Tucked in

Nicholas Spice

  • Fima by Amos Oz
    Chatto, 352 pp, £15.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 7011 4004 6

In Fima the asymmetry in relations between men and women is presented with indulgent humour and excessive sensitivity, and from a predominantly, if not dominatingly, male viewpoint. Oz’s treatment of the theme is ragged and passionate, discursive and repetitive. This is inevitable given that the novel is almost entirely entrusted to a single character, Efraim Nomberg Nisan (known as Fima to his friends), whose profligacy with words and speculation and sympathy is a symptom of his constitutional inability to contain himself. Everything in Fima’s personality tends to spill over. Usually there are women around to wipe up.

Fima is 54 and his life has come to resemble a painting in which the colours have run, smudging and blurring the outlines – a sort of Rorschach blob which he spends hours trying to interpret in fluidly imaginative and inconclusive rumination. It is February 1989. Fima has few commitments and few responsibilities apart from a small but close circle of friends and an old father. For the past twenty years, since his wife left him for a more prosaic man, Fima has been living on his own in a two-room flat in Jerusalem. His job, ‘a modest post as receptionist in a private gynaecological clinic’, demands nothing of his intelligence and little effort. His shift at the clinic starts at one o’clock, so he can spend his mornings in bed or day-dreaming or arguing out loud with the radio or writing articles for the liberal press debating the situation in the Territories or the moral decline of the Israeli state. After work he wanders the streets or turns up at his friends’ houses unannounced to regale them with his latest line on Israeli politics or history, or he babysits Dimi – his soulmate – the ten-year-old son of Fima’s ex-wife Yael and her husband Ted Tobias.

Fima’s days evolve by association. Fragments of dreams, or of newspaper articles, radio announcements or overheard conversations, prompt thoughts in Fima’s mind which can lead him anywhere, and usually to be late for work or get off at the wrong bus stop. He phones someone just because a telephone token has dropped out of his pocket, then dials the wrong number and allows the mistake to decide the course of his evening. Noticing a rotten apple ‘attracting swarms of flies on the windowsill’, he chucks it in the bin under the sink. It misses and rolls into the corner. On all fours to retrieve it, he comes face to face with a cockroach. He is about to crush the cockroach with his shoe when the action puts him in mind of the death of Trotsky, so he relents. (Come to think of it, how like his old father is to those late pictures of Trotsky!) Musing on the contradiction between the cockroach’s beauty and its status as pariah, he arrives at a theory of the atavistic origins of racism.

Socially, Fima is a pest. His personality is invasive. He pours over other people’s borders to occupy their time or their kitchens. He talks incessantly, half the time regardless of what he is saying or whether anyone wants to hear it. If a thought occurs to him he has to communicate it immediately, ringing his friends in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning when they are trying to get out of the house. Whether for bread and jam or for women, his appetites rule him irresistibly. A packet of biscuits comes his way and he eats the lot (apparently without noticing). He finds himself alone with a woman he desires, he fucks her.

Fima’s imagination is as promiscuous as his desires, and his sympathies billow out to embrace the world. Indeed, nothing in Fima’s life remains for long within its proper boundaries. Be it his feelings or the unwashed dishes in the sink, his desires or the rubbish spilling out of the kitchen pedal bin, everything overflows. It’s as though his very existence has lost its muscle tone, just like his ‘ridiculous clumsy body’ with its flab and its ‘floppy breasts’.

Fima has let himself go. Forgotten himself. His existence has become a struggle against chronic drift. He sees life ‘trickling away day by day between burned out kettles and dead cockroaches’ but he can do nothing about it. Perhaps he will continue to dissipate until he dies, or maybe there’s still a chance ‘to halt this dispersal’, to ‘concentrate at last on what really matters’. Perhaps it is only tiredness that makes him put off exercising those ‘unbelievable powers’ he surely possesses.

Fima’s permanent resolution to take himself in hand, clean up his act and his apartment, behave with greater dignity, open a new chapter in his life, is undermined by a deep habit of helplessness. Helplessness is one of the major currencies in his emotional economy. It enhances his purchasing power in the daily business of human relations. The deal works like this: Fima trades generosity of spirit, kindness, softness, warmth, wit, brilliance and ability to listen, sympathy and his own vulnerability, in exchange for love and help – whether in the form of money from his old father, sexual favours from women or practical support (decorating his flat, for example). It mostly works. Everyone loves Fima and many feel obliged to help him. Women especially. In fact, with women Fima can trade helplessness directly for help, since his vulnerability is actually what attracts, them, the opportunity he gives them ‘to swaddle and suckle’ him like a babe. ‘We were all charmed by your helplessness,’ reflects Yael ruefully.

This is the shirt-tail reflex. As soon as a woman sets eyes on Fima she has an irresistible urge to tuck his shirt in. ‘Look at your shirt, half inside your trousers and half outside. Wait. I’ll sort it out for you’ (Yael to Fima, in the early days of their courtship); ‘just look at your sweater: half in and half out of your trousers ... like a baby’ (Tamar to Fima); ‘What’s going to become of you, Fima? Just look at yourself’ (Nina to Fima on seeing that he had omitted to ‘tuck his shirt in ... and the bottom of his yellowing flannel vest was showing beneath the chunky sweater’). So they tuck his shirt in, and call him ‘little chatterbox’ and ‘child’, and he repays them with tenderness and gets them into bed.

Of all Fima’s women, only Yael knows the long-term price of giving in to the shirt-tail reflex. In marrying him she contracted unwittingly to tuck his shirt in for the rest of her life, and soon found herself in the unenviable position of the lady in De Quincey’s anecdote about the Reverend Coleridge (Coleridge’s dad) who, tucking his shirt in at a dinner party, discovered that he had been ‘most laboriously stowing away, into the capacious receptacles of his own habiliments, the snowy folds of a gown ... belonging to his next neighbour; and so voluminously, that a very small portion of it, indeed, remained for the lady’s own use; the natural consequence of which was, of course, that the lady appeared almost inextricably yoked to the learned theologian.’

We see the purposes and effects of Fima’s habit of helplessness but not why he should have needed to acquire it. The woman with the least complicated and the most selfless love of Fima, Nina Gefen, wife of one of Fima’s friends, and with whom he has been having an intermittent affair, thinks that he is running away from things. This agrees with his own description of himself as longing ‘only to cocoon himself once and for all deep in the feminine slime and snuggle up cosily and fall asleep’. Much of Fima’s behaviour – his deliberate failure at things and his virtuoso self-awareness – makes strategic sense. He chooses to aim low so as to pre-empt the possibility of genuine failure, preferring the fantasy of achievement to putting himself on the line. He perfects the role of clown for fear of being judged seriously, and his facility with self-mockery allows him to control criticism and so defend himself from real rejection.

Like all good fictional characters, Fima exemplifies a host of general truths. About men, for example. And how, even when they are sensitive and sympathetic and have wonderfully developed sensibilities, what they want from women is to be able to control them, to monopolise available space, to demand attention and to limit the exercise of the independence that women more often possess. ‘Men are really the weaker sex,’ as Yael puts it, in a bitter speech to Fima, ‘give them a finger, they want your whole hand. Give them your whole hand, they don’t even want the finger any more.’ Yael’s attack on Fima, delivered in two extended passages of the novel, seems, at the time, to expose him conclusively. She’s been close enough to him to see through his pretty stratagems: to discover the speciousness of his flattery, the shallowness of his capacity to listen, the fruitlessness of his habit of self-denigration. But the overwhelming tendency of the novel is to ignore Yael’s view (or at best to co-opt it) and instead to snuggle down comfortably with Fima.

It’s hard to pinpoint this tendency, but it seems to have something to do with the use of candour as a means of control. The novel sets out to demythologise Fima. On the one hand, by letting us look into every corner of Fima’s life, it gives us the feeling that there’s nothing left to know, that we have seen the worst. When Fima goes to the lavatory, we go too. We lie in bed with him while he plays with his erection; we witness his humiliation when his penis withdraws ‘into its lair like a startled tortoise’ and he fails to make it for the second time in a week with the same woman; we know that when he pretends to listen sympathetically to the confidences of a girlfriend he is really working out his chances of getting her into bed; we stand next to him while he squeezes the spots on his chest until they squirt ‘yellowish pus’ at the mirror. If any illusions remain, Fima is quick to disabuse us of them, so that we seem to arrive at the limits of what confessional candour can reveal. Yet this is precisely what makes for unease. It is as though the novel colludes with Fima in trying to prevent us from thinking anything of our own about him. If Fima’s own self-depreciation could be a form of self-concealment, could not our licence to inspect every corner of his life act in the same way too?

In a curious way, then, the novel silences criticism of Fima by getting there first. It has fallen prey to Fima’s charms and rewards him liberally, furnishing him with a set of delightfully nice friends, a pleasant, if somewhat ridiculous, old father, and a heartbreakingly lovable little boy (Dimi). It even grants Fima the possibility of that new chapter which he has been wanting so much to open. When his father dies at the end of the book, it seems that Fima may at last be able to start doing something with his life, to become a ‘mensh’ as his dad always wanted him to be, to do good and avoid evil rather than just distinguish between them. The effect of all this is altogether too cosy and reminded me of a passage in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. Sandy (‘Woody Allen’) has hit on ‘a very remarkable idea for a new ending’ for his movie:

Sandy: We’re, we’re on a train and there are, there are many sad people on it, you know? And, and I have no idea where it’s heading ... could be anywhere, could be the same junkyard. And, uh, but it’s not as terrible as I originally thought it was because ... because, you know, we like each other, and, uh, you know, we have some laughs, and there’s a lot of closeness, and the whole thing is a lot easier to take.

Isobel: I don’t like it ... It’s too sentimental.

Sandy: So? But so what? It’s the good sentimental.

The ‘good sentimental’ is something Fima is more than a bit partial to, liking to comfort himself with fantasies of family life secluded from a harsh world (Yael doesn’t buy it) or spinning hopeful political dreams of ‘a reasonable future based on compromise and conciliation’. And ‘the good sentimental’ is what Oz indulged when he created Fima’s world, a world where everyone likes each other and has some laughs, where there’s a lot of closeness and the whole thing is easy to take.

Fima fails in the end to provide the radical critique of liberal, male sensibility which it seems always on the verge of offering. As a result the values so dear to that sensibility degrade on the page. Concepts such as tolerance, reasonableness, humaneness and compromise, or convictions such as the need ‘to opt for life’ – all things which Oz is committed to – lose much of their meaning in the general flow of Fima’s mental chatter. It’s easy to talk about these virtues. Acting on them is the problem. Perhaps this is the point of Fima, but if so, then Fima should have been put at greater risk in a more believably uncertain world, and the novelist and his readers made to keep their distance.

It’s a depressing thought that the stories we tell about ourselves may be the only stories there are to tell about us. Religion provided relief from this suffocating fear by telling us we might be better or worse, or just different, from what we thought we were. The great novelist in the sky could see us in another context from the one we saw. In this respect, fiction provides some sort of a substitute for religion, enacting the possibility of multiple perspectives on life and so reassuring us that there could be ways of looking at ourselves other than our own. Fima, on the other hand, seems to have been imprisoned within his own version of himself, a version in which his author is too ready to concur.