Finding the right words

How does a master of silence become a master of prose?

aharon book 88 298 (photo credit: )
aharon book 88 298
(photo credit: )
'I don't believe in preaching. I'm not a rabbi. I'm not a political leader. A writer should cling to the truth. Political language never goes to the truth. You see the world in white and black' All Whom I Have Loved By Aharon Appelfeld Schocken 256 pages; $23 For a master of words, Aharon Appelfeld has an unlikely faith in the power of silence. "Silence is actually the highest language," he says. "Language doesn't always reveal; language can camouflage." The Holocaust sensitized him to quiet. After his mother was murdered and his father deported to a labor camp, when Appelfeld was nine, he wandered the Ukrainian forests for three years as a fugitive from the Nazis. "I understood that less is more - speak less and you'll be less endangered." Seated in his Jerusalem home, Appelfeld at 75 is still a man of few words. Yet like his elliptical prose, once celebrated by Primo Levi as "eloquent through reticence," his frugal remarks are pregnant with insight. Short and round-faced with a cherubic smile, he is a fatherly figure with a sonorous voice and wide, unblinking blue eyes. The author of 32 books, Appelfeld occupies a unique place in the Hebrew literary firmament. He has lived here for six decades, but he writes about Europe. Although often discussed as a "Holocaust writer," his novels have the ahistorical feel of dark fairy tales and he refrains from specifying dates or directly mentioning the Nazis. In a country where writers are traditionally looked to as prophets, he departs from fellow novelists A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman and Amos Oz in refusing to fulfill the role of social critic. "I don't believe in preaching. I'm not a rabbi. I'm not a political leader. A writer should cling to the truth. Political language never goes to the truth. You see the world in white and black." He achieved widespread international renown in 1980 with the English-language publication of Badenheim 1939. Recently reissued in Penguin's Modern Classics series, the novel depicts the fripperies of bourgeois vacationers at an Austrian resort town, who remain stubbornly blind to the encroaching realities of the Final Solution. The historical backdrop is implied rather than stated. "The reader will assume that there was a Hitler who wanted to kill all the Jews. I'm not dealing with history. I am exploring a small area - self-deception." His novels are set in the years immediately before and after, rather than during, the Holocaust. "In the periphery there is still life. People are loving. People are hating. But in a concentration camp, you are reduced after week two to less than a human being. I don't deal in this particular area, that is the heart of the Holocaust, because there you are not any more what you are. In the heart, you cannot argue. There is no reason anymore. The hunger reduces you to an animal." By portraying prewar European Jewry living in denial of anti-Semitism, Appelfeld has been accused of passing judgment on Hitler's victims. In 1983, Harvard academic Ruth Wisse denigrated his novels as "pitiless moral fables, more damning of the victims than of the crime committed against them." "Wisse belongs to a group of Yiddish scholars who want to idealize Jewish people, so all the victims are holy," says Appelfeld. "They are used to sentimental literature, not free literature. They criticized my writing for being too objective and dry." Appelfeld's preoccupation with Jewish self-cozening stems from his childhood. His parents were secular, German-speakers who scorned the Yiddish spoken by his pious grandparents. "All around us was a trap, but an assimilated Jew couldn't see it." Appelfeld remembers his father in 1935 describing Hitler as an "episode." He was younger than survivor-writers Primo Levi, Imre Kertesz and Elie Wiesel. "The Holocaust is part of my body and soul but because I was a child I was happy also. I was afraid, true. I'd lost my parents. But the memory of a child is a small memory." In his 2005 memoir, The Story of a Life, Appelfeld offers fragmentary recollections of his prewar childhood in Czernowitz, Romania (now Ukraine). He recounts his escape in 1941 from the camp to which he was deported with his father. Fortunately for Appelfeld, the Nazis had not yet electrified the fence. For three years, he lived as a feral child, scavenging for food in the forest. He found temporary shelter as a housekeeper for a prostitute and was taken under the wing of a party of horse thieves. Blond and blue eyed, he concealed his Jewishness. After the war, he spent one year working as a kitchen hand for the Russian army. When he arrived in Palestine at 14, he was almost mute. "When you do not speak for years, you get mute. I was able to speak, but in a very limited way - a word, two words, but not full sentences. Even today I have some difficulties." As immigrants were instructed to forget their pasts and devote themselves to the new Zionist state, Appelfeld tried in vain to emulate the iconic bronzed kibbutzniks and army heroes. "In the '40s and early '50s, Israel was anti-Jewish - 'No more spiritual matters! No more religious matters! Be normal!' But I could not accept this because this was not me. My soul belonged to Europe." Readers of Appelfeld's memoir would be unaware that he was reunited with his father, presumed dead, after 20 years. He is unsure whether he will ever write about the event. "I'm dealing now with something that was a miracle. You need another language." His early works depicted the experiences of Israeli Holocaust survivors, unable to rid themselves of their memories. "The survivors at the beginning were very afraid of my work because they felt that I was speaking something of their inner world. They used to say about the Holocaust: 'There cannot be fiction, only testimony.'" In a country determined to repress the memory of a people led like sheep to their slaughter, his books were often viewed as unpatriotic assaults on the national self-image. Until the '80s, his work was more widely read abroad. "There was a society - a leadership - that wanted to create a new nation. In the '80s, people began not to see things only in ideological terms. It was clear that Israel was no more than its occupants. It's a society of people, who are joyful, who have pains, and some of them are lonely and some of them are rich." AFTER HIS early spell of writing about the immigrant experience, Appelfeld's novels have all been set in Europe. "Europe is the hidden source, the hidden roots, of the Jewish people. When I try to understand a phenomenon, I'm going back to Europe." The Shoah is not his subject: "The Holocaust is gigantic. How can a writer write about the Holocaust? I can only write about individuals." He takes issue with writers who affect to give voice to history's victims. "I never saw myself as someone who could take all the 6 million killed Jews on my shoulders and say, 'I am your voice.' I felt that this was pretentious, without modesty." He revisits autobiographical territory in his new book, All Whom I Have Loved. Set in his native city of Czernowitz, the novel is narrated by Paul Rosenfeld, the only child of secular Jewish parents, who finds himself drawn to the rituals and language of the neighboring "bearded Jews." Paul's mother, Henia, warns him: "Those people darken the world with their primitive rituals." Appelfeld too embarrassed his parents with questions about Orthodox Jews: "'What are they? Why are we different? Why are they different?' I was very much attracted by their behavior, their dress, their way of speaking." Henia divorces Paul's artist father, Arthur, converting to Christianity to marry a Ruthenian Christian, Andre. Once a noted avant-garde painter, Arthur sinks into depression and alcoholism as his work is increasingly derided as degenerate. His decline mirrors the rise of fascism. Paul is exempted from school under the false pretence of suffering from asthma; Appelfeld's formal education also ended at age nine, with the outbreak of World War II. Writing from the perspective of a child comes naturally to Appelfeld. "We have a child in ourselves. We have an adult in ourselves. We have a woman in ourselves. We have a grandparent in ourselves. So our 'I' is complicated, you see. The moment I reveal the child in me, I can write about it." After rising from the couch, he disappears down the hall and returns with an autographed copy of The Story of a Life. Taking this as my cue to leave, I ask if there's anything else he'd like to discuss. "I have told you all my secrets," he replies.