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This article is taken from PN Review 141, Volume 28 Number 1, September - October 2001.Aharon Appelfeld: A Tribute
[The Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld retired in June this year after 30 years at the University of Beersheva in the Negev. Gabriel Josipovici was invited to contribute to the celebrations.]
1. I come before you today with two conflicting emotions. On the one hand pride and pleasure that I should have been asked to contribute to the celebration of the artistic and spiritual quality of the work of Aharon Appelfeld; and on the other hand, intense embarrassment. Why embarrassment? Imagine a Japanese critic who does not speak or read English, coming to Britain to speak about the work of Virginia Woolf or Muriel Spark. No matter how intelligent or sensitive he might be, no-one will take him seriously. Why was he invited? People will ask. How can he presume to talk about these writers with any kind of authority when he cannot read them in the original? In my case the presumptuousness is even greater, for Appelfeld has often said in interviews that it was the Hebrew language that led him both to literature and to Judaism. To Philip Roth he even confessed that 'the Hebrew language taught me to think'. What is someone who has only learned biblical Hebrew late in life, and who can only read with any confidence the narrative portions of the Hebrew Bible, who cannot therefore begin to read modern Hebrew prose, to do in the face of such remarks, except to keep quiet?
2. And yet, when I put those scruples to the organisers of this happy event, they were brushed aside. It seemed that I was wanted, Hebrew or no Hebrew. Why? What, I wondered, might I, in my ignorance of the Hebrew language and my relative ignorance of Jewish traditions and of East European Jewry, all of which would seem to be central to Appelfeld's work, have to contribute? Though my own family name is Romanian, and my father's family came, apparently, from Jassy, there is no way in which I can think of myself as a Romanian Jew. My father's family had settled in Egypt in the nineteenth century and left their roots behind, and anyway I last saw my father when I was three and know very little about his side of the family. Though my mother's father came from Odessa, he died when my mother was five and I have no contact with members of his family. Only my mother's maternal family are known to me, Jews partly Italian and partly Levantine for many generations. Again, though I was touched by the war, as a child in France, my mother and I escaped incarceration and the horrors inflicted on others. Though I have in recent years become interested in the Jewish side of my being and very interested in the Hebrew Scriptures, in part due to my acquaintance with Aharon and his work, I have no real inwardness with these matters.
What then? I am a writer, a novelist, though formed, apart from Kafka, by a very different tradition to that of Appelfeld: Proust, Eliot, Stevens, Claude Simon and Marguerite Duras are some of the writers who helped me discover who I was and what I wanted to do - the artists of European Modernism and its aftermath. What has such a writer to do with Appelfeld?
3. As it turns out, quite a lot. I early on discovered that I was not interested in the realist novel, either in its classic or its contemporary form: Balzac and George Eliot, even Tolstoy, felt very alien to me, as did writers like Anthony Powell and David Lodge in England, though I could enjoy and admire their books. They seemed to belong to a French or an English or a Russian society in ways that kept me outside, excluded me, and their mode of writing - perhaps for that reason - left me cold. Perhaps my sense of closeness to European Modernism stemmed from the fact that I myself felt displaced, writing in a language not my own, but without feeling - like Nabokov or Beckett - that there was a native language I had abandoned, willingly or unwillingly. Even more difficult was the sense that if I was not inward with the English language I was even less inward with English society, and never would be, not even with Anglo- Jewish society. Proust and Eliot and Kafka, on the other hand, gave me a sense of how one can start with an acknowledgement of failure, with a sense that one will never succeed in saying - or even knowing - what one wants, but use that as a way in to authentic speech. And, in the wake of these writers, others, like Simon and Duras, showed me how one could dispense with anecdotes, plotting and all the - to me - tedious machinations of the realist novel, and make works that would grow like plants or acquire the firmness of a piece of crystal. And, in the wake of these writers I discovered a number of others, slightly older contemporaries, in every country in the world, who seemed to be working from the same premises and moved me for the same reasons: Georges Perec in France; Thomas Bernhard in Austria; Yaacov Shabtai here in Israel. And Appelfeld. For on first reading him I felt that unmistakable sense that here was something for me. That was in the early eighties, and I have been reading him ever since. Some of his books I have liked more than others; but always I have felt this double sense of being at once completely at home and yet meeting something that was clearly Other; of hearing a voice that was utterly different from mine, and yet could help me find my own. It matters, of course, that I cannot read him in the original, but even in translation I hear that voice, just as Keats heard the voice of Homer, loud and clear, when he first looked into Chapman's translation.
What I want to do today is, in the short time at my disposal, to try and understand, for myself and with you, why it is that Appelfeld's books speak to one who is a foreigner in so many ways in this immediate and powerful fashion.
4. There is a novel of Appelfeld's called The Conversion. It is set, as always with him, in an indeterminate time and place, though, like the bulk of his books, the time is the thirties of the last century and the place is Eastern Central Europe. It deals with people who convert from Judaism to Christianity to further their careers and also to get rid of the burden of alienation; and it shows how, by doing so, they lose an essential part of themselves and condemn themselves to a kind of secret despair. This is a relatively straightforward scheme, and in that it is uncharacteristic. Usually Appelfeld's novels are more complex, dealing with the conflicting pressures on Jews in that time and place, but also with the variety of responses to those conflicts. In one of the richest and subtlest of these, The Healer, a family travels from Vienna to the Carpathian Mountains in search of a wonder-working rabbi who might be able to cure the daughter of a mysterious disease afflicting her. For the mother this is a return to her roots; for the father, it is a shameful and shaming pandering to superstition. For him the sight of his wife and daughter listening to the old rabbi and following his instructions, learning Hebrew and Hebrew prayers, is a source of irritation, even anger, in ways he can't quite explain to himself. He has the feeling that the two women are in the process of entering a convent - an interesting variant on the conversion motif, and one which in this book we are not allowed to view in a purely negative way. In fact we as readers are made to work to decide where we stand on this: is Felix simply a typical example of the assimilated urban Jew whose only desire is to put his Jewishness behind him, and whose scepticism about the wonder-working rabbi is the result of his unwillingness to see the truth about himself and his Jewishness? Is the healer right when he implies that nothing he says will be of any help to the girl or her parents if it is met only by Felix's scepticism? Or is there perhaps something in Felix's sense that the kind of conversion experience the rabbi is offering and mother and daughter are embarked on is something profoundly un-Jewish, something profoundly Christian? What does conversion mean now?
As Felix and his son return to Vienna on the train, leaving mother and daughter behind, he enters into conversation with a beautiful and distinguished-looking woman in the dining-car. For some reason he cannot explain to himself he is drawn to this woman, even though she appears to want to be left alone. As in all the conversations in this novel - and in Appelfeld generally - it is less a dialogue than a case of each person speaking out their hidden thoughts and obsessions, using the other as a way of exonerating themselves. 'One must return home in gladness,' Felix says to her, 'especially when home is Vienna.' 'If one loves a city,' he goes on, 'it becomes one's native city. Closeness is important, delicate contact with the trees.' 'Are you a religious man?' she asks, and he, though at first taken aback, responds that he is not religious, though he has a feeling for the arts and in his youth wanted to study medicine. 'Too bad,' she says, and when he asks why, she responds: 'Because the Church gives life meaning.' Felix, stunned, takes a while to respond, but then comes back with: 'I am Jewish, madam, Jewish by birth.' At which she says: 'I too was a Jew.' 'You converted?' he asks. 'I did.' 'What brought about such a decision?' 'What do you mean?' she asks. 'Faith. Without faith one doesn't take a step like that.' 'I have never been close to religious faith,' whispers Felix. 'Nor was I,' she responds, 'until I discovered the Church. The Jews have long since lost their faith. What remains to them is only a routine maintained by force of habit, but they have no living faith.' 'And the Church has it?' he asks. 'I, at any rate, found it,' she responds. 'Strange,' he says, 'It's hard to imagine myself kneeling.' 'That's precisely the beginning of faith,' she replies. 'You must learn self-abnegation.'
The lady, it turns out, is a doctor herself. When she hears of the reasons for Felix's having left Vienna she is full of sympathy: it's marvellous, she says, that his daughter has 'accepted the faith of her ancestors'. Every doctor knows, she says, that without faith there is no healing. And when Felix asks if she thinks his daughter has done the right thing, she comes out with: 'Bear one thing in mind: one must never give in to melancholy and despair. Despair, more than anything else, is man's enemy. Despair is heresy. A man must cling to the virtues of the Creator and he is forbidden to despair.' But she at once feels that she has gone too far. 'Pardon me. I didn't intend to give a sermon.'
Shortly after, the train is stopped and officials come on board to check their papers. When they pull Felix out with the remark: 'We've got ourselves a Jew', the lady imperiously commands, from the other end of the carriage: 'Leave that man alone', and they return the documents and leave the carriage. Felix goes to thank her and discovers that the book she is reading is, as he had suspected, St Augustine's Confessions.
I have quoted this little exchange at considerable length because it helps us to see the remarkable way in which Appelfeld complicates what had at first seemed like a simple enough equation: urban assimilated Jew denies his roots, while his more open and flexible wife finds a way to return to them. Suddenly we begin to wonder if there may not perhaps be a grain of truth in Felix's assertion that his wife and daughter are in effect entering a convent. Conversion, even conversion to this simple pietistic form of Judaism, is suddenly seen to be a deeply Christian and unJewish action. Cultural historians have pointed out the parallels with Christian pietism of the Hasidic revival in Eastern Europe, but Appelfeld is not making a historical point but a general one. Was Felix right all along then?
The scene we have been looking at is the penultimate one in the book. The train arrives in Vienna, Felix and his son get home, and he finds, to his horror, that their old maidservant, whom they had left in charge of the house, has rummaged in all the drawers, drunk all their liquor, slept in the marital bed, taken down the pictures in the living room and bedroom and replaced them with cheap examples of Christian iconography. The last paragraph goes like this:
Two awkward pictures hung over the head of the bed. One was Jesus at his mother's bosom and the other the crucifixion. Drops of blood dripped from his arms. 'Take that out of here,' he wanted to shout. But he was exhausted. Weariness penetrated every limb of his body. He opened the window and threw them out into the garden. That act, accomplished, with his last strength, prostrated him on the pillows like a corpse, and he immediately sank into sleep.
Felix has acted at last, instead of merely reacting, as he has been doing all along. But that action has in it also a quality of despair, as the last sentence, so reminiscent of Kafka, makes clear. And we remember the lady doctor's words: 'Despair is heresy. A man must cling to the virtues of the Creator and he is forbidden to despair.' This is a Jewish as well as a Christian injunction. Typically, it has been theologised in Christianity, where despair is seen as a form of inverted pride, the first sin, an assertion that 'I alone cannot be saved by Jesus Christ', and so a repetition of Satan's original refusal to submit himself to the will of God. But though it is put differently in the Jewish tradition, it is the same imperative, and Appelfeld has often repeated it: keeping life going even in the darkest times, even when there appears to be no hope at all, is absolutely fundamental, for by one's very existence one testifies to one's belief in God, who made us. He talks in one of his lectures, for instance, about what those who died in the Holocaust have left us: 'In their self-sacrifice on the brink of the abyss they were bequeathing us not only life but also the ultimate significance of their own existence.'
In the light of this how are we to read the end of The Healer? And there is no doubt that in novels like those of Virginia Woolf and Aharon Appelfeld, where there is no obvious closure at the level of plot, the ending of the book acquires enormous significance. Does it not bring to the fore what has been latent throughout, that Felix is a being in despair, a being who refuses to recognise himself and therefore finds no reason for existing? The end merely shows us Felix giving way to that latent despair. Would not faith of the kind demonstrated by his wife and the lady doctor have saved him from this?
I'm not sure. Felix's action and collapse in that last paragraph can be read as despair, but it can also be read as triumphant assertion: at the end of his tether, exhausted by the journey and all he has been through, he finally makes one vital and significant gesture, which shows him who and what he is. Both readings are simplifications. Both readings would fit a theological or even a psychological tract; the wonder of art, of fiction, of this fiction, is that it holds both readings in tension. As in life, there are no final answers, and the task of the artist, if he is to be true to life, is precisely not to give us answers but to reveal an action?
5. This is so important that we need to spend a little time exploring what it means. Why do I use the term reveal here? Why do I use the term an action?
Let me turn to another of Appelfeld's finest works, The Age of Wonders, to help us in our exploration.
That novel, as you all know, is divided into two parts. In the first a nameless boy is growing up in an intellectual and assimilated family somewhere in Bukovina, with a growing awareness that the clouds are darkening the sky, and that part ends, shockingly, with the Jews of the town being herded into cattle trucks en route to the camps. In the second part a man called Bruno, who might or might not be the same as the 'I' of the first part, returns from Jerusalem, where he now lives, to his home town in Bukovina and spends three weeks wandering around it, taking in the way it has changed and the way it has it has remained the same, and bumping into people he had known as a child and who have survived. Most of these have done so by conversion and by various acts of cowardice. For them Bruno is an evil spirit come to torment them, to remind them of what they would rather forget. One of these is the convert Furst. Actually it is the grandfather who had 'managed to get himself baptised in the quiet and easy-going days of the Emperor Franz Josef'. Bruno enters the tobacconist's shop where he sees the old man sitting, smoking his pipe. Confronted with this ghost from the past the old man utters a series of confusing and disconnected phrases: 'My brother - my brother. I myself did not have the courage.' And, hitting himself fiercely on the forehead with his fist: 'This is the louse. His name is August. This is the louse. His name is August.' Bruno, in the paragraph which ends this chapter, quietly fills us in:
The Fursts were honest people. A strange honesty. A sick honesty. And in the evil days they stood up to be counted and joined the queue with all the other deportees. The way they stood by themselves in the locked temple stirred the hearts of the beaten people with wonder for the last time. There were four of them and all the way to Minsk they did not remove their caps. Not all the Fursts possessed the same strength, however. August stayed in his shop. And he was still sitting in it. And all night long Bruno continued to see the converts standing at attention in the temple like reprimanded soldiers. And afterwards too, in the cold and close to death, they did not utter a sound.
Appelfeld does not condemn or explain, he narrates. The preservation of life may be a Jewish imperative, but there is a greater one: truth to oneself. There are other kinds of heroism than that of the partisans and the ghetto fighters, Appelfeld reminds us in the introduction to his three lectures, Beyond Despair: 'For example, young people who might have been able to save themselves preferred to accompany their aged parents, staying with them until the last moments of their lives.' In The Age of Wonders one of the Furst brothers stays behind and survives, to live out the rest of his life in guilt and despair; the other four take their place with the other deported Jews and die. They do so in silence. They do not explain, to others or to themselves, why they make that choice, and neither does the narrator. Perhaps they do not know why, but they do it. Perhaps the narrator does not know why, but he recounts it. And we cannot say they do it for unconscious reasons: one does not take so momentous a step as though one were a sleepwalker. No. What this shows is that our deepest decisions are taken at a level beyond speech and reason, not because they are unconscious, but because they are decisions of the whole self, body, mind and spirit.
Even the term 'decision' here is misleading, for it suggests one decisive moment, like St Paul's vision on the road to Damascus, whereas what we are talking about here is that interaction of chance, choice and mode of life which used to be called destiny and which, in the time of Homer and Greek tragedy, in the time of the Hebrew Scriptures, it was the purpose of narrative to bring into the light of day. That Achilles chooses to withdraw from the conflict on the plains of Troy; that Agamemnon chooses to kill his daughter so that the fleet may sail; that Abraham chooses to listen to God's command and leave his home and family - these are not choices in the sense in which we might use the word when we decide to have a pear instead of an orange for desert. They are both shrouded in mystery and yet, having been made, seem inevitable, seem to be part of the character of Achilles, Agamemnon and Abraham. And the writers who have given us these stories respect that mystery, carefully protect it, recognise if for what it is. Those later disciplines of philosophy, theology, psychology and sociology cannot deal with it, for they deal only with the inner or the outer, only with the private or the public, whereas what is at issue when we talk of destiny is precisely the interaction of inner and outer, individual and society. And only narrative can reveal it to us.
If, as I suggested at the start, all of Appelfeld's books can be seen as stories of conversion, that only means that they are stories about the discovery by the protagonist of who and what he is. But if that is the case, do they not have much in common with the great German tradition of the Bildungsroman? Yet where Goethe and Mann were encyclopaedic and expansive, Appelfeld is compressed and elliptical And this is not just a matter of personal preference or of the age in which he is writing; such compression and ellipsis is also a critique, for the Bildungsroman leads us to the self-awareness of the protagonist, to a new psychological state, and it is a self-awareness which the writer shares and imparts to the reader. In Appelfeld, as we have seen, such self-awareness cannot be called conscious and it manifests itself not by thought or inwardness but by action, whether trivial in appearance, as with Felix at the end of The Healer, or momentous, as in the case of the Furst brothers in The Age of Wonders. But this, as I have been suggesting, is not the result of a failure on Appelfeld's part, of an inability to 'understand' the 'inner workings' of the mind of his protagonist; rather, it is what aligns him to what was once the main tradition of story-telling, a tradition which almost disappeared from the world under the impact first of Plato and then of Christianity, and later of the rise of the novel in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
God says to Abraham, 'Go!' and he goes; we are not told why, nor does Abraham ask himself why; Jacob falls in love with Rachel and is tricked by her father into marrying Leah; we are not told what he feels ('and it came to pass that in the morning, behold, it was Leah' is all the Bible says). Not that he feels nothing, obviously, but that psychological explanations, in this as in all other biblical cases, would never be adequate explanations. The important thing is the narrative, the mythos, as Aristotle called it in his discussion of tragedy, the shape of the action, which we understand perfectly and yet can never fully grasp in conceptual or psychological language - which is why these stories remain as fresh today as they were when they were first told.
And it is the same with Appelfeld's work. Why does Felix act as he does? Why do the Furst brothers act as they do? We feel that there is a deep rightness about it, that by doing so they both act in accordance with their characters and that thereby their characters are decisively transformed. What this calls forth in us is not understanding but awe and wonder.
6. And this leads me to my final point. In his lectures Appelfeld talks a great deal about the perfectly understandable but false ways of dealing with the Holocaust. He talks about the struggle to speak truthfully about his experiences and feelings. We are here at the point of intersection of an existential and a literary struggle, and see how each can help the other. Appelfeld's simple, direct style, which he has attributed to his reading of Kleist and Kafka and of the biblical narratives, is more than a style. Why his books mean so much to any reader, Jew or non-Jew, born in 1920 or in 1970; why I feel the same excitement and joy reading his work as I do reading very different authors with very different concerns, like Proust or Bernhard or Muriel Spark, is because he has found a way of giving expression to the deepest aspects of human life, has been able to bring to the surface that interplay between character, chance and choice which is destiny, and which we cannot grasp in our own lives except refracted through the narratives of another. It is the highest task of art and very few artists today even understand what it means. How fortunate we are to have Aharon Appelfeld among us.
This article is taken from PN Review 141, Volume 28 Number 1, September - October 2001.