The 'Appelfeldian laboratory'
Aharon Appelfeld has been mislabeled as a Holocaust writer, says literary critic Yigal Schwartz. Even as he breaks taboos about the nuclear family, he writes in a way that demonstrates the life-giving power of the pen.
Ma'amin bli Knesiya: Arba Massot al Aharon Appelfeld (Believer Without a Church: Four Essays on Aharon Appelfeld ), by Yigal SchwartzDvir (Hebrew ), 183 pages, NIS 86
In his book "Believer Without a Church," literary critic Yigal Schwartz has collected four essays about the complex and diverse work of Aharon Appelfeld. This is his second book of commentary devoted entirely to Appelfeld's prose, and Schwartz discusses why he has chosen to immerse himself in his subject: "Appelfeld's work is dear to me, I suppose, because it serves as an indirect tunnel to the world of my parents, which was closed off to me." That comment alludes both to a basic feature of great literature, which regularly offers a powerful means of psychological salvation, and to a unique characteristic of the Appelfeld corpus: its ability to mediate between parents and their children, because it internalizes the generational rift and powerfully depicts the clash between past and future -- which, though it always has universal elements, is very Jewish in Appelfeld's work.
The essays themselves deal with the ways one translates a biographical experience into a literary text, the presentations of love and sexuality in Appelfeld's works, the connection between a thematic subject and a literary style, and Appelfeld's role as what Schwartz describes as a representative Israeli writer -- not someone who bears the burden of the "voice of otherness" or the "documentation of the Jewish experience in the Diaspora."
A lot of scholarly work has been done on Appelfeld's books, and the fact that these works can give rise to many and varied readings attests to the openness to infinity found in their pages, to the vitality that bubbles and trembles in the spaces between the words. In these times, when bad literature is celebrated publicly and declared good, many of Appelfeld's books bring us back all at once to the most profound places from which the genuine literary act is mined.
In the first two chapters of the book, Schwartz asks how Appelfeld's language manages to break through the cloak of words and reach the secret, personal, intimate physicality that is sealed off from the word itself. Schwartz, a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who specializes in modern Hebrew literature in historical and cultural contexts, describes a conversation he conducted with Appelfeld in 1990, when he asked the writer why his books do not include descriptions of normal couple relationships between a man and a woman. Appelfeld's reply was hair-raising: "What did you expect? You know that I was about 8 years old when the war began and we were expelled. Do you know what I saw in the years that shaped my life? First of all, during our flight to the east, I saw German soldiers raping Ukrainian women. Afterwards I was a servant for a prostitute, and at the end of the war, on the way back, I saw the Russians raping Ruthenian village women. That is more or less the sum total of my knowledge of love, sex, men and women -- and I haven't mentioned relations between human beings and animals."
Since then Appelfeld has written quite a number of books, including a delicate novel whose title, "Love, All of a Sudden" ("Pitom Ahava" ) speaks for itself.
In the second essay Schwartz examines a childhood trauma that Appelfeld, whose given name is Erwin, describes in his memoir "Story of a Life" ("Sipur Hayim," 199 ): As a child on a train with his sleeping mother, he is accosted by a country girl, a waitress, who takes him to her berth, where something takes place that Schwartz describes as "the frightening blurring of boundaries between the waitress' attitude toward Erwin as a child-infant and her attitude toward a partner in bed." The growing understanding of what is happening and its eruption into his awareness takes place slowly, starting with the encounter with his angry mother, when she finally finds him.
Schwartz examines how these far from simple biographical elements became part of the novel "The Age of Wonders" ("Tor Haplaot" ) and explains the unique mechanisms of the "Appelfeldian laboratory" that concocts a work of art from this upsetting episode. Schwartz's choice of an event that places the relationship between the young Appelfeld and his mother in a new light fits in with his basic assertion that the stereotypical labeling of Appelfeld as a "Holocaust writer" is artificial and erroneous, and that "amazingly, the taboo in Appelfeld is not related to the Holocaust period but to nuclear family relationships."
Appelfeld's autobiographical writing, essays and literary writing all demonstrate the wondrously healing and life-giving power of writing, no matter what genre. This is what Appelfeld told playwright Yosef Mondi on the publication of "Tongue of Fire" ("Ritzpat Esh," 1988 ). In reply to the question "How did you come to writing?" Appelfeld replied: "Out of psychological pressure ... I started to keep a personal diary and to write in every language I knew." The recognition of the power of writing is also reflected in a motif that runs through all of Appelfeld's works: His hero is often required to copy verses of Jewish prayer, even if he doesn't entirely understand their meaning. Whether the subject is community records, copying verses or Appelfeld's literature, this is about writing Hebrew. It is evident that Appelfeld sees the Hebrew letters as having genuine magical power, similar to the kabbalistic view that Hebrew letters are a human instrument containing the holiness of God.
In the third of the book's essays, Schwartz argues that Appelfeld's later novels are characterized by what literary researcher Mikhail Bakhtin called "the pathetic style of speech." Schwartz writes: "Appelfeld does not mean to imitate actual speech that represents mimetic situations, but rather to create a linguistic fabric that is composed of many classes of language that only looks authoritative, but reflects the loss of the religious connection between the modern Jewish man and the world around him." Schwartz emphasizes that this is not "empty language," but a wrapping that holds tremendous energy even as it appears to be hollow.
The tension between the outer covering, that which is expressed, and the deeper meaning, which remains silenced and semi-extinguished, lends a quality of restraint -- though not flatness -- to the writing. We sense the emotional volcano concealed beneath simple dialogue. In this connection, Appelfeld said in an interview with Philip Roth: "If it weren't for Hebrew, I doubt whether I would have found my way to Judaism. Hebrew offered me the heart of the Jewish myth, its way of thinking and its beliefs, from the days of the Bible to Agnon ... What didn't we do to change, to be tall, blond and strong, to be goyim, with all the outer trappings? The Hebrew language also sounded like a Gentile language to us, and maybe that's why we fell in love with it so easily.
"But then something amazing happened. That very language, which we saw as a means of melting into self-forgetfulness and merging with the Israeli celebration of the land and heroism, that language tricked me and brought me, against my will, to the most secret storehouses of Judaism. Since then I haven't budged from there."
Schwartz's stylistic analysis and the sociological argument he makes in the fourth essay, which deals with the way readers view Appelfeld's work and is defiantly called "He Writes Not About the European Diaspora, But About Us Here in Israel," is reminiscent of the critic's previous book. In "Do You Know the Land Where the Lemon Blooms: Human Engineering and Landscape Conceptualization in Hebrew Literature," Schwartz deals with the question of how and why the "Israeli paradise" will be destroyed, by way of his reading of Amos Oz's short story "Nomad and Viper" and the early stories of A.B. Yehoshua. But Appelfeld's work offers a very different answer to the how and why of that destruction than does that of Oz and Yehoshua.
Schwartz argues that the stories of Oz and Yehoshua note painfully that Israelis are overcome by an uncontrollable desire for "otherness" of any kind, from Orientalism to Eurocentrism. However, Appelfeld's writing indicates that the "Israeli paradise" will be destroyed because it is based on vacuous chatter that lacks true authority and covers up the latent sacredness of Hebrew -- an element of the language that has no outlet, as Gershom Scholem said. Thus does "Believer Without a Church" become not only Appelfeld's writing consciousness, but also a metaphor for Israelis everywhere: They are all believers without a church.
Ketzia Alon wrote her doctoral thesis about the works of Aharon Appelfeld.
Haaretz Books, April 2010,