E.L. Doctorow & Amos Oz : The story of a kid growing up

Shortly after posting the previous post -- the one saying how wonderful the book World's Fair is -- I suddenly realized which book it reminded me of. I'm quite sure this didn't occur to me at all while I was actually engrossed in Doctorow's novel. But once the thought popped up, it seemed to me obvious.

I'm referring to Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness.

Oz's book is an autobiography that reads much like a [very convincing] novel; Doctorow's book is a novel that reads much like an autobiography. Except that it can't be -- no child remembers such details, with such vividness, of his childhood. Then again, though the book may not be an autobiography, it does rely heavily on Doctorow's childhood memories, both conscious and subconscious ones, as is made plain in the fascinating New York Times essay Doctorow Revisits the 'World's Fair' of his Novel by Herbert Mitgang.

The large paperback copy of World's Fair I was reading is a second-hand book -- no idea where I got it -- that is littered with comments penciled in the margins. I'd say "adorned" rather than "littered" were the comments interesting or enlightening. But the reader took the persona's voice much too literally. Edgar-the-child waxes lyrical and philosophical about the sights and sounds around him, and describes what happens to him in language and in a depth that suit an older author looking back on his childhood, not a six-, seven- or eight-year old boy. I wonder whether the original owner of the book ever figured that out.

Some of Doctorow's memories and references mean nothing to me, because I have a very sketchy knowledge of New York City, and suspect I've never even been to the Bronx -- where so much of the story takes place. Not to mention that the numerous names the narrator, Edgar, mentions of radio programs, radio announcers and narrators, popular sports players and others are totally unfamiliar to me. Whereas when Amos Oz mentions people, places and characteristics of daily life of Israel in its early days, it evokes in me powerful memories and associations.

For example: Making a phone call was a Special Occasion. You (or more likely your parents) dressed up in your Sunday -- I mean Saturday -- best, and walked into the center of town (not on the weekend, of course!) to the only drugstore/pharmacy within miles; where you got permission to use the heavy, black Bakelite phone, and the owner flipped a special switch, and you called your uncle or cousin in a faraway city (like maybe 100 km away), who has been told in advance, by postcard, that you'd be phoning on such and such-a-day and time. Then there's the smell of olives, or pickles, bought at the local grocery, fished out of a large tin or barrel, and weighed on old fashioned, heavy metal scales.

Both Doctorow and Oz have an exuberant, hilarious way of describing the games and the mischief the boys (Edgar -- be it the real or the fictitious one -- and Amos) got up to. Both boys were avid readers of whatever they could lay their hands on. Both were highly aware of, and sensitive to, the ups and downs of the complex relationship between their parents -- far more aware than their parents realized. And both authors must have done some serious research to be able to write convincingly about their ancestors; though Oz goes into that far deeper than Doctorow (which is in keeping with the stated scope of each book, so that's fine.)

There are plenty of other points of resemblance, but as I said in my previous post -- this is not an academic paper. This is just me musing about how Book A suddenly reminded me of Book B.

I've been trying to anticipate your reactions:
Some may agree, to this or that extent.
Some may say, "Ma pit'om?!", i.e., "what are you talking about?!" "since when?" or even "rubbish!"
Others may say, "Well, I liked World's F, so I'll probably like A Tale of." And then -- hopefully -- they'll read it; and either agree or disagree.
But what about those who'll say, "Didn't care much for Amos Oz's story, so I won't bother reading Doctorow's." Or vice versa. Either of which would be a pity. But such is life. You can't get everyone to read the book which you thought of as a Life Changer. And no-one likes being told, "Oh, but you must read The Adventures of Jumping Jack of Java", or "The Secret to Superb Sex after Sixty"!"

So that's it for today.

*               *             *


mirjam said...

About your first remark about a child`s memory.
You might be surprised , how much a child can remember, and how years later a smell , or a sound might trigger a detailed memory of an event that was important or traumatic.

Nina R. Davis said...

Thanks, Mirjam. No, I am not surprised. Am very aware of how a smell or sound might trigger an event etc. But read World's Fair and you'll see what I'm referring to.

Post a Comment