A Tale of Love and Darkness

A Tale of Love and Darkness, by Amos Oz; Review by Frank Thomas Smith

This is a memoir, an autobiography written by a novelist who admits his disdain for footnotes, so they are few and far between. This, however, is not the book’s only virtue. Love and darkness as the two powerful forces running through his extraordinary, moving story which begins in Poland and Russia where his ancestors lived and died before and during the holocaust. But his parents and other relatives and friends were zealous Zionists and escaped to Palestine while there was still time. Amos Oz was born in Jerusalem in 1939 and lived through and participated in the history of Israel from its (modern) beginning to date. The characters here are not the historian’s bloodless footnotes, but real people, most of whom we wish we knew.

Rather than run on about the book’s contents and virtues, I prefer to lift an excerpt which particularly interested me – although there are many others. This book is required reading for anyone who loves literature and is interested in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Frank Thomas Smith


After my military service, in 1961, the Committee of Kibbutz Hulda sent me to Jerusalem to study for two years at the Hebrew University. I studied literature because the kibbutz needed a literature teacher urgently, and I, studied philosophy because I insisted on it. Every Sunday, from four to six p.m., a hundred students gathered in the large hall in the ‘Meiser’ Building to hear Professor Samuel Hugo Bergman lecture on ‘Dialogical philosophy from Kierkegaard to Martin Buber’. My mother, Fania, also studied philosophy with Professor Bergman in the nineteen thirties, when the University was still on Mount Scopus, before she married my father, and she had fond memories of him. By 1961 Bergman was already retired, he was an emeritus professor, but we were fascinated by his lucid, fierce wisdom. I was thrilled to think that the man standing in front of us had been at school with Kafka in Prague, and, as he once told us, had actually shared a bench with him for two years, until Max Brod turned up and took his place next to Kafka.

“That winter Bergman invited five or six of his favourite or most interesting pupils to come to his house for a couple of hours after the lectures. Every Sunday, at eight o’clock, I took the number 5 bus from the new campus on Givat Ram to Professor Bergman’s modest flat in Rehavia. A pleasant faint smell of old books, fresh bread and geraniums always filled the room. We sat down on the sofa or on the floor at the feet our great master, the childhood friend of Kafka and Martin Buber and She author of the books from which we learnt the history of epistemology and the principles of logic. We waited in silence for him to pronounce. “Samuel Hugo Bergman was a stout man even in old age. With his shock of white hair, the ironic, amused lines round his eyes, a piercing glance that looked skeptical yet as innocent as that of a curious child, Bergman bore a striking resemblance to pictures of Albert Einstein as an old man. With his Central European accent, he walked in the Hebrew language not  with a natural stride, as though he were at home in it, but with a sort of elation, like a suitor happy that his beloved has finally accepted him and determined to rise above himself and prove to her that she has not made a mistake.

“Almost the only subject that concerned our teacher at these meetings was the survival of the soul, or the chances, if there were any, of existence after death. That is what he talked to us about on Sunday evenings through that winter, with the rain lashing at the windows and the wind howling in the garden. Sometimes he asked for our opinions, and he listened attentively, not at all like a patient teacher guiding his pupils’ footsteps, but more like a man listening for a particular note in a complicated piece of music, so as to decide if it was right or wrong.

“‘Nothing,’ he said to us on one of the Sunday evenings, and I have not forgotten, so much so that I believe I can repeat what he said almost word for word, ‘ever disappears. The very word “disappears” implies that the universe is, so to speak, finite, and that it is possible to leave it. But no-o-othing’ (he deliberately drew the word out) ‘can ever leave the universe. And nothing can enter it. Not a single speck of dust can appear or disappear. Matter is transformed into energy, and energy into matter, atoms assemble and disperse, everything changes and is transformed, but no-o-othing can ever change from being to not-being. Not even the tiniest hair growing on the tail of some virus. The concept of infinity is indeed open, infinitely open, but at the same time it is also closed and hermetically sealed. Nothing leaves and nothing enters.’

“Pause. A crafty, innocent smile spread like a sunrise across the wrinkled landscape of his rich, fascinating face: ‘In which case why, maybe someone can explain to me, why do they insist on telling me that the one and only exception to the rule, the one and only thing that is doomed to perdition, that can become nothing, the one and only thing that is destined for cessation in the whole wide universe in which not so much as an atom can be eliminated, is my poor soul? Will everything, every speck of dust, every drop of water continue to exist eternally, albeit in different forms, except for my soul?’ ‘Nobody,’ murmured a clever young genius from a corner of the room” ‘has ever seen the soul.’

“‘No,’ Bergman agreed at once. ‘You don’t meet the laws of physics or mathematics in a cafe either. Or wisdom, or foolishness, or desire or fear. No one has yet taken a little sample of joy or longing and put it in a test tube. But who is it, my young friend, who is talking to you right now? Is it Bergman’s humours? His spleen? Is it perhaps Bergman’s large intestine speaking? Who was it, if you will excuse my saying so, who spread that none-too-pleasant smile on your face? Was it not your soul? Was it your cartilages? Your gastric juices?’

“On another occasion he said: ‘What is in store for us after we die? No-o-obody knows. At any rate with a knowledge that is susceptible of proof or demonstration. If I tell you this evening that I sometimes hear the voice of the dead and that it is much clearer and more intelligible to me than most of the voices of the living you are entitled to say that this old man is in his dotage. He has gone out of his mind with terror at his impending death. Therefore I shall not talk to you this evening about voices, this evening I shall talk mathematics: since no-o-obody knows if there is anything on the other side of our death or if there is nothing there, we can deduce from this complete ignorance that the chances that there is something there are exactly the same as the chances that there is nothing there. Fifty per cent for cessation and fifty per cent for survival. For a Jew like me, a Central European Jew from the generation of the Nazi holocaust, such odds in favour of survival are not at all bad.’

“Gershom Scholem, Bergman’s friend and rival, was also fascinated and possibly even tormented by the question of life after death. The morning the news of his death was broadcast, I wrote:

“Gershom Scholem died in the night. And now he knows.

“Bergman too knows now. So does Kafka. So do my mother and father.

“And their friends and acquaintances and most of the men and women in those cafes, both those I used to tell myself stories about and those who are completely forgotten. They all know now. Some day we shall know too. And in the meantime, we shall continue to gather little details. Just in case.”

Review by Frank Thomas Smith

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