Amos Oz, one of Israel’s most prolific and revered writers, can come off as somewhat supercilious in casual conversation, a man of few words who isn’t easy to get to know in the space of small talk. That’s in direct contrast to his writing, for he is an author who has shared deeply in his work, writing sensitively and emotionally about his unhappy childhood and depressed parents, including a mother who committed suicide at the age of 38.
So it was somewhat surprising to find just how much Oz has shared of his private life and papers with the archives of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, known as Heksherim, the Research Institute for Jewish and Israeli Literature and Culture. Oz, a professor at the university, along with nine other writers, donated or are in the process of sharing their papers and notes, letters and manuscripts to this sanctuary for the flotsam of their literary lives.
In the well-appointed suites of the archives, each writer has his or her own room or shares a space with another writer. Their papers are carefully filed away in neatly shelved cardboard boxes. Out in the hallway, the writers’ books, both in Hebrew and translated into other languages, frame the walls, protected from dust and fingerprints by walls of glass.
The archives, said Prof. Yigal Schwartz, the head of Heksherim, are like “crypts or safes,” containing “materials that want to be kept in the dark but also want to exposed to the public eye.”
The concept of the BGU archives was to create the first comprehensive research archives of the so-called “First Israelis” — the writers, poets and playwrights who began to compose their works after the establishment of the state and whose oeuvre reflects the historical and cultural currents of those times.
Poet David Avidan, playwright Nissim Aloni, novelist Ruth Almog and Oz are all there, along with Holocaust writer Aharon Appelfeld, poets Yocheved Bat-Miriam and Yehuda Amichai, writer and journalist David Schutz, and the most recent addition, author and poet Shulamith Hareven.
“We chose people like Oz and Aloni who are the faces of the first Israel in prose, plays and fiction,” said Schwartz.
In an additional archive storage room where Oz shares space with the collection of David Avidan, whose family sent two Samsonite suitcases filled with Pop-era-framed artwork, are shelf upon shelf of notes from Oz’s books — including waterstained notated pages of manuscripts, black-and-white photos of his family, a school notebook from 1951 titled “Something Insignificant,” by Amos Klausner (his family name before he changed it to Oz, which means strength), as well as some of his children’s notebooks, drawings and hand-embroidered book covers — perhaps the work of his elder daughters or an avid fan.
Oz began gathering his trove in the 1960s in a small cardboard box in his home in Kibbutz Hulda, where he first began writing, It was guarded zealously by Nili Oz, his wife and an archivist by profession. She passed it on to the Arad public library when they moved south in 1986, and it moved to BGU in 1993, where Oz has been teaching for the last 27 years, before the establishment of Heksherim. Many of the other writers with archives at Heksherim were less organized about compiling their work, like Appelfeld, whose original manuscripts were sometimes written on napkins and scraps of paper at Jerusalem coffeehouses, or Avidan, whose collection was left to the mother of his son and moved around before Ben-Gurion University found out about its existence.
The best archives are those that uncover new ideas or facts about a writer, said Schwartz. While examining Yehuda Amichai’s archives, the Heksherim staff found out about a sheaf of never-opened letters penned 60 years earlier to an ex-girlfriend — erotic, dramatic missives that changed the perspective on the often-puritanical Amichai.
“That’s the kind of thing we want,” said Schwartz. “But then with someone like Avidan” — known for his stormy, artistic personal life — “his archives were less juicy than we thought they would be.”
In that sense, the archives of an author can be a dead end, said Ilan Bar-David, Heksherim’s head archivist — full of the things that the writers “are done with,” letters and files that they’ll never look at again.
Yet for the students and researchers, the work at the archives constitutes an ongoing discovery, as they hole up in the individual and shared rooms of the writers poring over the papers, making sense of the scribbled notes and fading letters.
“It can be kind of an obsession,” said Bar-David. “If I come across a published work of a writer that isn’t in our collection, I look for it. It’s the A-B-C of this kind of work. But it’s a legitimate obsession, a cultural obsession.”
Bar-David is protective of his authors. He readily offers tours, letting visitors in to see shelves upon shelves of notebooks and file folders, even opening up a cardboard box or two to offer a glimpse of Oz’s photos, Appelfeld’s notes and Avidan’s artwork. But when asked for permission to read a letter or hold a photo, he balked, deferring to the author’s privacy, particularly those like Appelfeld and Oz who are still alive and well.
Oz said he doesn’t go to the archives often, just when he has something new to bring over. He has added elements of his family history, because “it’s all part of his life, part of his work,” he said.
He and his fellow writers at the archives are all archivists of sorts in their work, writing of their memories and dreams, thoughts and ideas. Oz stores his past in his works, sifting his own history and that of the country for stories, from his pain-filled mother and European Jerusalemites yearning for the old country to his former fellow kibbutzniks whose personalities were mined for future fictional characters. Appelfeld has lived in Israel since 1946, but writes mostly about the Holocaust and Europe, while Hareven, the most recent addition to the archives, wrote mostly about Israeli culture and society.
“Every writer writes on the basis that it will be something that future generations will think about,” mused Schwartz. “Even every letter that Amos Oz writes, he writes knowing that the public will see it eventually. It’s clear that he writes it knowing it will be saved or worth money someday. Writers like Oz and Meir Shalev are like rock stars; I think they have an historical consciousness of their part in the pantheon. It’s an issue of character, or personality. Some are active about their archives, others aren’t.”
For Etgar Keret, Oz’s colleague at BGU, known for short, sharp stories about Israel that offer the modern Israeli antidote to the post-Holocaust, early statehood period, the concept of archives are a moot point, considering that he only writes on a computer — and on the “cloud,” at that.
“I never thought about my archives,” said Keret. “I’m not against archives, but there’s an element of natural selection in my writing, things that stay and others that don’t. There’s no doubt I’ve lost things. Writing is to be in the moment, so there’s something about archiving, to put things in order, that seems psychological, anarchistic. The computer is the place for me to go wild.”
Does that mean he doesn’t keep anything at all?
“My mother has it,” quipped Keret. “She keeps it in order.”
When Schwartz heard Keret’s comment, he laughed. “That’s what he’s telling you,” he said. “But no one throws away everything.”
At least he hopes not.