Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Aharon Appelfeld and historical fact

I read Philip Roth's novel Operation Shylock years before I ever heard of Aharon Appelfeld. Which you could say only goes to show you how much attention I paid to that novel, since Appelfeld makes numerous appearances in it (before he learns of the "other" Philip Roth impersonating him, narrator-Roth's stated reason for going to Israel is to interview the Israeli novelist Appelfeld). In defense of my younger self, when I read the novel I was not nearly as informed as I am today about Israel and Palestine and the United States' role in that land's politics and history, and as for Appelfeld himself, his name simply must not have stuck in my mind, though I remember other aspects of the novel fairly well, all things considered. (I think a re-read is in order.)

Ellis Sharp wrote about Operation Shylock and Appelfeld not too long ago. The real-life Roth is an admirer and champion of Appelfeld. In his post, Ellis quotes for us a passage from Operation Shylock in which the imitation Roth lambasts the "real" Roth:
he had picked up Aharon's Tzili and was showing me how far he’d got in reading it. 'This stuff is real poison,' he said, 'Everything Diasporism fights against. Why do you think highly of this guy when he is the last thing we need? He will never relinquish anti-Semitism. It's the rock he builds his whole world on. Eternal and unshakeable anti-Semitism. The man is irreparably damaged by the Holocaust – why do you want to encourage people to read this fear-ridden stuff?'
This is interesting for a variety of reasons. One of the recurring ideas in Roth's fiction is this battle between "Diasporism" and, not orthodoxy, quite, but let's call it "un-Diasporism". Roth's characters assert, argue, and act out their own Jewishness, and their own humanity, in the face of community and family pressure on what being Jewish should entail, or in the face of responsibility to community needs. In his trip to Israel in Portnoy's Complaint, Portnoy is ridiculed for his Diasporism, whereas in the States, he is constantly aware of his Jewishness in the context of his experience of the WASP-y superculture.

In Appelfeld's fiction, there can be discerned a consistent rebuke to assimilationist Jews. Jews who tried to live within the larger society, who considered themselves German, say, or Austrian, only to have that sensibility mean nothing when the Holocaust rendered everything outside of racial categories null and void, seem perhaps foolish in the full light of history. I think there is a tendency to think that because the Holocaust did happen, that it or something similarly horrible was inevitable, given the centuries of entrenched European anti-Semitism. I think it could be argued that Appelfeld's fiction, undeniably powerful as much of it is (The Age of Wonders is particularly remarkable), in a sense contributes to this line of thinking. For in his fiction, the lives he depicts are doomed, are they not? We know the Holocaust looms, either a few years away, or perhaps decades. We know that their daily struggles will amount to nothing in the face of such an enormous, monstrous historical inevitability. For in the novels, the Holocaust is inevitable: don't they rely on our knowledge of it? And yet, let's be fair: it's not as if any of our daily struggles amount to much. We are all doomed, finally. But, we are not all doomed to succumb to a racialised, historical, group calamity.

A consistent rebuke to assimilationists may be discernible in his fiction, though I don't sense that this is Appelfeld's focus. He is writing about a world, a world that has ceased to exist. This world consists of Jews in various different guises. His Jews are just trying to live their lives the best they can, though no doubt they are often shown at their worst. Some are assimilated, some are not. Debates, arguments, about Jewishness are common among these Jews, just as they are among those in Roth's fiction. And his fiction, his world, is haunted by the unimaginable destruction that we know as readers is coming.

Ellis thinks of Appelfeld as no more than "at best an interesting minor novelist", but he reserves most of his criticism for the man and his role within the politics and memory of present-day Israel. Of the passage quoted above from Operation Shylock, Ellis says:
as a perception of Appelfeld the man it is stunningly accurate. Appelfeld’s sensibility is lodged deep in a past and in a society which no longer exist. This supplies an exemplary source for his fiction but is disabling when he has to address why the contemporary Zionist state is widely regarded with hostility. Representing the European condition as a seething sea of anti-Semitism is the lazy trope of Zionists not prepared to scrutinise the history of their sectarian state or the priviliges it affords them as members of the master religion. Roth, I think, shrewdly understands this. He sees that there are two Aharon Appelfelds – the novelist, whose work can only ever be judged on its own terms, and the wounded, fallible man.
At least Roth the novelist--the artist--shrewdly understands this point. I've seen some indications in interviews that Roth the man might not be quite as shrewd.

I have not read Appelfeld's very highly regarded memoir, A Story of a Life. The sense I get from some of the notices I've read is that it's not unlike some of his novels, with much passed over in silence. This, I expect, could make for some powerful reading. However, I find Ellis' lengthy piece from last summer on the memoir persuasive on certain key points. The piece is titled "The Blindness of Aharon Appelfeld". The blindness refers to Appelfeld's apparent inability or unwillingness to see the similarities between Nazi treatment of the Jews in Europe, and Israeli treatment of Arabs in Palestine. So saturated in anti-Semitism is Appelfeld (as the Operation Shylock passage has it) that he can't see what is happening right in front of him as he begins his life in what was still called Palestine when he arrived, soon to become Israel. Again, I haven't read the memoir, so I can't comment on it directly. But the problem Ellis identifies with it and Appelfeld's attitude about being a Jewish writer living in Jerusalem, is still all too common among Anglo-American liberals and leftists (not to mention others). Even though Israel's prestige has lessened considerably in recent years, liberals and leftists are still sensitive to the charge of anti-Semitism (a charge often carelessly made) and it's still common for Israel to be seen as a righteous cause (and as a bulwark of modernity in a sea of primitive fundamentalism), in the face of all facts or reasonable moral argument to the contrary.

In his piece, Ellis provides various passages from A Story of a Life, juxtaposing them with certain passed over historical facts about what was happening to the Arabs at the same time. Appelfeld, Ellis writes,
has never shown the slightest interest in any other perspective about his homeland other than that of Judaism. And where exactly was Appelfeld during the height of the Naqba [the catastrophe]? He doesn’t say. Palestinian suffering has no existence for Appelfeld: his gaze is inward. "The years 1946 to 1950 were years of verbiage; when life is full of ideology, words and clich├ęs abound. Everyone talked."
Ellis rightly points out that the years 1946 to 1950 were full of much more than words, but were in fact the years of mass, forcible dispossession of the Palestinians. But surely a memoirist, one who is not a political figure, is entitled to the inward gaze? Perhaps. However, Ellis is particularly compelling, I think, as he explains why this is a problem:
Appelfeld says, “We had come to Israel, as the saying went, ‘to build and to be rebuilt.’ (p. 116) That the building of the Jewish state was done on stolen property is a matter of complete indifference to Appelfeld: he completely erases Palestine and its indigenous population from his self-serving memoir. [. . .]

No one in the West would use the word "holocaust" without an awareness that that word now carries a specific historical resonance. But Appelfeld uses the word "catastrophe" (e.g. pp. 185, 187, 189) as if it had no resonance at all in the land in which he has spent most of his life. The Story of a Life is, at a foundational level, a work of Naqba denial.
[For an interesting article about the Naqba and Naqba denial, see here.]

Interestingly, Appelfeld's fiction relies on our knowledge of certain historical facts. And, it hardly needs to be said, the Holocaust is a huge one, hard to ignore or forget (even as there are those who choose to deny it). Yet, it seems that some of the effectiveness of Appelfeld's memoir ironically relies on the reader not knowing, or ignoring, certain facts, whether Appelfeld intends it or not. And the facts of the dispossession of the Palestinians and the imposition of the state of Israel are, unfortunately, not widely known. Indeed, in the West, huge amounts of counter-facts are held to be true. If Appelfeld's memoir resembles Ellis' account of it, and he has given me little to reason to think that it doesn't, then I think his memoir, as distinct from his fiction, is problematic. His fiction depicts, often powerfully, the lost world of European Jewry. Readers could quibble about the factual basis for some of these depictions if they wanted, I suppose, but finally they are works of the imagination, rooted in history and haunted by a single, brute, ugly fact--the fact of the Holocaust--a fact that cannot be quibbled with or denied. And yet we continually deny or ignore other monstrous facts.

A generalization to close this post: I tend to approach memoirs more or less the same way I approach novels, in the sense that they are literary creations of a time and place, in their cases explicitly from the writer's life. I don't expect the writer's memory to be flawless, and I'm not overly bothered by some degree of factual embellishment or artful shaping of the story being told. However, there are facts that are larger than the author, and with these I expect more care.

A further generalization intended to point toward future considerations of literature and its relation to life: The same is true of fiction.

But, some complicating questions: Which facts are larger than the author? I've asserted that, uncontroversially, the Holocaust is one such fact. Ellis Sharp, I think, has convincingly demonstrated that the Naqba is another. Which others? Who decides? How much might it matter in each given case?


Unknown said...

Richard, I haven't read Ellis' essay yet, but I have read (and greatly admired) much of Appelfeld, including his memoir. I apologize in advance for speaking off the top of my head here, but I think Ellis either does not give enough credit to -- or at least in your quotations of him -- does not allude to one of the central themes of "Story of a Life": the extremely troubled relationship between facts, history, and memory.

You say that Appelfeld's memoir seems to be flawed. Well, yes. Appelfeld would say that, too. In fact, I expect he would say that this flaw is the whole point. His book is not meant to chronicle events or give voice to history (any more than a novel ought to be obliged to do those things). Rather, it is a meditation on the limits of our understanding, the limits of memory, and, especially, the limits of language.

I don't mean to discredit what Ellis is arguing. But the absence of certain events or explanations is a hallmark of Appelfeld. You rightly point out that the Holocaust is absent but present in many of his novels. That the reader is able to fill in that absence.

But in his memoir, the reader is not able to do all of that work. This does not mean that Appelfeld is denying certain facts. I think it just means that he is being faithful to his memory and what that memory means. Again, as you say, this is problematic. But that's the point.

My point of view, for what it's worth, can be found in greater coherence here:


Richard said...

Hi Brendan, thanks for commenting.

As it happens, I read your review earlier this morning. I appreciate what you're saying. I was reluctant to get too into a discussion of the memoir, or rely too heavily on Ellis' argument for the point I was trying to make... which was more of a question, really.

"it is a meditation on the limits of our understanding, the limits of memory, and, especially, the limits of language" I like this, and to be fair, this is what I imagined the memoir essentially was (again, not having yet read it). I guess I'm getting into that old territory of what the writer's responsibility is. I'm not altogether sure myself, hence this post. I'm reluctant, of course, to set anything like rules or guidelines for writers to follow. I certainly don't expect a writer's memoir (or novel!) to "chronicle events or give voice to history". I was trying to make that clear in my post, while still asking my questions, with perhaps limited success.

I wonder what our critical response would be to a writer of similar stature and ability writing a memoir like this, say about a childhood spent in war-time Germany or Austria, which elided the Holocaust altogether, not passing over it in silence as Appelfeld does in his novels, but writing as if it either hadn't happened, or was inconsequential. It's difficult to make a fair analogy, but I suspect the response would be quite different to that given to Appelfeld's memoir.

But clearly I'll have to read the memoir to decide for myself.

Thanks again.

Ellis said...

I seem to recall Richard Nixon had a troubled relationship between the facts and his memory of them...
There really is no doubt of Appelfeld's position, either in his memoir or in his interviews.
Appelfeld has a new memoir out in English, 'A Table for One' (trans. Aloma Halter). Apparently it partly celebrates cafe culture in Jerusalem: "Only in a Jerusalem cafe do I feel the freedom of imagination." I haven't yet read the memoir but when one considers the history of Jerusalem since the founding of Israel, the institutionalized sectarian discrimination against Israel Arabs in that city, and the continuing violent seizure of Palestinian land and property there, it suggests an extraordinary complacency on Appelfeld's part. Reviewing the book in the Times Literary Supplement (November 30) Toby Lichtig commented that Appelfeld was 'audibly silent on Palestinian life'. Silent on Palestinian death, too.