Philip Roth talks to the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld

Aharon Appelfeld lives a few miles west of Jerusalem in a maze-like conglomeration of attractive stone dwellings directly next to an ‘absorption centre’, where immigrants are temporarily housed, schooled and prepared for life in their new society. The arduous journey that landed Appelfeld on the beaches of Tel Aviv in 1946, at the age of 14, seems to have fostered an unappeasable fascination with all uprooted souls, and at the local grocery where he and the absorption centre residents do their shopping, he will often initiate an impromptu conversation with an Ethiopian, or a Russian, or a Rumanian Jew still dressed for the climate of a country to which he or she will never return.

The living-room of the two-storey apartment is simply furnished: some comfortable chairs, books in three languages on the shelves, and on the walls impressive adolescent drawings by the Appelfelds’ son Meir, who is now 21 and, since finishing his military duty, has been studying art in London. Yitzak, 18, recently completed high school and is in the first of his three years of compulsory Army service. Still at home is 12-year-old Batya, a clever girl with the dark hair and blue eyes of her Argentinian Jewish mother, Appelfeld’s youthful, good-natured wife, Judith. The Appelfelds appear to have created as calm and harmonious a household as any child could hope to grow up in. During the four years that Aharon and I have been friends, I don’t think I’ve ever visited him at home in Mevasseret Zion without remembering that his own childhood – as an escapee from a Nazi work-camp, on his own in the primitive wilds of the Ukraine – provides the grimmest possible antithesis to this domestic ideal.

A portrait photograph that I’ve seen of Aharon Appelfeld, an antique-looking picture taken in Chernovtsy, Bukovina, in 1938, when Aharon was six, and brought to Palestine by surviving relatives, shows a delicately refined bourgeois child seated alertly on a hobby-horse and wearing a beautiful sailor suit. You simply cannot imagine this child, only 24 months on, confronting the exigencies of surviving for years as a hunted and parentless little boy in the woods. The keen intelligence is certainly there, but where is the robust cunning, the animalish instinct, the biological tenacity that it took to endure that terrifying adventure?

As much is secreted away in that child as in the writer he’s become. At 55, Aharon is a small, bespectacled, compact man with a perfectly round face and a perfectly bald head and the playfully thoughtful air of a benign wizard. He’d have no trouble passing for a magician who entertains children at birthday parties by pulling doves out of a hat – it’s easier to associate his gently affable and kindly appearance with that job than with the responsibility by which he seems inescapably propelled: responding, in a string of elusively portentous stories, to the appearance from Europe – while he was outwitting peasants and foraging in the forests – of just about all the continent’s Jews, his parents among them.

His literary subject is not the Holocaust, however, or even Jewish persecution. Nor, to my mind, is what he writes simply Jewish fiction or, for that matter, Israeli fiction. Nor, since he is a Jewish citizen of a Jewish state composed largely of immigrants, is his an exile’s fiction. And, despite the European locale of many of his novels and the echoes of Kafka, these books written in the Hebrew language certainly aren’t European fiction. Indeed, all that Appelfeld is not adds up to what he is, and that is a dislocated writer, a deported writer, a dispossessed and uprooted writer. Appelfeld is a displaced writer of displaced fiction, who has made of displacement and disorientation a subject uniquely his own. His sensibility – marked almost at birth by the solitary wanderings of a little bourgeois boy through an ominous nowhere – appears to have spontaneously generated a style of sparing specificity, of out-of-time progression and thwarted narrative drives, that is an uncanny prose realisation of the displaced mentality. As unique as the subject is a voice that originates in a wounded consciousness pitched somewhere between amnesia and memory, and that situates the fiction it narrates midway between parable and history.

Since we met in 1984, Aharon and I have talked together at great length, usually while walking through the streets of London, New York and Jerusalem. I’ve known him over these years as an oracular anecdotalist and folkloristic enchanter, as a wittily laconic kibbitzer and an obsessive dissector of Jewish states of mind – of Jewish aversions, delusions, remembrances and manias. However, as is often the case in friendships between writers, during these peripatetic conversations we had never really touched on each other’s work – that is, not until last month, when I travelled to Jerusalem to discuss with him the six of his 15 published books that are now in English translation.

After our first afternoon together we disencumbered ourselves of an interloping tape-recorder and, though I took some notes along the way, mostly we talked as we’ve become accustomed to talking – wandering down city streets or sitting in coffee shops where we’d stop to rest. When finally there seemed to be little left to say, we sat down together and tried to synthesise on paper – I in English, Aharon in Hebrew – the heart of the discussion. Aharon’s answers to my questions have been translated by Jeffrey Green.

PR: I find echoes in your fiction of two Middle European writers of a previous generation: Bruno Schulz, the Polish Jew who wrote in Polish and was shot and killed at 50 by the Nazis in Drogobych, the heavily Jewish Galician city where he taught high school and lived at home with his family, and Kafka, the Prague Jew who wrote in German and also lived, according to Max Brod, ‘spellbound in the family circle’ for most of his 41 years. You were born 500 miles east of Prague, 125 miles south-east of Drogobych, in Chernovtsy. Your family – prosperous, highly-assimilated, German-speaking – bore certain cultural and social similarities to Kafka’s, and, like Schulz, you, along with your family, suffered personally the Nazi horror. The affinity that interests me, however, isn’t biographical but literary and, though I see signs of it throughout your work, it’s particularly clear in The Age of Wonders. The opening scene, for instance, depicting a mother and her adoring 12-year-old luxuriating on a train journey home from their idyllic summer vacation, reminds me of similar scenes in Schulz stories. And only a few pages on there is a Kafkaesque surprise when the train stops unexpectedly by a dark old saw-mill and the security forces request that ‘all Austrian passengers who are not Christians by birth’ register at the saw-mill’s office. I’m reminded of The Trial – of The Castle as well – where there is at the outset an ambiguously menacing assault on the legal status of the hero. Tell me, how pertinent to your imagination do you consider Kafka and Schulz to be?

AA: I discovered Kafka here in Israel during the 1950s, and as a writer he was close to me from my first contact. He spoke to me in my mother tongue, German, not the German of the Germans but the German of the Hapsburg Empire, of Vienna, Prague and Chernovtsy, with its special tone, which, by the way, the Jews worked hard to create.

To my surprise he spoke to me not only in my mother tongue, but also in another language which I knew intimately, the language of the absurd. I knew what he was talking about. It wasn’t a secret language for me and I didn’t need any explications. I had come from the camps and the forests, from a world that embodied the absurd, and nothing in that world was foreign to me. What was surprising was this: how could a man who had never been there know so much, in precise detail, about that world?

Other surprising discoveries followed: the marvel of his objective style, his preference for action over interpretation, his clarity and precision, the broad, comprehensive view laden with humour and irony. And, as if that weren’t enough, another discovery showed me that behind the mask of placelessness and homelessness in his work, stood a Jewish man, like me, from a half-assimilated family, whose Jewish values had lost their content, and whose inner space was barren and haunted.

The marvellous thing is that the barrenness brought him not to self-denial or self-hatred but rather to a kind of tense curiosity about every Jewish phenomenon, especially the Jews of Eastern Europe, the Yiddish language, the Yiddish theatre, Hasidism, Zionism and even the idea of moving to Mandate Palestine. This is the Kafka of his journals, which are no less gripping than his works. I found a palpable embodiment of Kafka’s Jewish involvement in his Hebrew handwriting, for he had studied Hebrew and knew it. His handwriting is clear and amazingly beautiful, showing his effort and concentration as in his German handwriting, but his Hebrew handwriting has an additional aura of love for the isolated letter.

Kafka revealed to me not only the plan of the absurd world but also the charms of its art, which I needed as an assimilated Jew. The Fifties were years of search for me, and Kafka’s works illuminated the narrow path which I tried to blaze for myself. Kafka emerges from an inner world and tries to get some grip on reality, and I came from a world of detailed, empirical reality, the camps and the forests. My real world was far beyond the power of imagination, and my task as an artist was not to develop my imagination but to restrain it, and even then it seemed impossible to me, because everything was so unbelievable that one seemed oneself to be fictional.

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[*] The Immortal Bartfuss, translated by Jeffrey Green, will be published by Weidenfeld on 31 March (137 pp., £10.95, 0 297 79272 5).