You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Grasping for Words, Grappling with the Past

The long journey of Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld


In a 1994 essay on violence in the hands of Hollywood, Martin Amis offered the following: “Nearing the Holocaust, a trespasser finds that his imagination is decently absenting itself, and reaches for documentation and technique. The last thing he wants to do, once there, is make anything up.” You can be an unwavering advocate for the absolute freedom of the artist’s imagination and still find yourself stuttering a bit when it comes time to justify portrayals of the Shoah, most especially if the artist is a “trespasser,” if he wasn’t stripped and gaunt at the lip of the inferno. As for those writers and novelists who lived to tell, they tend to live more than tell—the decimation they witnessed has a way of neutering all linguistic fertility, and so the focus is almost exclusively on the surviving, on the before and the after. The during is, as Amis suggests, an affront to language, regardless of whether or not one needs to marshal one’s imagination in the service of description. 

Suddenly Love 

The Shoah survivor and Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld has made a career of not telling. Since his first novel, Badenheim 1939, was published in 1978, he has produced a paradoxical oeuvre of silence. Irving Howe, writing in this magazine in 1986, said of Badenheim 1939 that it proceeds as if “recognizing a limit to the sovereignty of words,” that “the narrative is as furtive as the history it evokes; the unspeakable is not to be named.” All of the 17 novels that have been translated into English employ an identical furtiveness, a kind of verbose taciturnity or bustling reticence in honor of that limit, that realm in which language turns to ash. “Silence is a fence for wisdom,” says a proverb from the Mishna, and Appelfeld has woven of that proverb a startling literature. The Shoah looms in his work the way dark energy permeates the cosmos: nowhere seen or heard but everywhere exerting its influence, its anxiety, its pernicious reckoning.

See if a synopsis of his tremendous life story doesn’t read like an amalgam of the Brothers Grimm and Bruno Schulz: In 1941, when Appelfeld was eight years old, the Nazis overran his birthplace of Czernowitz and dragooned the Jews into ghettos. He heard his mother shot to death in their home. He and his father were cattle-trained to a death camp in Transnistria, to the east in Ukraine. He escaped beneath a fence and spent his boyhood on the lam in the wilderness, communicating with animals, sleeping between horses and dogs. Yellow-haired and blue-eyed, he passed for a Gentile but would not speak for fear of what his words might reveal about his Semitic veins. He taught himself to observe, to listen. He lived for a time among prostitutes and witches, blind peasants and invalids, criminals and vagrants. He called himself “Janek” and aided a coven of horse-stealers, men who welcomed him and did not ask fatal questions. He then labored as a cook for the Red Army, and when the Nazis fell he was shuffled from one refugee outpost to another before he made it to Italy, where he lived with a monk who taught him French and Italian. He arrived in Palestine in 1946, worked with orphans on a kibbutz, performed military service in defense of Israel, and studied with Max Brod, Martin Buber, and Gershom Scholem at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Pulsing within him was a cacaphony of tongues: the German of his parents, the Yiddish of his grandparents, the Ukrainian of the family’s domestic help, the Ruthenian and Romanian of the locals he’d known as a child, the Russian of the Red Army, the Hebrew of his new nation. A reluctant polyglot always aware of language’s creative/destructive duet, Appelfeld the Israeli Jew chose Hebrew as the medium for his storytelling vision. The clarity and simplicity of the Hebrew Bible, he knew, is the bedrock of efficient, unsentimental expression: no psychologically pregnant flashbacks, no fabricated explications, no force-fed morals, no multihued adjectives or grand abstractions. For Appelfeld, the Hebrew Bible’s deliberate sparseness is the principle element of its mastery and might. In his newest novel, Suddenly, Love, the protagonist, a memoirist at the end of his life, admits: “The prose of the Bible has to be a model for any writer.”

Suddenly, Love spotlights Appelfeld’s genius for depicting a quietude of soul in a world that oscillates between rasp and ruin. In its murmured telling, it becomes a deeply interior hymn to the sustaining, ballasting brawn of loyalty and affection. Appelfeld’s is not the voluminous and honeycombed interiority of Henry James, but a muffled, single-minded interiority, grasping after what little might be graspable. Appelfeld’s protagonist, Ernst, is an Israeli writer in his seventies, badgered by melancholy and infirmity, by a Communist past in Ukraine, by the still-felt reality of his deceased parents, and by the memory of his wife and baby daughter who were butchered by Nazis. Irena is his housekeeper and nurse, mid-thirties, superstitious, solitary, in bondage to the memory of her mother and father, Shoah survivors who speak to her in dreams. They spend the bulk of their time together in Ernst’s house as Ernst attempts to write about his youth with Carpathian Jews, and as they both struggle with words, with remembering, with the unfurling of love.

“Ernst speaks to Irena in German, now and then with a Yiddish word and sometimes also a sentence in Hebrew,” Appelfeld writes, but Irena is virtually mute, forever unable to birth the sentences inside her: “The words wouldn’t leave her mouth.” Again and again, “what comes out of her mouth barely forms a coherent sentence, and sometimes it’s only broken syllables.” For Ernst in his work, “the words that emerge don’t fit what he intended to say. He spends all day searching for other words.” Why this agony with language? Because “the old, tame words are his enemies, and he desperately battles against them.” For Ernst, writing is onerous combat: “For years he has tried to call up his life from within him, but it turned out that telling the story is no simple matter. Sometimes the ‘what’ is an obstacle, and sometimes it’s the ‘how.’ Usually both of them block him at the same time.” His mental anguish? “He says nothing about it, and Irena doesn’t ask.” In a dream, Irena’s mother visits her: “You have to get out of the house, dear. You’re still young. Your life is before you. If not now, when?” But she cares nothing for herself and her own prospects—her sole mission is to minister to Ernst. (Not incidentally, If Not Now, When? is the title of a 1982 novel by Primo Levi, who is twice mentioned in these pages.)

“Silence,” says Ernst, “is the full expression,” and by “full” he means also “first”—he means the purity of the pre-verbal, when faces and bodies and hands provided unambiguous, unobstructed communication and communion. The body never learned to lie. In his devastating memoir, The Story of a Life, Appelfeld addresses the body’s retention of the past, how memory resides in one’s back and limbs, and how they never allow one to forget. In Suddenly, Love, Appelfeld writes: “In the Carpathians, the people knew silence with their bodies. Ernst’s grandfather, after reading a book, would sit quietly for a long time. His silence was a kind of covert labor.” To Irena, Ernst says: “Words that aren’t connected to pain aren’t words, but fluff.” Appelfeld has always been a master of the subtle, Chekhovian misunderstandings between individuals: Ernst is partially baffled by his doctor’s locution, just as Irena is partially baffled by Ernst’s. “The Jews’ language is their soul,” he tells her, and she maintains only the most tacit comprehension of that truth.

Everywhere in Appelfeld’s work lies the understated potency of potential change, of what happens when change means loss and loss means woe. Whether the machinations of Hitlerism lie ahead or behind, the clicking of the cattle cars is almost audible. Only rarely do we glimpse the sulfurous SS and those superintending forces of the Shoah, and never do we approach the lacuna in their worldview that allowed for their necrosis of soul and heart and mind. Although Appelfeld has not always balked at portraying violence—in Katerina, The Iron Tracks, Until the Dawn’s Light—violence is a power mostly passed over, looked away from. In Suddenly, Love, Ernst is savagely pummeled by home-invaders, and Appelfeld registers the attack in a single sentence—blink and you’ll miss it—even though it foments everything that follows.

Like many Jews who emigrated to Palestine after the war, Ernst “was convinced that writing about the Holocaust was impossible, forbidden. … All the texts for Holocaust Remembrance Day sound clumsy to him, meaningless and, even worse, grotesque.”

Kierkegaard might be some help here. In his journals of 1849 he wrote: “There comes a critical moment where everything is reversed, after which the point becomes to understand more and more that there is something which cannot ever be understood.” This is partly why Ernst considers his work a failure, because if we truly understand that some understanding cannot be attained, then literature becomes a kind of masturbatory groping in the dark. In a nod to Kafka—Appelfeld’s first influence, who till this day pulls at him—Ernst pleads with Irena to destroy his manuscripts after his death, but she can’t imagine incinerating his work, just as Max Brod found it impossible to follow Kafka’s instructions to do the same.

In a 1948 essay, Isaac Rosenfeld said of the Shoah: “Appeals to reason won’t work,” and then, quite simply: “This is the terror. Anything that stops short of presenting it in full leads nowhere.” That is the faith we literary idealists wish to cling onto, that nothing, no matter how heinous or divine, remains outside the elucidating clasp of language. But Appelfeld has a different breed of faith, one which was forged in flame at the hellmouth, and which gained its shape beyond good and evil, that trusted dichotomy Nietzsche had begun to dismantle before it was crushed forever in the camps. It is a faith proclaiming the necessity of an individual's reconciliation with himself—a place of private acceptance and, yes, of sudden love too.