Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Notes on Aharon Appelfeld

Is it possible to read an Aharon Appelfeld novel without being at all times conscious of the shadow of the Holocaust hanging over the narrative?

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.


Mr. Waggish said...

Appelfeld's books seem about split between pre and post-Holocaust narratives. (The answer to your initial question is certainly "no" for me.) I personally find the post- books much more effective than the pre- books. The morbid, anticipatory curtain seems to work against him in the pre- books, placing an artificial interpretation on events that seems too determined to be compelling. (I said this about Badenheim 1919 a while back.)

Richard said...

Thanks for the comment, Mr. Waggish. I was unaware of Appelfeld's "post" narratives. I'll have to look for them.

I agree with you that his "pre" books do seem heavily determined. I was struggling with that. I find his worlds believable, but I found myself wondering how a hypothetical reader who was somehow completely ignorant of the Holocaust would read them.

In your Badenheim 1939 review, I was pleased to see that you suggested that the Jews in the novel are "portrayed as unsympathetic victims". I was a bit tentative on this point, I think. It seemed to me that Appelfeld could be seen to be arguing in his fiction that the Jews in them, as you say, "were wrong", but I backed off from making that particular argument explicit.

"Appelfeld writes as though he is not just impatient with his own characters, but furious at them. He has internalized the material so deeply that these people can only be portrayed as fatally misled suckers, who have bought into the notion of civilized Germany so deeply that they have forsaken the roots and the only other people whom they can really trust: their own."

I think this passage in your post is to the point. As I said, I was tentative on this, in part because my readings of Badenheim and Age of Wonders are not fresh in my mind, and also, I think, because I rebel against the idea that these characters were necessarily wrong. This is why, in my next post, I brought up the seeming inevitability of the Holocaust. Appelfeld writes as if there was no chance that any such disaster could have been avoided, and that the Jews who bought into European civilization were simply fools for doing so. I have a hard time with this. I certainly do not wish to deny the history of European anti-Semitism, but I think it removes human agency from the equation, messy things like politics and economics and history.