Amos Oz in the Midrashic Mode
Lowin, Joseph, Midstream
"Fouillez-moi. Un tresor est cache dedans."
-- La Fontaine
In Imagining the Child in Modern Jewish Fiction (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), Naomi Sokoloff amply demonstrates that childhood and children hold a prominent place in Jewish and Hebrew fiction. Recently, within the past half-dozen years, three Israeli novels, by three prominent writers -- Meir Shalev's The Loves of Judith, 1994 (1999); David Grossman's, The Zigzag Kid, 1994 (1997); and Amos Oz's Panther in the Basement, 1995 (1997) J suggested an area of inquiry that should be of particular interest to readers and students of Jewish narrative. What lessons--pertaining to both Jewish esthetic practice and Jewish ethical concerns -- can be derived from a study of the way childhood is presented in a work of fiction?
The three novels mentioned -- each in its own way -- provide fertile ground for addressing this question. This essay will focus on Panther in the Basement, by Amos Oz, precisely because that novel helps to clarify a Jewish take on the relationship between ethics and esthetics.
Panther in the Basement is a novel written in the Midrashic mode, and it is not Amos Oz's first novel to be so composed. One of the most interesting aspects of his 1985 novel, A Perfect Peace, is its Midrashic construction, its rewriting and reinterpretation of a Biblical text. The Hebrew title of the novel derives from the El Maleh Rahamim prayer recited at funerals and Yizkor services. In addition, there are many allusions in the novel to Biblical characters and events. The most developed allusion is to the trio of King Saul, his son Jonathan, and the charismatic intruder and supplanter, the sweet singer of Israel, David. It is a simple enough thing to see Yolek as the fast-fading king, his son Yonatan as the weak-willed Jonathan, and Azariah -- with his guitar, his poems, his prophecies that come true, and his ability to fix anything broken -- as a talented if irritating David.
Panther in the Basement also rewrites the David story. For example, the British soldier whom Proffy, the central character, befriends, retells, in his own key, the story of King David. "His David was a village boy who was cut out to be a poet and a lover, but God made him king, which did not suit him, and condemned him to living a life of wars and intrigues. Small wonder that at the end of his life David was tormented by the same evil spirit that he himself had inflicted on his predecessor, Saul, who was a better man than he." Furthermore, as Proffy listens to this exegesis, he hears in it a lesson for modern times. Commenting on the commentary, he says, "Sergeant Dunlop talked about Saul and David and Michal and Jonathan and Absalom and Joab in tones of faint wonderment, as if they, too, were youngsters from the Hebrew Underground with whom he had once sat in the Orient Palace, learning Hebrew from them and teaching them a little Philistine in return."
But Panther in the Basement engages in rewriting on a much grander and more complex scale. It, too, as we have seen, contains the rewriting of Biblical texts. It also embodies a rewriting of Oz's own previous collection of novellas, The Hill of Evil Counsel (1975). The repeated expression "Perfidious Albion," with its tell-tale epic epithet, is first found in the stories of The Hill of Evil Counsel, where it plays a relatively marginal role. What Amos Oz does in this novel is to take that expression from his previous work and rework it to give it symbolic meaning beyond its words.
The novel's title is also a reiteration of a 1940s film, entitled Panther in the Basement, in which Tyrone Power is "given a free hand ... to disappear in the fog and assume and discard identities at his sole discretion." Another movie, Lightning Bolt, with Olivia de Havilland and Humphrey Bogart, provides a heroic model for the children of the book. "Humphrey Bogart was captured by the enemy. Wounded, unshaven, with his clothes torn, and a thin trickle of blood trailing from the corner of his mouth, he confronted his interrogators with a faint smile that was polite yet mocking. …