The first Appelfeld novel I read, a couple years back, was The Age of Wonders. It had been brought to my attention as "the greatest Holocaust novel", a novel in which the Holocaust itself is passed over in silence. The first half focuses on a family of assimilated Austrian Jews. My memory of the details isn't clear, but I remember petty family squabbles, arguments about what the Jews should be. I remember the narrator's father, an intellectual, a writer, refusing to admit what is happening in Austria. I remember train rides to a family retreat, before the final train ride ending this section: "By the next day we were on the cattle train hurtling south." In the second section, "Many Years Later When Everything Was Over", the narrator reluctantly returns to Austria, an Austria "now clean of Jews".
Then came Badenheim 1939. Badenheim is a Jewish resort town. Here people are so caught up in their daily trivia that they are completely unable to interpret the meaning of various signals, such as the new laws restricting Jewish activity and movement. The novel ends with the whole town lined up at the train station, bickering and complaining, as they await a certain train to a destination they don't have in mind.
I read some about Appelfeld. Each of his novels that I own includes some variation of the following personal biography:
Aharon Appelfeld was eight when he witnessed the murder of his mother by the Nazis. After escaping from a concentration camp, he wandered in the forests for two years. When the war ended he joined the Soviet Army as a kitchen boy, eventually emigrating to Palestine in 1946.After reading The Age of Wonders and Badenheim 1939 and some reviews of his work, I had the impression that all of Appelfeld's fiction mined similar temporal terrain: the daily lives of pre-war Jews, the debates about assimilation, the encroaching calamity hanging over everything, opening onto silence.
Last week I took The Retreat down from my shelf and started to read. An aging actress, Lotte, is traveling up a mountain to a retreat (interesting that these novels all feature resorts or retreats of some kind). It is 1937, Austria. Once respected, she has lost her job. Former friends have turned her away. It is a familiar story. She'd sought asylum with her daughter, but it didn't go well; she'd fought with her daughter's Austrian husband. So she decided to leave, to seek refuge at this mountaintop retreat. The retreat itself is run by Balaban, a Jew who years before had taken it as his mission to teach the Jews to shed their Jewishness. Exercises, speech lessons. By the time of the novel, this mission has failed, and the Jews at the retreat are there because they have no place else to go. Most of them are harsh towards Jews as a group, idealizing the Austrians. Lotte, "too, to tell the truth, was drawn to them as if by magic--it was never the Jews who appealed to her heart, only the tall, blond Austrians, in each of whom she imagined she could see an artist." (Yet, at the same time she is aware that the Austrians she has actually known never seemed to live up to this ideal.) Given little other choice--unable to return to their former lives--the residents form a makeshift community in isolation, retreating from the world, holding off disaster as long as they can.
Next: Unto the Soul. I began reading this immediately after finishing The Retreat. Another book, another mountain, another kind of retreat. This time, a holy place, a cemetery of Jewish martyrs, guarded over by Gad and his sister Amalie, after the death of their aged Uncle Arieh. This, too, I read in the shadow of the Holocaust, aware of the calamity to come, looking for clues in the narrative. But they don't really come, not in the same way. It's a different time and place than in the other books (I only read the back of the book later, which tells me it's "turn of the century Eastern Europe"). But the world on the plain is nearly as inhospitable. Periodic pogroms. Typhus epidemics. Gad and Amalie, also in isolation on the mountain, stave off madness and harsh weather. The weather, in a sense, protects them from the world away from the mountaintop, but they are unable to escape their own thoughts, or their commitment to the cemetery.
Appelfeld's ongoing subject is, essentially, the lost world of the European Jews. A world that could not be saved, no matter what people did. The question at the beginning of this post was prompted by my reading of Unto the Soul. For, even in his fiction that depicts an earlier period, still the Holocaust looms in the distance. In his other novels, the jacket descriptions make it abundantly clear that the Jews in the novels are living in a world soon to be destroyed. Here, that destruction is further off. In each of his books, Appelfeld focuses on mundane life. Daily chores, routines, repetition, arguments. In Unto the Soul, we are repeatedly told of Gad milking the cow or sawing wood, as if they were sacraments, which in a sense they are. If these tasks don't get done, they will not have food or heat, the place will fall into disrepair, pilgrims will stop coming, they will die. In the other novels, the daily activity never ceases, even in the face of the oncoming horror, which none of the characters could possibly imagine.