Cautious Optimism Despite Loss in Aharon Appelfeld's 'Suddenly Love'

Gerald Sorin
Gerald Sorin
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Aharon Appelfeld. Like his character Ernst, he is a writer for whom words are everything. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Gerald Sorin
Gerald Sorin

“Suddenly, Love,” by Aharon Appelfeld (translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green), Schocken, 225 pages, $25

“Suddenly, Love” has all the wisdom, compassion, restraint and exquisite clarity we have come to expect from Aharon Appelfeld. But this new novel departs significantly from the blackness that pervades much of his previous work. Yes, the Holocaust as a metaphor for the 20th century and as an experience of irretrievable loss, is manifest here, as it is in most of Appelfeld’s writing, and especially in “Badenheim 1939,” “The Age of Wonders” and “The Iron Tracks.” But this new book, which unfolds mostly in the two small apartments of two lonely people, in Jerusalem of several decades ago, is also a powerful story of redemption through faith and love. Although somewhat short on drama and narrative drive, “Suddenly, Love” does come alive with great vitality when, about one-third of the way through, it begins to pose questions that transcend a simple tale of late romance.

Ernst is Jewish, 70 years-old, and a retired financial advisor and Red Army veteran from Ukraine, who via Naples, landed almost absent-mindedly in Israel after World War II. He lives alone. His first wife and infant daughter were murdered by the Nazis, and he divorced his “monstrous” second wife, an Israeli woman who tormented him unrelentingly about the uselessness of writing things that are never published.

Every afternoon Ernst walks to a café, where he writes, but he spends almost all rest of his time at home writing and rewriting his material, much of which ends up in the wastebasket. He has been trying unsuccessfully to tell the story of “humanity in itself,” with no personal, restrictive “ethnic” details; and he has been vaguely aware for some time that an important part of himself, he knows not which, is “missing,” not only in the creative process, but in general.

Enter Irena, a younger woman and a child of Holocaust survivors, who is hired to cook and clean for Ernst after he undergoes heart surgery. As the novel opens, we learn that she has been arriving at his place at 8 A.M. and leaving at 3 P.M. every day for two years. And every day, too, she returns to her dead parents’ apartment to commune with them and her grandparents, and to keep watch over their furniture, as well as to refold their clothing once a month.

Unlike Ernst, whose thinking leans heavily in the direction of inquiry, construction, comparison and clarification, Irena has little grasp of abstract matters. She is possessed of a simple faith, and for her there are no conflicts, reservations, resentments or torments of conscience. What is good and beautiful she blesses; about what confuses or upsets her she keeps silent. Occasionally, in response to one thing or another, Irena will say “Thank God.” When Ernst asks why she thanks God, since, “not everything he does, if anything, is worthy of thanks,” Irena is taken aback, even frightened. It is a question pregnant with theological and ethical implications.

Over time, however, as Irena devotes herself more and more to Ernst’s happiness, she begins to understand that while his thoughts and his writing constitute an arena of struggle with inner demons, his work is also critical to his identity and health. Still, it is rare that Ernst’s writing flows well enough to become a passage acceptable to his heart. When his words do “glow on the page,” it is a miracle, he thinks, and he knows full well that “such miracles don’t happen every day.”

Indeed, Ernst is emotionally and intellectually exhausted, haunted, by his past, especially his relationship to his parents and to Judaism. His mother and father had come from the Carpathian mountains, grown up in the modern Galician city of Czernowitz (where Appelfeld himself was born) and became bleak, silent shopkeepers, no longer followers of the faith of their ancestors. Ernst, well-read and politically restless, would often bombard his parents with uncountable convoluted and pointless sentences, leaving them frozen in their places as though after a violent robbery. By the time he was 12, in pre-war Romania, he had become a communist activist.

Where sympathies lie

Aharon Appelfeld has told interviewers that he himself tries not to be involved in political life, and few of his protagonists in his more than 40 books are active in or strongly opinionated about politics. But in the behavior of some of his characters, particularly the communist militants in “Suddenly, Love” and “The Iron Tracks,” Appelfeld demonstrates where his sympathies lie, complex though they are. He doesn’t tell us what is good or bad, right or wrong, but without polemics or provocative language he shows us the destructive nature of communist ideology and its repellent, indeed horrific consequences in the lives of individuals.

Ernst became deeply entrenched in the Communist Party in Czernowitz and with other young men and boys, mostly Jewish, set fire to synagogues and attacked petit-bourgeois Jews, small-time capitalists, and shopkeepers not unlike his parents. At first, Ernst admits, “every limb of my body rebelled against the violence,” but in time, he was convinced that both the Judaism he abjured as the opiate of the people, and exploitation by the oppressor classes had to be eliminated by any means necessary. Yet, even as he continued to master and manipulate words as a writer of CP manifestos, he increasingly found that party rhetoric was as empty as his parents’ silence.

Irena’s parents, who in their youth in Eastern Europe were part of the socialist Hashomer Hatzair movement, were rarely silent, even after their deaths. They continue to exist for her, not so much as a memory, certainly not a haunting one, but as a close and familiar presence emanating warmth. She tells Ernst, with whom she has become more intimate, that he should forgive his mother and father their perceived shortcomings. A person who ignores his parents, Irena says softly, almost as if in prayer, is an orphan forever. Her sentences are few, but those she utters, always without motive or pretense, surprise Ernst with their simplicity and seriousness.

Irena’s devotion to and admiration for Ernst allow her to leave her parents’ apartment and to regain her independent imagination. At the same time, her tranquil, uncomplicated presence instills in Ernst the feeling that he is connected again to his own life and past. He comes to see, for example, that he had loved his grandparents and had basked in their quiet faith and goodness. He tells Irena that he now sees their home as having been a sanctuary, a “gateway to heaven.” He also begins to understand that although his parents had lost the positive silence of their ancestors, and had been left only with a kind of barren despair, it was a noble stance they took. They had never complained or judged. They understood that life was short and incomprehensible, and that speaking didn’t necessarily add to understanding.

Appelfeld has said something similar regarding the Holocaust, “a type of enormous experience which reduces one to silence.” Any statement, “any utterance… any answer,” he told Philip Roth in 1988, “is tiny, meaningless and occasionally ridiculous.”

But Appelfeld, like Ernst, is a writer, for whom words are everything. And so ultimately, the author of “Suddenly, Love” rejected Theodor Adorno’s famous pronouncement that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” He picked up his pen and without necessarily providing “answers,” not only wrote, but wrote with the Holocaust very much in mind.

Similarly, Ernst, realizing that denying his past and his experience in the Holocaust would deform him spiritually, begins to write more steadily and with greater satisfaction. This despite his knowledge, reinforced by Irena’s persona, that words are limited and that silences, replete with visions and reflections, can be more profound than language. But Ernst, like Appelfeld himself, knows that without the “right” words, the visions will fade away.

I’ve referred here to only some of the self-referential allusions in “Suddenly, Love.” There are many more. Appelfeld realized long ago that it is necessary to write about oneself, and has admitted that all his books are autobiographical in one way or another. “All fiction that lacks a strong foundation in autobiography,” he told an interviewer for Haaretz more than a decade ago, “will be science fiction.”

Yet to write things as they actually happened, Appelfeld added, is “to enslave oneself to memory” alone. The materials he uses are indeed materials from his own life, but ultimately the writing is the independent product of an extraordinarily creative imagination. (One need only read the beautifully rendered sketch of Appelfeld in Ari Shavit’s recent “My Promised Land” to see how radically his life differed from Ernst’s.)

Philip Roth has said, correctly, I think, that Aharon Appelfeld is “a dispossessed and uprooted writer… a displaced writer who has made of displacement… a subject uniquely his own.” With “Suddenly, Love,” however, we discover with poignant pleasure the possibility of an Appelfeld a little more rooted, a little less displaced.

Gerald Sorin, who reviews books frequently for Haaretz, is a professor of American and Jewish studies at the State University of New York, New Paltz. His most recent book, “Howard Fast: Life and Literature in the Left Lane” (Indiana University Press), won a National Jewish Book Award.