A Question of Prose

Amos Oz, The Same Sea. Harcourt, 2001. $24.

The best verse novel I'm familiar with is Vic Chesnutt's 1998 album The Salesman and Bernadette. It works as a verse novel primarily because it has all the essential parts of fiction (plot, setting, characters, rising action, etc.) without wholly giving itself over to a more traditional novel form. Chesnutt dodges conventionalism through his medium (music), but what really makes The Salesman and Bernadette a verse novel (besides being written in verse) is that while the album certainly has a narrative arc, the story of the record harder to pin down. As the album's back cover suggests, "Infer a Lovely story…of loss and longing and sloppy satori."

The "verse novel" is either a very new entity or a very new name for one anticipated by writing since its start. Perhaps the verse novel is only a new kind of epic poem, just as the novel, in its inception with Don Quixote, was a new style of epic narrative. I'm not sure where or when the term "verse novel" came into play, but certainly a notable instance was a book by the much genre-chafed Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse. Other contestants for the sub- or bi-genre might be Mary Jo Bang's Louise in Love, John Ashbery's Girls on the Run, and most recently, Amos Oz's The Same Sea.

In his introduction to The Selected Poems of Tomaz Salamun, Robert Hass describes a party of the Slovene Writers Union. He was watching a woman, "fleshy, tired, fairly drunk." He asked whom she was and was told, "she had written the greatest novel in the Slovene language." I imagine similar scenes taking place at parties of Israeli writers where a foreigner sees Amos Oz for the first time. Oz, born in 1939 in Jerusalem, has nearly twenty titles in English (most of them fiction, some non-fiction), but The Same Sea is by far his most innovative work. Most of the book is written in verse, and the occasional scenes that are in prose only lend weight to the sections that aren't.

Soon after Robert Hass was told about the woman who had written the greatest novel in the Slovene language, he asks Tomaz Salamun, who was also at the party, what the novel was like. "It's very good, he said. Somewhat conventional in form, a family novel about the war years." A little crank of this abrupt commentary could also be applied to The Same Sea. It's a very good family novel, highly conventional in content. The story is about an older, middle-class Israeli man:

Not far from the sea, Mr. Albert Danon
lives in Amirim Street, alone. He is fond
of olives and feta; a mild accountant, he lost
his wife not long ago. Nadia Danon died one morning
of ovarian cancer, leaving some clothes,
a dressing table, some finely embroidered
place mats. Their only son, Enrico David,
has gone off mountaineering in Tibet.

From reading this stanza, the first in the book, one has an inkling of where the novel is headed. Father and son are having a falling-out based on the vicissitudes of mourning. The Same Sea overlays their struggle on the character of Dita Inbar, former girlfriend of David. She shows up early in the book at Mr. Danon's house on Amirim Street,

               ...seeking refuge, for a couple of days,
a week at most, if it's not an imposition. She's ended up with no flat
and no money, all her savings and everything gone; she found
some kind of producer, got taken for a ride. But why are you standing
in the doorway? You'll fall over. Come inside. Then you can
tell me all about it. We'll have a think. We'll get you out of this mess.

Dita becomes a hodgepodge of love interest among narrative trajectories, serving, by turns of character and plot, as mother, sister, lover, fantasy, terror, etc., so that The Same Sea becomes a kind of mythological prayer to a Dita, conceptualized and foundering through every instance of female characterization in the book.

And it's this conceptualization of character, which balances literal events of plot with anti-narrative meanderings through the basic poetics of personal symbols, that qualifies The Same Sea for the verse novel pigeonhole. However, its language (and this may be a shortcoming of the translation) often seems like Updike kindling snapped up over the knee of unpracticed line breaks:

A framed photograph stands on the sideboard: her chestnut hair
pinned up. Her eyes are a little too round, which is possibly why
her face expresses surprise or doubt, as though asking: What, really?
It's not in the picture, but Albert remembers what pinning
her hair up did to her. It let you observe, if you wished,
the soft, fine, fragrant down on the nape of her neck.

On the other hand, certain parts of The Same Sea are good enough to stand alone as poems (and this may be the real test of a verse novel's quality), such as this bit, meant as a travelogue in David's memory, whose grammatically and ethically detached catalogue echoes the opening of Dino Campana's "La Verna":

Between Bat Yam and Jaffa a donkey cart
had overturned. Smashed watermelons on the asphalt,
a blood bath. Then the fat driver took offense
and shouted at another fat man, with greased hair. An old lady
yawned at his mother. Her mouth was grave, empty and deep.
On a bench at a stop sat a man in a tie and white shirt, wearing
his jacket over his knees. He wouldn't board the bus.
Waved it on. Maybe he was waiting
for another bus. Then they saw a squashed cat. His mother
pressed his head to her tummy: don't look, you'll cry out again
in your sleep. Then a girl with her head shaved: lice? Her crossed leg
almost revealed a glimpse. And an unfinished building and dunes of sand.
An Arab coffee house. Wicker stools. Smoke,
acrid and thick. Two men bending forward, heads almost touching.

A ruin. A church. A fig tree. A bell.
A tower. A tiled roof. Wrought-iron grilles. A lemon tree.
The smell of fried fish. And between two walls
a sail and a sea rocking.

Robert Hass's first question to Tomaz Salamun after hearing about "the greatest novel written in the Slovene language" was, "What do you do…after you have written one of the greatest novels in the Slovene language and had it translated into Serbian?" I'd ask a similar question, but not exactly to Amos Oz, whose book, conventional in content, more dynamic in form, is certainly a very good novel as translated into English, but remains a mid-level verse novel. What's more curious is that Amos Oz, a writer in the cloth of historical and social naturalism, a novelist whose subjects are historically and socially conventional ("a family novel about the war years"), would write a verse novel at all. Doing so has certainly stretched his capacities, but one wonders what's happened to the verse novel as well. If Amos Oz wrote one, can we expect similar efforts from Saul Bellow or John Updike? Is this how poetry will be made more accessible, by inserting line breaks into naturalistic prose narratives (would Couples be better if it rhymed)? Is this a verse novel, or merely versified?

Paul Killebrew lives in New York.