The upright fiction of Aharon Appelfeld arises from the level facts of his anguished and brave young life. Like the novels themselves, a note on their author is laconic, lapidary and on oath:
Aharon Appelfeld was born in 1932 in Czernovitz, Bukovina (now part of the USSR). His mother was killed by the Nazis, and he was deported at the age of eight to a concentration camp, from which he escaped. He spent the next three years in hiding in the Ukraine, and eventually joined the Russian army. After the war, he made his way to Italy and, in 1946, to Palestine. He now lives in Jerusalem.
As a novelist Appelfeld has his paradoxes, but the simple truth is that he is truly a writer. Temperate and harrowing, tender and unflinching, dignified yet importunate, without remission he cares for what has proved to be the case. His cadences, as both of his selfless translators make good, are his own. He moves beyond making the familiar strange, he brings home that it plainly is so, as the strange is familiar – and the appalling is everyday. Mildly, obdurately, without clamour, he beseeches and besieges.
He shapes short books, and, in all, they are over a thousand pages deep. He tells the same story over and over again, and a reader would not misplace a character, a reflection, a description even. It is with the perils of obsession that he is vigilantly obsessed.
He cannot grasp, he can only grasp at, the surety that anyone at all ever managed to escape the lethal past, even though he himself somehow effected it.
‘If you hadn’t told me, I’d never have guessed that you were Jewish. How did you do it?’ ‘I don’t know. I didn’t do anything.’
Not doing anything, this 13-year-old child, Tzili, in Tzili: The Story of a Life, saved herself unthinkingly, when (bereft and not even knowing herself bereaved) she answered the blind man’s question ‘You’re Maria’s daughter, aren’t you?’ with the untrue password of salvation: ‘Yes.’ The better man who (in a way) befriends her cannot but writhe at her innocence. He too, and too much, knows what it is, this life as a Jew on the run, and he will not let her alone.
‘I once saw them with my own eyes hunting a little Jewish child.’ ‘And do they kill everyone?’ Tzili asked. ‘What do you think?’ he said in an unpleasant tone of voice.
Appelfeld cannot conceive of escaping into the past, or from the past, from the Holocaust and its unspeakable legacy, except that conceiving of escaping is exactly what his characters, his people, indefatigably do, both in the stalked past and in the haunted present. He evokes horrors of the utmost cruelty and injustice, even while his art evinces an equanimity as profoundly disconcerting as that of his master in tragic simplicity, not a novelist but a poet, Wordsworth.
The endings of all his novels are shadowed by the Final Solution. Final for monstrously many, but not for all whom it craved to extirpate. Those who lived through it, as Appelfeld did, will not cease to be compelled to live it through again. What would it be, to put such suffering behind you? These are novels which comprehend both the sense in which the anti-semitic genocide remains an appalling mystery and the sense in which it is appallingly no such thing. It followed.
The impossible, the sensible, the honourable and the clear: these are transparent in Appelfeld’s novels, in the spirit of Wittgenstein’s contemplation of anti-semitism:
When you can’t unravel a tangle, the most sensible thing is for you to recognise this; and the most honourable thing, to admit it.
What you ought to do to remedy the evil is not clear. What you must not do is clear in particular cases.
What the artist must not do is suppose that the evil could be remedied by art. Yet an artist offers something which both is and is not remedy. It can be sovereign.
Appelfeld stops short of describing the ultimate horrors and degradations, and this is not a failure of nerve but a success of it.
The earliest of these novels, and probably the one which shows the greatest inerrancy in its integrity of fable and history, Badenheim 1939 tells of the vile quarantining of the Jews of Badenheim as they assemble for the music festival. The Jews are garnered with patient madness by ‘the Sanitation Department’, and everything gathers to the horror which finally transports these doomed people, this doomed people, even while hoping against hopelessness. The end of the book is not their very end but it is the bitter end:
But their amazement was cut short. An engine, an engine coupled to four filthy freight cars, emerged from the hills and stopped at the station. Its appearance was as sudden as if it had risen from a pit in the ground. ‘Get in!’ yelled invisible voices. And the people were sucked in. Even those who were standing with a bottle of lemonade in their hands, a bar of chocolate, the head-waiter with his dog-they were all sucked in as easily as grains of wheat poured into a funnel. Nevertheless Dr Pappenheim found time to make the following remark: ‘If the coaches are so dirty it must mean that we have not far to go.’
Poor kindly Dr Pappenheim, whose words are the opposite of the truth and yet the truth. His consolatory bid has come to minister only to pathos and exasperation, yet at the time it was meant (with what clutching at self-deception, who can know?) to comfort. 1939? Early days? Evil days, and evil tongues, and more than tongues.
The Age of Wonders has two endings, because – unusually for Appelfeld – the book is phased as two Books. Of all the novels it is the one which has the greatest feeling for the sheer stuff of life, for its furniture, its food, its family jokes, its small serious tribulations, and all the crowded dailiness which so stubbornly resists the unthinkable thought that one’s whole life may be about to collapse into barbarism, torture and insanity. The Age of Wonders tells first of Austria in the Thirties and of a family which is in no way saved from anti-semitic horror by the plea that the paterfamilias (an intellectual, a writer, and a distinctly patriotic Austrian) has bitterly repudiated his Jewishness and, so far as he can, that of his family. The father is an extraordinary study in dismay: he strikes it into others and into himself. He cannot credit what he knows to be happening. But neither the book itself nor any of its characters simply discredits him, or manifests any easy superiority to him. He has his rights, and they are not to be plucked from him just because he is often wrong to exercise them. Book One comes to its conclusion, there in the penned temple, with brutality begun but by no means ended.
And when light broke through the skylights the rabbi was lying on the floor, panting and bleeding. The torturers retreated to a corner and squatted on the floor. The rabbi did not cry out or accuse anyone. Snow fell on the skylights. The light dimmed. Mother took off her fur coat and covered us. The silence of an aftermath gathered the people together on the floor. Now no one said, ‘You, or you.’ Now no one probed our hidden wound. Their hostile looks blurred, as if the colours had melted in the irises of their eyes. The alien hall was filled with vapours from the people’s mouths. Someone lit a cigarette and his hand shook like a prisoner’s. A woman vomited. The rabbi’s face was red, as though tattooed with fire. No one stretched out a hand to beg his pardon. The torturers squatted in their corner and stared dully at their victim.
By the next day we were on the cattle train hurtling south.
But Bruno, the son of the racked father, survived. Book Two is superscribed: ‘Many years later when everything was over’. The irony is mordant. Is Bruno striking a blow for something, or only at something, when he finally punches Brum, unregenerate Brum from the old days? ‘My hatred for Jews knows no bounds,’ Brum has hissed. Whatever is in the air in the closing lines of the book, it is not victory of any sort whatsoever. That in this history, too, it may terribly be the truth that those to whom evil is done do evil in return: the thought casts its own shadow, a repellent tribute to the evil that men like Hitler do.
He rose, stretched, straightened himself, and turned toward the platform.
‘Brum, you have the right to lodge a complaint against me,’ he said on his way to the platform. His face smiled of its own accord. Nor were these words his own. He stood still for a long time, empty of thought or feeling. His eyes focused vacantly on the blinking railway signal, waiting for the brass plate to fall and the whistle of the engine to pierce the air.
The end of Tzili: The Story of a Life is the old pain newly aroused. For the life which we have met, and marvelled at, is that of the endurance-glutted child, but the last thirty lines of the book displace her. She is now on the boat to Palestine, to safety perhaps. She has had our attention; now she must herself attend, and to different trials, the doings of the new-met talkative stranger Linda who confronts prejudice with counter-prejudice (‘But later she came to realise that her lover was a goy in every sense of the word, drunk and violent’), and whose closing happiness is itself drunk and frail and perfectly human and is no happy augury. Poor hopeful Linda. Like Badenheim’s Dr Pappenheim, at the close of his story, she has a heart too soon made glad by a consolation not to be trusted. Like Tzili, and like Bruno in The Age of Wonders, she escapes more blessedly than Dr Pappenheim ever did, yet insufficiently all the same.
Bent likewise upon refuge,The Retreat tells of what is doubly a retreat, a religious or, rather, religiose settlement and a withdrawal in the face of danger. In her old age, proud unrepining Lotte Schloss comes to the high-minded hill-setting of The Retreat, founded by a cracked visionary whose mission it has been to persuade Jews of the wisdom of assiduous assimilation. Efforts are made. But if, up at The Retreat, many of the Jews themselves, however alienated from the faith of their fathers and mothers, resist such repudiatory assimilation, how much the more is it resisted and scorned by the encroaching persecutors. Down in the village (the times are straitened) where piecemeal the belongings of The Retreat are being sold off to pay for daily needs, the beatings have begun. At the end, the book, too, suffers a contraction, and like the preceding novels it offers a glimpse of hope such as compounds the poignancy since such hope is so desperately akin to hopefulness.
The world seemed to be narrowing down to its simplest dimensions: breakfast, supper. And if anyone said, I would like – all he had in mind was a cup of coffee. Sins were not pardoned, sentences were not commuted, but no one threw them in the face of his fellows. Their only worry now was that the cart might fail to return from the village.
And when all the coats had been sold, the jewels and the suits, Herbert went into Balaban’s room, sorted out his clothes and tied them up in a sheet. Tomorrow he would sell them to the farmers. At night, of course, people were afraid. But they helped one another. If a man fell or was beaten, he was not abandoned.
‘Of course’? Of course. These chill closing sentences tell a warm truth still, of community still. Better than nothing – but how much less than the as-yet unimaginable nightmare would have needed to be confronted by.
Lotte had been taken, as she asked, to The Retreat by her daughter. Ill-will had been tangible. Appelfeld is more than realistic about the hopes of forgiveness in the dealings of parent and child. Tzili has her telling moment: ‘Her mother and father she could not forgive. And once she even said, “Pardon me for not being able to forgive you.” ’
To the Land of the Reeds tells how, in those same years of incipient terror, a young man and his mother travel through Austria to visit the woman’s parents, from whom she had been estranged long ago because she married a Gentile. ‘I am certain that grandfather and grandmother have forgiven me.’ This is wistful and wishful. But neither she nor we will ever know. Unwatched by us, she will have arrived at a scene of devastated deportation. Her son, we know two-thirds of the way through the story, survives – survives, at least, for not less than years. ‘Years afterward he would still recall the shadows of those high pines, his mother in her poplin frock seeking his forgiveness, and he, like an idiot, not understanding a word she said.’ The young man, Rudi, is the incarnation of restrained annoyance. His mother is exasperating and dear. In the event, she insists on going on ahead alone, with whatever premonition on his behalf or on her own. And at the fraying end, he seeks her in vain.
Those who, in the deportations, have been separated from their loved ones are touchingly eager to join them – so wrongly and so rightly. Once again the railway train puts in its innocent yet nocent appearance.
‘Where will we be brought together?’ a woman asked a man who was leaning against the wall.
‘Not far,’ answered the man in complete distraction.
‘If so, why aren’t they coming to pick us up?’
‘They’ll come,’ said the man. ‘Don’t worry.’
‘We haven’t been forgotten? Are you sure?’
The man was about to answer when a long whistle was heard, a festive whistle, and they all stood up and shouted at once. ‘It came. At last it came!’ The tall man with the noble lineage removed his hat like the Christians, placing it diagonally across his broad chest. The movement, which seemed habitual with him, suddenly inspired them all with a kind of gravity.
It was an old locomotive, drawing two old cars – the local, apparently. It went from station to station, scrupulously gathering up the remainder.
‘Scrupulously’ is daemonically inspired.
Yet the trains did not succeed in finally gathering up all the remainder. One of those who escaped from such a fate is Bartfuss. The Immortal Bartfuss tells of a man’s life after he escaped ‘from one of the smaller of those notorious camps’ to what was Palestine. He has paid a terrible price for survival; how much of him, his being, has truly survived? Tentatively, cannily, with justified suspicions of those nearest to him (a garrulous predatory wife, a conniving daughter, alert to root where he keeps his valuables hidden), Bartfuss makes those small movements towards life and love which are all he can even attempt to make. The novel is laced with a distrust of words, pushed to extremes. With what or whom is Bartfuss an speaking terms? Yet something touches him, and in doing so, makes him touching. A say of some sort, this at least he may still have.
At the close of the book he returns home to his wife Rosa and his damaged uncorrupted daughter Bridget. To manage is all he can do, but he manages it.
Afterward too, on his way to the apartment, he felt no revulsion or pain. His limbs were warmed up properly. When he entered the house Rosa and Bridget were already sunk in sleep. In his room there was no sign of a strange hand. Only when he drew near the bed did he feel that that mighty sleep, that full sleep, which he had been struggling against for years, had gathered strength, and now it was about to spread its iron web over him. He managed to take off his shoes and socks, to put his shirt on the chair, to look about the naked room, and to say a sentence to himself that he had heard by chance: ‘From now on I shall remove all worry from my heart and sleep.’
May he rest in peace. As often in Appelfeld’s world, a sentence is a death sentence. The wheel is come full circle. Bartfuss had escaped from a concentration camp; this had entitled him to the novel’s opening words: ‘Bartfuss is immortal.’
The latest novel, For Every Sin, published here last autumn, imagines a last turn of the screw. It starts at once with an ambition, straightforward as can be.
When the war ended Theo resolved that he would make his way back home alone, in a straight line, without twists or turns. The distance to his home was great, hundreds of miles. Nevertheless it seemed to him he could see the route clearly. He knew that this would separate him from people, and that he would have to remain in uninhabited places for many days, but he was firm in his resolve: only following a straight course, without deviation. Thus, without saying goodbye to anyone, he set out.
But the painful truth is that Theo can never find refuge from his fellow-refugees. They will not let him be. They assuredly will not let him be the Christian he intends to become when he gets home. What he yearns for is simply to be away from them. What they will not relinquish is their insistence that they must all stay together. He struggles, stifles, and is defeated. The book ends with a lacerating sense that there is no escape from together-hood, especially from such good intentions as recall the hell they suffered together.
‘Where did you intend to go?’
‘To my hometown, to Baden-bei-ien.’
‘There’s no reason to go there. Stay here. We have everything we need. The shed is full of supplies. There’s no sense seeking something that can never be attained. We won’t bring the dead back to life. You understand that. Here we’re together. I won’t conceal from you that it isn’t always comfortable, but still, we’re together.’
Theo gulped down mug after mug. The hot liquid seeped into him and filled him with warmth. Fatigue and helplessness assailed him. He placed his head on a bundle, curled up as if after a big quarrel, a desperate quarrel, closed his eyes, and collapsed.
Theo is torn apart by the others’ need to be together. They reproach him as if he wished to bring the dead back to life. But what he claimed, for himself, was the right not to be brought back, living, to the dead. He does not have the last word, they do, and it is ‘collapsed’.
For Every Sin has a subject at once dignified and touchy, duly open to being judged offensive. And yet something goes wrong with this novel, as with no other of Appelfeld’s.
His sense of catastrophe, of the supreme catastrophe of our age, has always been such as to bring all plots under suspicion of melodrama. He has manifested (as Eliot said of Jonson) immense constructive skill: ‘It is not so much skill in plot as skill in doing without a plot.’ And this has necessarily thrown unusual weight upon phrasing, cadence, diction, precision of syntax, all in the service of a simplicity which is precious only if it escapes all suspicion of preciosity. Since no writer can be immaculate of phrase, there have inevitably been occasions in the past when there is a whiff of danger in the wording, when a reader may think, with relief and so with some stilling of stricture: ‘A mile further and all had been marsh.’ If Appelfeld is a Wordsworthian writer in his unsoliciting simplicity, then we may remember Ruskin’s murmur: ‘I am afraid Wordsworth was often affected in his simplicity.’ Or Matthew Arnold’s insistence that what in Wordsworth is true simplicity can become in Tennyson the affected thing, simplesse:
French criticism, richer in its vocabulary than ours, has invented a useful word to distinguish this semblance (often very beautiful and valuable) from the real quality. The real quality it calls simplicité, the semblance simplesse. The one is natural simplicity, the other is artificial simplicity. What is called simplicity in the productions of a genius essentially not simple, is, in truth, simplesse. The two are distinguishable from one another the moment they appear in company.
Whereupon Arnold makes Tennyson’s ‘Dora’ keep company with Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’.
There are many moments in For Every Sin when the prose loses its equipoise, and settles as mannerism. Well-managed, and well-mannered, never inept but often unapt. Such lapses, in a novel where the protagonist finally succumbs to the strain of it all, are epitomised in one particular turn of phrase. When Irving Howe praises Appelfeld for ‘a kind of pungent mysteriousness’, you may think it only a critic’s affectation of precision, of unresting sensibility and doughty corrugation of brow (not your usual pungent mysteriousness, no, rather a kind of it). But Appelfeld incited his critic. Or his translator did? I am ignorant of the Hebrew to which this locution corresponds.
If there were ever two writers whom Appelfeld absolutely should not sound like, they are Walter Pater and Iris Murdoch. Yet here is Appelfeld a-kind-of-ing away with those best of them. This particular locution, which, should seldom be indulged since it lacks all true particularity, has long been in evidence in Appelfeld’s books, for in For Every Sin it is sinfully ubiquitous. Betrayingly, ‘clarity’ much invites it: ‘a kind of transparent clarity’ (twice), ‘a kind of cold clarity’, ‘a kind of painful clarity’, ‘a kind of sharp clarity’. It is just because this formula delivers so little authentic clarity that the word ‘clarity’ sets about cadging it. As does ‘precision’: ‘a kind of military precision’, ‘a kind of stunning precision’. I have to grant that this formula is an obsession of mine, but not any more than it is of Appelfeld or his translator, and in any case the obsession with stigmatising it is less baneful than the obsession with perpetrating it. There are at least forty of these ‘a kind of x y’ in this short novel, and about as many of the only slightly less objectionable ‘a kind of x’ – among them, ‘a kind of clarity’, naturally.
You don’t, as a reader, have to be exacerbatedly on the qui vive to see that these wordings have gone dead. You just have to be alive to Appelfeld’s prose at its best, a prose which indicts any such easy formulae. No sooner has ‘a kind of dark gloom’ settled on a man than (three lines later) someone will feel ‘a kind of warm closeness’. Far from close, nothing could be more remote from Appelfeld’s genius than such an unspecified kind of warm closeness. At this point a faithful reader feels that Appelfeld is being unfaithful to his own gifts. There’s a kind of dark gloom for you.
Christopher Ricks discusses the following novels by Aharon Appelfeld:
Badenheim 1939. Dent, 148 pp., £3.50, 1981 (originally published 1980), 0 460 02273 3.
The Age of Wonders. Weidenfeld, 207 pp., £11.95, 1987 (1981), 0 297 79155 9.
Tzili: The Story of a Life. Dutton, 185 pp., $12.95, 1983 (1982).
The Retreat. Quartet, 125 pp., £3.95, 1985 (1984), 0 704 33487 9.
To the Land of the Reeds. Weidenfeld, 148 pp., £9.95, 1987 (1986), 0 297 78972 4.
The Immortal Bartfuss. Weidenfeld, 137 pp., £10.95, 1988 (1987), 0 297 79272 5.
For Every Sin. Weidenfeld, 168 pp., £11.95, 1989 (1989), 0 297 79700 X.
All translated by Jeffrey Green.