Cover image for The story begins : essays on literature
The story begins : essays on literature
Oz, Amos.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Matḥilim sipur. English
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Harcourt Brace, [1999]

Physical Description:
vi, 118 pages ; 21 cm
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PN3355 .O913 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In this collection of ten essays, Amos Oz shares his rich and rewarding experience as both writer and teacher. As he analyzes the opening sections of novels and short stories by such writers as Agnon, Gogol, Kafka, Chekhov, García Márquez, and Raymond Carver, Oz instructs, challenges, and guides. He writes about the notion of "beginnings," what the beginning of a novel or short story might "mean" to the author and how important it is. And best of all-he entertains. He highlights opening paragraphs in which authors make promises they may or may not deliver later in the work, or deliver in unexpected ways, or they may deliver more than they have promised. It is a game that miraculously and playfully engages both writer and reader. The Story Begins is a resourceful, accessible, and friendly companion for all students of literature and writing and for all book lovers.

Author Notes

Amos Oz was born in 1939 in Jerusalem. He studied philosophy and literature at Hebrew University. One of Israel's foremost writers, he is the author of numerous novels, essay collections, and children's books. Oz has received several awards, including the Prix Femina, the Israel Prize, and the Frankfurt Peace Prize.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Examining the trouble the blank page presents to a writer‘"beginning to tell a story is like making a pass at a stranger in a restaurant"‘Israeli novelist Oz (Panther in the Basement, etc.) considers the methods authors use to draw readers into the "opening contracts" of a narrative. One oddity of this thin collection of essays, derived from talks at high schools and colleges, is that Oz has read each text in a Hebrew translation (except for a few Israeli writers who wrote in Hebrew to begin with), whether by Chekhov or Gogol, Theodor Fontane or Márquez, which presumably affects at least nuances, especially given that Oz focuses on such small portions of the texts. Oz's interest in discovering what the reader must accept to become entrapped in the tale is especially illuminating of Chekhov's "Rothschild's Fiddle" and Elsa Morante's History: A Novel. In other analyses‘for instance, a Raymond Carver story or a Franz Kafka fantasy‘extensive quotations only pad elaborations of the obvious. This short, if feisty and often amusing, book is ultimately sketchy, suggesting a longer study abandoned early in the going. It certainly would have been more fruitful if Oz had spent as much time contemplating middles and endings as he does fretting about beginnings. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Oz, one of Israel's finest writers (e.g., Panther in the Basement, LJ 8/15/97), has written a short guide to reading. Using the beginnings of various works, he explains how to intrepret text. He is especially interesting when discussing the Hebrew writers S.Y. Agnon, Yizhar, and Aharon Shabtai. In thinking about other writers, Oz gives insight into his own methods and style, explaining that the truthfulness and honesty of the narrator's voice is an important element in thinking about the work. Oz also explains how important it is to relate beginnings to the whole text. Besides the Hebrew authors, he considers Fontaine, Gogol, Kafka, Chekhov, Morante, García Márquez, and Carver. A good job; buy for literature collections.‘Gene Shaw, New York P.L. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One The Imperceptible Progress of Shade On the Beginning of Effi Briest by Theodore Fontane     Theodore Fontane's novel Effi Briest was published in 1894; Nili Mirsky's Hebrew translation, which I read, appeared in 1981. Effi Briest is the story of a young woman in Prussia, daughter of a respected and well-to-do family, whose parents have married her to the noble Baron von Innstetten, an older man and an army officer. Years before the story begins, there was an unfulfilled love affair between the Baron and Effi's mother. The match is a desirable one between two respectable families, yet the partners are ill-suited to each other: Effi is spontaneous, emotional and temperamental; her husband, Innstetten, is a reserved, logical, decent and considerate man who cares for his young wife in his own cautious fashion. He is not unlike Alexei Alexandrovitch Karenin in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (although the Prussian noble is less fossilized than the senior Russian official, and his ears are apparently much smaller than Karenin's). The strict values of the Prussian upper class play a central role in the novel. They are values of duty, honor, obedience and discipline, strict routine and emotional restraint.     While Innstetten is traveling, Effi engages in an affair with Major Crampas, a whiskered womanizer and gambler, a clever Don Juan, "a ladies' man." When the affair becomes known to the Baron, he, of course, challenges the lover to a duel, in which the husband successfully overcomes and kills his opponent.     Effi is banished from the house, at first to an isolated apartment. She is separated from her only daughter, Annie, in order to punish her for her crime of adultery and to remove the child from her mother's immoral influence. Young Annie remains with her father, the Baron, who educates her according to the values of honor and tradition. Effi Briest is a distant literary relative of Anna Karenina and of Emma Bovary, and has perhaps one or two things in common with Tirtza in Agnon's "In the Prime of Her Life." Toward the end of the story, Effi returns to her parents' home, where she finds a kind of serenity, resulting from a deep kind of acceptance. Some time later she dies, in the house where she was born and raised, the very house whose exterior is described in the beginning of the novel. A fleeting glance at the story's beginning reveals only a still, unpeopled world. More precisely: an almost inanimate world. And even more precisely: still objects imposing stillness. In front of the von Briests' house in Hohen-Cremmen--their family house since the reign of the Elector George Willhelm--the village street lay bathed in the glare of the midday sun, whilst towards the park and gardens, a side-wing, built on at right angles, cast a broad shadow, first on a white and green flagged path and, beyond, on a large round flower-bed with a sundial in the middle and cannas and rhubarb growing round its edge. A dozen yards further on, exactly symmetrical with the wing, ran a churchyard wall with small-leafed ivy growing along its whole length except where it was pierced by a small, white-painted iron gate; beyond the wall rose the tall tower of Hohen-Cremmen, with its shingle roof and its glittering, recently regilded weather-cock. The house, the wing and the churchyard wall formed a horseshoe enclosing a small ornamental garden, open on one side to reveal a little lake and a jetty to which a boat was moored and, close by, a swing with its wooden seat suspended from two ropes at each end; the posts supporting the wooden crossbar were already somewhat askew. Between the lake and the circular bed, however, half hiding the swing, stood a few immense old plane trees.     Is this not a tourist's picture postcard? A saccharine landscape of the sort once placed in living rooms, above the piano, to match the armchairs and the crystal chandeliers, to give the room an atmosphere of wealth, elegance and comfort? In any event, this is a very slow and quiet description, the like of which is no longer to be found in contemporary prose, and for which contemporary readers may have no taste or patience, and it may arouse a certain impatient shrug from a reader who comes to it directly from Raymond Carver. The reader who looks for a serpentine plot will not find it here. Effi Briest is a lily in almost still waters. Of all the forms of narrative prose, the novel is best equipped to render the tiny, microscopic trajectory, the deviations, which cause an entire life to shift slowly from its course, going astray and ending in disappointment.     Careful reading reveals that the tranquillity of the opening section is tense and the harmony in the scene is under threat: the village street stretches in front of the house, both enveloped with serenity and flooded with light. Unlike the street, the park and the garden lie in shadow, but this shade is dynamic, not static: the shade of the wing falls at first on the flagged path, and from there it advances toward the circular flower bed. Behind the flower bed stands the wall of the churchyard, which, like the street, stretches.     Not just the lines of shade, from the path to the flower bed, but almost everything here is fashioned with geometric severity: the wing meets the main house at a right angle; the path is paved with green and white tiles; the flower bed is round, with a sundial stuck in its navel and decorative edging; the churchyard wall is parallel to the wing. And beyond all this, a tower rises. Buildings and wall enclose the garden in a "horseshoe." We are even told that the swing is made of a horizontal wooden seat hanging by two ropes from a wooden crossbar resting on posts that are not straight. The painting is thus geometric, almost cubist.     The sense of extended observation, the trickle of slow-moving time, is achieved here by a hint of movement of the shadows, which is by nature continuous, from the tiled path to the round flower bed: a quick glance could not take in the crawl of the shadows, from which we understand that the observation of the buildings and the garden is an ongoing activity, and that the observer is stationary, that his viewpoint is unchanging. There is also a hinted presence of other movements, which have been blocked or frozen: the swing, the pond, the boat tied to the jetty.     The churchyard wall is described here as "exactly symmetrical" with the wing: but this symmetry becomes claustrophobic and oppressing. We are told that there is an opening in the wall, only one; then we learn that it is not a door, but a white iron gate, and that it is "small." Thus grows a feeling of prison, an atmosphere of claustrophobia, even before we learn that the prisoner is "a small ornamental garden" enclosed by three heavy inanimate bodies: the massive house, the right-angled wing and the churchyard wall, which has only a small gate. At the open end of the horseshoe, although there is a small lake with a boat in it, the boat is tied to the jetty. Finally we discover that the open side, which allows eye contact from the flower bed to the lake, is also, in effect, blocked: between the lake and the circular flower bed stood several huge old plane trees, which almost hid the swing.     And so we have a young woman, Effi Briest, and her world, which has closed around her, depicted here even before the appearance of the character, the social background, the period, the prohibitions and the failed attempt to break out.     The weathervane rooster at the top of the tower is not new. Perhaps the rooster, like the house of the noble von Briests, stands there from the days of Elector George Willhelm. Only its gold leaf is new and shiny. The entire picture expresses strength and stability, the accumulated power of many generations, strict order, authority, severity. But this is a fortress threatened from within: the leaning posts of the swing, the besieged garden, and especially the suffocation. There is something oppressive in a detailed picture of a swing hung by ropes from a wooden beam attached to posts, unmoving.     In fact, no movement, not even a light breeze, passes through this whole picture: neither the gate in the wall nor any door opens. No one enters and no one leaves. No dog barks, no bird flutters, no leaf trembles, everything is mute, everything is inanimate and congealed. Not a sound is heard in the entire passage. Not a murmur, not the movement of the softest breeze to shake the park, the garden, the plants, the weathervane rooster, the surface of the lake, the tethered boat, the frozen swing and the tops of the old plane trees. An inanimate world. The only movement in the entire description is, as we noted, the imperceptible advance of the shadow. And this spreads slowly: at first it falls on the flagstone path, from which it creeps toward the flower bed, and will eventually reach, twenty paces from there, the churchyard wall covered with tiny leaves of ivy. The interior of the house will remain sealed for several more pages. This is Effi Briest's world: the oppressiveness of the structures, the fossilized garden, the congealed lake. Only the creeping shadow cannot be stopped by walls.     What sort of contract does this opening passage demand from the reader as a prior condition to entering the house and the novel? A grave demand for slow and detailed reading: without extended observation one cannot discern the progress of the shadow. Without a patient ear, one cannot hear the totality of silence and congealment. Unless one internalizes the details, this opening paragraph is nothing more than a pleasant picture postcard of a grand noble home surrounded by a park and enveloped in tranquillity at the edge of a pond. The overeager reader may simply deduce that the rich are happy, and hurry on. The terms of Fontane's opening contract demand that we enter this novel on tiptoe, or almost. And that we take our time with what we are shown, that we listen silently to the gathering silence, even before we are introduced to Effi Briest herself.

Table of Contents

S. Y. Agnon
Introduction: But What Actually Existed Here Before the Big Bang?p. 1
The Imperceptible Progress of Shade: On the Beginning of Effi Briest by Theodore Fontanep. 11
Who Has Come?: On the Beginning of "In the Prime of Her Life"p. 17
With an Expression of Very Respectable Importance: On the Beginning of Gogol's "The Nose"p. 28
A Log in a Freshet: On the Beginning of Kafka's "A Country Doctor"p. 37
Huge Losses: On the Beginning of Chekhov's "Rothschild's Fiddle"p. 48
The Heat and the Day and the Wind: On the Beginning of S. Yizhar's Novel Mikdamotp. 56