gather for a communal evening of singing, seems uncertain, his motives and his very identity opaque but ominously connected to a buried family tragedy. The final story returns to an objective but very stylized big picture and is uncertainly related to the others. Scenes from Village Life resists resolution at the level of individual stories and as a volume. It does what the best fiction does: explores lives without feeling it has to figure them out.

At the age of 61, I am still figuring out what kinds of fiction I value. I don't need conventional structure, resolution, or even reality – but I do need what I get in Scenes from Village Life: distinct characters at dramatic cross-purposes, enough exposition to orient me, and some sense that the scope of the fiction will be limited and not inflate in picaresque or multi-generational directions.

This doesn't disqualify some big novels. I have written admiringly here over the years about The Way We Live Now and Les Misérables. Though as I've also argued here, Trollope's novel is sharply limited in time and in the sector of English life where it's set; and Hugo's, for all its rambling (which one is free to skip), is centered on Jean Valjean.

My own rambling is just to say that I like fictions like this one by Amos Oz: compact, conventionally told, asymmetrical, offbeat, sharply observed, and dramatic within the confines of whatever realistic world they create: here, the real Israel but also a figurative world-in-a-village.

Oz, Amos. Scenes from Village Life. [Temunot me-haye ha-kefar, 2009.] Translated by Nicholas de Lange. Boston: Houghton, 2011. PJ 5054 .O9T4613