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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Rhyming Life and Death

Amos Oz

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To purchase Rhyming Life and Death

Title: Rhyming Life and Death
Author: Amos Oz
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 155 pages
Original in: Hebrew
Availability: Rhyming Life and Death - US
Rhyming Life and Death - UK
Rhyming Life and Death - Canada
Rhyming Life and Death - India
Vie et mort en quatre rimes - France
Verse auf Leben und Tod - Deutschland
La vita fa rima con la morte - Italia
Versos de vida y muerte - España
  • Hebrew title: חרוזי החיים והמוות
  • Translated by Nicholas de Lange

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting writer's-game

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 9/2/2009 Eric Banks
FAZ . 2/10/2008 Friedmar Apel
The Guardian . 21/2/2009 Christopher Tayler
The Independent . 27/2/2009 Julia Pascal
The Jerusalem Post . 24/5/2007 Viva Sarah Press
The Jerusalem Post . 7/5/2009 Akin Ajayi
The LA Times . 3/5/2009 Richard Eder
NZZ A 11/10/2008 Stefana Sabin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 24/5/2009 Liesl Schillinger
The Observer . 15/2/2009 Adam Mars-Jones
San Francisco Chronicle . 17/4/2009 Alan Cheuse
The Scotsman A- 22/1/2009 Allan Massie
The Spectator . 18/2/2009 Simon Baker
Sunday Times . 15/2/2009 John Spurling
The Telegraph . 6/2/2009 Elena Seymenliyska
TLS . 18/2/2009 Anthony Cummins
Die Welt A 5/7/2008 Claus-ulrich Bielefeld

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, most think it's not entirely satisfying

  From the Reviews:
  • "The promise is a tease, tantalising but unfulfilled. Indeed much of this funny and philosophical book, which unfolds over eight hours of a single evening, is like an elaborate set-up without a punchline." - Eric Banks, Financial Times

  • "Das ergibt in listiger Identifikation mit dem angeblichen unbedeutenden Vorgänger eine melancholische Erwägung über das Verhältnis der Literatur zum Leben, eine frank die Grenze zum Albernen überschreitende Satire auf den israelischen Literaturbetrieb, vor allem aber einen augenzwinkernden Einblick in die Werkstatt eines bedeutenden Schriftstellers, der sich über Bedeutung lustig macht." - Friedmar Apel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "A few of the social nuances in the book are fairly impenetrable to a non-Israeli reader. (...) I'd guess, too, that his Hebrew tracks the characters' spoken idioms in a way that can't easily be conveyed in English, though Nicholas de Lange, his long-term translator, has produced a text that reads well. These aren't insuperable obstacles, however, and there's plenty for us anglophone readers to enjoy: a deft way with quirky detail, a master class in interlocking character sketches, and a fable on themes of sex, death and writing pitched somewhere between the fictional universes of JM Coetzee and Milan Kundera." - Christopher Tayler, The Guardian

  • "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. (...) 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." - Julia Pascal, The Independent

  • "Employing irony and compassion, he exposes the behind the scenes life of the novelist. Over the course of 102 pages, he offers the reader an understanding of the craft for which he has become so renowned." - Viva Sarah Press, The Jerusalem Post

  • "A slim volume, it is an intimate consideration of that peculiarly human condition, insecurity; it is a meditation about dichotomies and the need to categorize according to the binary classification either/or; it is about whether it is ever possible to negotiate a space between one and the other. (...) Oz uses wry humor and insight to explore that most basic of human failings, insecurity." - Akin Ajayi, The Jerusalem Post

  • "So much for what happens. The writer takes over, and the Author devises an alternative story; this one a full-blooded enthusiastically mutual seduction, sexy but fumbling on both sides. It is a small masterpiece of psychological tangle." - Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Der Erzähler in diesem kleinen grossen Roman tritt einmal als subtiler Lenker seiner Figur auf, dann wieder als ihr distanzierter Beobachter, und manchmal wird er mit der Figur, dem Schriftsteller, identisch. Denn hinter all den Geschichten, die der Schriftsteller entwirft, verbirgt sich eine einzige Geschichte: die Geschichte eines Schriftstellers, der reale Erlebnisse zu imaginierter Erfahrung verdichtet und Erfahrung zu Fiktion umarbeitet. Es ist eine Geschichte über das Handwerk des Schreibens" - Stefana Sabin, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "(A) a slight but evocative novella (...) beautifully translated by Nicholas de Lange" - Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The destabilisation is more drastic than Escher's and suddenly there is need for a technical term: postmodernism. The reason for the difference must be the element of time and the fact that readers don't just contemplate that illusory third dimension but inhabit it continuously. The book is on the beguiling end of the scale for such experiments (whose single most enjoyable example must be David Hughes's The Little Book), but readers are likely to experience something more like an eviction than a piece of playfulness." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer

  • "This relatively lighthearted novel, in Nicholas de Lange's translation, would suggest that imagination answers all." - Alan Cheuse, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The book is a meditation, on the art of writing, the relationship between literature and life, between life and death, and also about the nature and significance of literary fame. It offers easy reading, but invites further thought. It's a minor work perhaps, in comparison with Amos Oz's more ambitious novels, but it is still the work of a master, admirably rendered into English by Oz's regular translator, Nicholas de Lange. A book you are likely to return to." - Allan Massie, The Scotsman

  • "Amos Oz focuses in this book on the relationship between fact and fiction, between reader and author -- and, indeed, between ‘author’ and ‘Author’. (...) The book asks us why we read, why we believe in what we read, and whether the bridge between the real and the imaginary can ever be defined -- which leads to one of the most basic literary questions: What exactly is a work of fiction ? (...) Some of the imagined scenarios are interesting, but occasionally (...) the book reads like the transcript of a parlour game that was more diverting for the participant than it is for us." - Simon Baker, The Spectator

  • "This is a teasing, glancing book, sustained by Oz's fluent, relaxed tone, but ultimately undermined by its subject; for how can any reader take the lives of improvised characters seriously ? Only, of course, if the author takes them seriously in the first place." - John Spurling, Sunday Times

  • "(T)he metafiction of Rhyming Life and Death strikes an abnegating note, with Oz delivering a powerful attack on the whole business of writing and reading. And yet what could be seen as creative suicide ends in calm acceptance." - Elena Seymenliyska, The Telegraph

  • "A certain restlessness accompanies the reader’s pleasure in these brisk, unconnected sketches, of which there are more than a dozen: one wonders if Oz plans to test, or merely exhibit, his Author’s imagination." - Anthony Cummins, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Die Meisterschaft von Amos Oz zeigt sich darin, mit welcher Leichtigkeit er diese Porträts skizziert. Wenige Tupfer und Striche genügen, um die Figuren anschaulich zu machen. Obwohl ihre Auftritte kurz sind und man nicht sehr viel über sie erfährt, prägen sie sich ein, und man wird sie nicht so schnell vergessen (.....) Beeindruckend: die tänzerische Leichtigkeit, mit der Oz erzählt. Raffiniert: Wie er über das Erzählen nachdenkt und dabei der Schwerkraft der Abstraktion zu widerstehen weiß." - Claus-ulrich Bielefeld, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Set in Tel Aviv in the early 1980s, Rhyming Life and Death describes one evening and late night in the life of a successful writer -- referred to here just as the Author --, from his preparations for a reading to the event itself and then his wandering about afterwards.
       The novel begins with over a page worth of the "most commonly asked questions" that the Author can expect when the audience is invited to pose some at the end of the event. What they amount to is also the question that preoccupies the Author (and Oz) throughout -- summed up again near the end when he looks about and wonders:

Why write about all these things ? They exist, and will go on existing whether you write about them or not, whether you are here or not. Surely these are the basic questions that figured at the beginning of this text: Why do you write ? Why do you write the way you do ?
       And it is a basic question that figures not only at the beginning of this specific text, but implicitly in any work, by any author. And that is what Oz explores.
       At the beginning of the novel, after the long list of questions readers typically ask, Oz maintains:
     There are clever answers and there are evasive answers: there are no simple, straightforward answers.
       Rhyming Life and Death, too, is one of those clever, evasive answers.
       Oz's Author can't stop himself: everything he sees sets him spinning out stories in his imagination. Grabbing a bite to eat before the event he waits for his omelette and, knowing nothing about her, imagines the waitress' first love -- "when Ricky was only sixteen she fell in love with the reserve goalkeeper of the Bnei-Yehuda football team, Charlie, who turned up one rainy day in his Lancia in front of the beauty parlour where she worked". He gives names to those he sees, and draws them into the stories he's constructing in his mind's eye -- a huge convolute, by the end, so that Oz appends a cast-of-characters list, with brief descriptions, at the end of the novel.
       The real-life action moves fairly predictably, especially through the reading and the question-and-answer period. Afterwards, the Author rather awkwardly and uncertainly pursues the young woman who had read excerpts from his book at the event, Rochele Reznik. He's not sure of his desire -- she's not that attractive, but the ease of the possibility of conquest seems to tempt him -- but eventually he winds up at her place; not surprisingly, it's the Author that doesn't wind up getting satisfaction, destined to continue his wanderings in search of answers and truth.
       At one point with Rochele Oz has his Author wish:
If only he could say to her, Listen, Rochele, please don't be sad, after all, the characters in this book are all just the Author himself: Ricky, Charlie, Lucy, Leon, Ovadya, Yuval, Yerucham, they are all just the Author and whatever happens to them here is really only happening to him, and even you, Rochele, are just a thought in my mind and whatever is happening to you and me is actually only happening to me.
       And so it goes, the Author torn between his writing-life -- all-encompassing, if he allows it to be (as he is tempted to) -- and reality. Why write ? Why create such worlds, rather than deal with the actual one ? are the questions the novel poses. It's no coincidence that the Author is, in fact, also an accountant, a partner in firm where he is: "in charge of the tax affairs of four or five middle- to large-size export companies, particularly relating to their foreign currency earnings" -- as mundane a job as one could imagine. But that reality, that down-to-earth accounting-life hardly figures here; the Author is decidedly -- indeed, here almost entirely -- a creator, and it's clear why Oz did not present his character as 'the Accountant'.
       Looking back to his late teens, Oz writes about his Author:
He wrote more or less the same way he dreamed or masturbated: a mixture of compulsion, despair, disgust and wretchedness.
       Yet that would seem to describe his unstoppable creative activity in the present as well, and even if the Author doesn't have pen in hand in the narrative itself, it's not difficult to see him (or Oz) wielding it behind the pages.
       "But what was the Author trying to say ?" Oz has the abandoned Rochele ask, but that's the question on everyone's mind -- the reader's, the Author's, Oz's. And because there are no simple, straightforward answers, Oz reminds -- via Rochele -- that:
She knows that the Author was definitely talking to her between the lines this evening, that there were more words underneath the words he spoke, and she didn't understand a thing.
       Rhyming Life and Death plays all these games, and several more -- the title, for example, is taken from the work of a (fictional) poet, Tsefania Beit-Halachim, who also casts a considerable shadow over this particular night and the Author's ruminations --, making it very much a writer's text. Oz spins his tale out well and amusingly, but some of the game feels lost in the largest sense of translation, both the language and some of the specifics too localised to be fully appreciated.
       Still, there's a master at work, here, and it's a fine solipsistic entertainment.

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Rhyming Life and Death: Reviews: Amos Oz:
  • The complete review's Amos Oz page
Other books by Amos Oz under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Israeli author Amos Oz (עמוס עוז) was born in 1939.

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© 2009-2013 the complete review

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