A Quiet Autonomy of Language

Most discussion of the work of Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld eventually focuses on Appelfeld's status as a "Holocaust writer," even if it is acknowledged that in his novels the deportation of European Jews to the death camps and to their murder there is not directly depicted, nor are the horrors experienced there by those who managed to escape or survive their attempted murder explicitly recalled, rarely even mentioned. The silence about the massacre itself is taken to be a strategic silence, whereby the Holocaust looms even larger for its absence in Appelfeld's narratives.

I don't necessarily disagree that Appelfeld's consistent elision of the Holocaust has the effect of drawing the reader's attention to that elision, but perhaps it would be just as true to Appelfeld's intentions and achievement to regard his subject not as the Holocaust, nor even as the conditions, attitudes, or assumptions that preceded and, to a lesser extent, succeeded the event itself, but more plainly as the lives lived by diasporan European Jews prior to the cultural cataclysm represented by the Holocaust, as well as the subsequent response to the extinction of that way of life by those who remained. Applefeld's fiction seems to me much more concerned with the specific experiences of specific characters in a specific time and place than in subsuming those experiences into some overarching abstraction, even one as potent as the Holocaust has become.

For this reason, I also have trouble reading Appelfeld's novels as allegories, as many other reviewers and critics seem to do, although in their relative brevity and episodic structure they undeniably do seem closer to fabulation than to slice-of-life realism. The two most recent of his novels to be translated into English, All Whom I Have Loved and Laish, might especially seem to invite allegorical interprepation, but while I would not begrudge readers their attempt to find in these novels the kind of accessible "meaning" usually associated with allegory, assuming that the allegorical content is an adequate measure of what Appelfeld's fiction has to offer seems to me at best mistaken and at worst just a way of assigning it to some manageable category that excuses inattentive reading.

Appelfeld is often enough compared to Kafka, but this comparison in turn generally assumes that Kafka's fiction is allegorical in a more or less overt way. But of course Kafka created narratives that appear to incorporate an allegorical level of meaning only to complicate and ultimately to deny that meaning. Kafka's world purports to be comprehensible, its ultimate sense to be discovered just around the next narrative turn, but it is finally a world of no-sense, or, more accurately, only of the aesthetic sense made through its own impeccable construction. Kafka is at pains to give his inscrutable world as much substance and texture as is necessary to make it. . .real. The point of reading Kafka's fiction is not, it seems to me, to arrive at a conclusion that the world we live in is absurd, or frightening, or grotesque, but that the world Kafka has created is self-sustaining and entirely logical.

If Kafka is a touchstone in understanding the work of Aharon Applefeld, then something like this focus on texture, on the imaginatively concrete, must be true of Appelfeld's fiction as well. Like Kafka, Appelfeld in all of his novels is concerned above all to sustain the integrity of his invoked world, to make the reader's experience of that world as palpable as the more customary world assumed in most novels. Indeed, if part of Appelfeld's ambition as a fiction writer is to recapture the lost world of prewar European Jewry, then insuring that the particulars remain in the foreground of the reader's attention seems all the more necessary, even if those particulars must unavoidably be filtered through fallible and subjective retrospection.

All Whom I Have Loved is a characteristic foray into recollected experience, transformed into a narrative of confusion, loss, and the imminent dissolution of all ties to life as it had been known. The story is narrated by Paul Rosenfeld, another of the fictional stand-ins for the young Aharon Appelfeld that we find in numerous Appelfeld novels, and the experiences he relates again seem variations on the essential core of experience Appelfeld brought with him when he managed to emigrate to Israel a year after the war ended. Paul is separated first from his father, a struggling artist, in an acrimonious divorce from Paul's mother, with whom Paul lives afterwards until he comes to feel neglected by her in her efforts to assimilate into the local community--she ultimately marries a schoolteacher colleague, a gentile--and then goes to live with the penurious father. While still living with his mother, Paul is cared for by Halina, a local peasant girl whom Paul eventually witnesses being murdered by her abusive boyfriend. After going with his father (including on a trip to Bucharest, where the father briefly experiences renewed hope in his artistic career, only to have it come to nothing), Paul learns his mother has become sick with typhus, from which she shortly dies. The narrative concludes with the shooting of Paul's father during an attempted robbery of a Jewish store and with Paul facing an anarchic future.

The bare bones of this story--a young Jewish boy growing up in Eastern Europe with some degree of turmoil and/or premature tragedy afflicting his family while the even greater trauma of persecution is beginning to build--recurs in several of Appelfeld's novels. This makes his body of work as a whole more broadly representative, as a new reader can start with any one of the novels and immediately become acquainted with Appelfeld's peristent themes and methods. Since the quality of the novels is remarkably consistent as well--at least in those that have gotten to us English speakers in translation--such a reader can be fairly well assured he/she is getting an illustrative sample of Applefeld's accomplishments as a writer of fiction. It also makes the "allegorical" element of Appelfeld's fiction a less relevant and less helpful orientation to his work for the already committed reader. The symbolic implications of the setting and events related are already apparent enough, and what keeps one reading Appelfeld is less the payoff in "meaning" than an interest in how he will again reshape a particular set of experiences into an engrossing fiction that draws us deeper into the specificity of its recreated world.

A careful reading of All Whom I Have Loved would dwell on a moment such as this:

The next day I stood by the door and said good-bye to Mother. I did not cry. I felt the anguish of parting later, in the bedroom amidst the rumpled bed and scattered clothes. It was a sunny day, and the yard behind the house was filled with light. We went out, and Halina immediately began to show me her wonders: she walked on her hands and then made noises like the cawing of crows; she imitated sheep and cows, frogs, and cuckoos. And for a moment she seemed to be not a person but an amazing animal that knew how to do everything that animals can do: to climb trees nimbly, to crawl, to leap over fences, and to fly. Halina lost no time in trying to teach me her skills, but I was far from agile and scarcely capable of producing a single whistle.
Then we rolled in the grass. Halina was slender and very nimble. I tried hard to catch her, but she ran fast and could hop like a rabbit. I stared at her and knew: I would never be able to do the same.

Not only is this passage notable for its aptly chosen detail--"in the bedroom amidst the rumpled bed and scattered clothes"--and not only does it provide us with an episode of brightness and joy as a balance to the descending gloom that we readers of Paul's narrative can always sense (and the joy is in this case itself leavened by Paul's underlying sadness at the separation from his mother), but to the extent it invites us to incorporate the scene into the abstract allegorical narrative paralleling the actual narrative of his experiences that Paul relates we should be wary of effacing the latter while agreeing to the former. Paul's "I would never be able to do the same" might point us to the incipient terror of the Holocaust, or more generally Paul's long-term inability to indulge in simple pleasures, but it might also, almost certainly does, refer to his literal inability to "run fast" and "hop like a rabbit," at this specific time and place as well as in the projected future. That Paul is "far from agile" is a simple matter of fact, however much we might want to see it as a symptom of some larger metaphysical condition.

If anything, Laish even more obviously seems to court an allegorical interpretation, as it is structured explicitly as a journey, the figurative status of which is further reinforced by the cast of characters and the purpose of their journey: At some unspecified point late in the nineteenth century, an untidy group of Jews is making its way in a caravan across Eastern Europe, its stated mission to reach a point of embarkation to Jerusalem. The group consists of traders, ex-convicts, religious seekers, and various other vulnerable people who have joined up with the caravan over the years. The story of their journey is related by a teenage boy, for whom of course the journey acts as an initiation into the ways of the world but who really acts more as a dispassionate observer of the motley assortment of pilgrims and their interactions with the gentiles they encounter. The caravan more or less falls apart by the time it reaches the port of Galacz, but a few of them do remain, their ultimate fate uncertain as they prepare to board ship and the narrator notes that "It appeared to me that all those who had fled were standing at some distance and staring at us."

It would be easy enough to take this story as "the story" of Modern Jewry prior to the founding of Israel, upon the precipice of which the survivors of the caravan symbolically stand. And to some degree it is that story. But it is hard to believe that Appelfeld wrote the novel merely, or even primarily, to advance such a story through what is finally one of the hoariest of devices, the journey narrative. The variety of characters presented and experiences related presses upon the reader's attention more than the goal of the journey itself, and the effect seems more picaresque than emblematic. If Laish does recall Kafka in leaving the caravan and its origins somewhat enigmatic, it also never resolves the enigma into something more readily accessibile to interpretation.

Like All Whom I Have LovedLaish is composed in short, compact chapters, each relating a brief episode or mini-narrative in Appelfeld's characteristically reticent prose. (At least this is the persistent impression I get from the translations I have read; to examine Appelfeld's prose style more thoroughly would require a facility with Hebrew I don't myself possess.) Even more than in All Whom I Have Loved, in Laish this manner of writing calls attention less to the narrative as a whole, its forward momentum, and more to the self-sufficiency, both in language and in structure, of these discreet parts. Appelfeld is another of those writers who, for me at least, blurs the line between poetry and fiction, in this case by working against the pull of allegory and preserving space for a quiet autonomy of language. To read Laish simply for the meaning conveyed by its plot is to willfully overlook its more impressive effort to find the words that might begin to render experiences that at some point become essentially inexpressible. This is the greater triumph of all of Appelfeld's work.


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