Writing is an intimate act’

In conversation with Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld.

Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld (photo credit: YORAM ASCHHEIM/THE HEBREW UNIVERSITY OF JERUSALEM)
Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld
CELEBRATED ISRAELI novelist and recipient of a cornucopia of literary prizes, Aharon Appelfeld was born in 1932 in the village of Jadova, in the former Kingdom of Romania, now Ukraine. At the age of nine, the Romanian Army entered his village and shot his mother and grandmother. Appelfeld and his father were sent to a Transnistria concentration camp. Appelfeld escaped and hid in forests for over two years, joining the Soviet army as a kitchen boy in 1944. Eventually, he made his way to Israel, arriving in 1947. In 1960, he was reunited with his father, whom he discovered had also gone to Israel. Appelfeld’s powerful and evocative writing is fueled by the trauma of his young years, embedded in his narrative as metaphor and allusion.
Routine is important to Aharon Appelfeld. Almost every morning at 8:30 a.m. he sits at his simple wooden desk, tucked in a tiny room in the corner of his Jerusalem apartment. He picks up his pen and continues writing his current book in a neat and careful hand.
He describes the process as “writing a piece of his soul,” and the act of transference to paper as both physically and emotionally exhausting. “Think, feel, remember, imagine – you have to mobilize all of these,” he explains.
The narratives of his books are fed by the horrors of his Holocaust experience as a young boy.
There was a time when every nightly slumber delivered Appelfeld into endless nightmares. Nowadays, he “doesn’t remember them,” though he seems to imply that he has some knowledge that they still play out during his sleeping hours.
His desk has a litter of piles of papers with a small, clear area in front of his chair where the current manuscript lies – plain, white A4-size pages, numbered in the top, right-hand corner, his small, clear script moves across and down each page, the lines increasingly sloping to the left as they transcend the page.
The last of this morning’s pages lies carelessly on the top of a loosely scattered pile, as yet unencumbered by the profusion of “corrections” that will be layered onto the page as the narrative emerges and the book progresses.
I feel grateful to have visited this inner sanctum. Though I sensed an initial reluctance when I first asked if I could see his “office,” it seems the resistance was related to his professed discomfort at the untidiness of his papers and not a breach of privacy. The room is a place of great intimacy for him and I now realize that asking to see it was as if I had asked to see his bedroom with an unmade bed as some sort of testimony to a night’s activities.
I offered the reassurance that I would not be able to discern any meaning from his writing, as I can read little of the printed script of Hebrew, and am totally unable to discern any meaning in the cursive written form.
“They will be like Chinese characters for you,” he quips as he shows me into the room. I feel sure that I am allowed to enter this most private of corners of his home because nothing that he has written will be known to me.
FOR APPLEFELD, writing is a “sensual art, like every art,” and the touch and feel of the paper is an important part of the creative process.
“Writing is an intimate act,” he explains, when describing his relationship to pen and paper.
He used to type his manuscript himself, and found some satisfaction in moving the handwritten pages, with their copious corrections, into their neat, final typed version. More recently, finding the process tiring, he has dictated to a typist, all the while making corrections as the words are transferred into a final pristine copy.
Using a computer in the initial stages of drafting is not something he has ever considered, viewing it as “a barrier” to the creative process.
In his office, a small bookcase stands on the wall to the right of his desk and a painting of somber hues sits at the back edge of his desk, resting against the wall; the canvas is an early work by his artist son, Meir, and shows Appelfeld’s daughter sitting in a reflective pose. It both creates and reflects quietude and solemnness – resonant with the mood of the room.
Appelfeld’s routine used to take him each morning to a coffee bar to write, but now there is no longer an establishment without the incessant “boom, boom” of music, he explains, and so his morning ritual has become a retreat into the total silence of his home office.
HIS IS a typical Israeli home, with a salon (living room), unpretentious, timeless furniture, and neat bookshelves (several holding the 35 foreign-language versions his books have been translated into). A painting by his son hangs above the sofa, its intrinsic lucent quality evoking a glow in the slightly shadowy room, a luminance that seems to come from within the painting itself. There is a resonance here between the creative expression of father and son, a sense of revealing a deeper essence.
I wonder if he writes letters. There is no one left to write to, he explains. All of his friends were 20 or 30 years older than Appelfeld and have all long since died. He casually mentions Gershom Scholem as part of that circle. He died almost 40 years ago.
Appelfeld continues with a reflection on the demise of Yiddish writers, and when I mention the collection of Yiddish books that have been housed in that most unlikely of locations – the semi-derelict Tel Aviv Central Bus Station – he calls it a “cemetery, not a library.”
There is a profound sense of loss that Yiddish works are no longer written and can no longer be read. I feel the emptiness that the loss of friends brings, especially for someone steeped in the experience of loss during formative childhood years. But this is not a conversation that is saddening. His eyes twinkle and his wry humor is always simmering beneath his words. I leave him permeated by warmth and good humor.