I’m telling the story of the modern Jew, in all its forms

Novelist Clive Sinclair talks to Aharon Appelfeld, the Israeli author dedicated to explaining the present through the past


October 27, 2011
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Appelfeld at home in his study in Jerusalem. His new novel centres on his childhood experience of surviving the Holocaust

Appelfeld at home in his study in Jerusalem. His new novel centres on his childhood experience of surviving the Holocaust

In Tel Aviv a tent city runs the length of Rothschild Boulevard. In Jerusalem they are preparing for a Million Person March. But in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion all is calm, especially in the house of Aharon and Yudit Appelfeld. I am here to talk about Appelfeld's new novel, and to consider his illustrious career as he approaches his 80th birthday.

"The Child is father of the Man", wrote William Wordsworth. And what Freudian worth his salt would disagree? Certainly Appelfeld's childhood trauma informs every word he has written, but in the flesh he seems unaffected, almost serene. No doubt a lot of credit for this belongs to Yudit, who can be - I suspect - a fierce defender of her husband's territory. Moreover, their house is filled with light, allowing darkness no quarter.

Only once, in all the years I have known Appelfeld, have I glimpsed the inner demon. It appeared when we played chess, and he destroyed my position mercilessly. (How was I to know that his father had been a chess champ in Vienna?)

In his recent memoir, The Story of a Life, Appelfeld retrieves some details of his early years: his birth in Jadova (near Czernowitz, in the province of Bukovina in what is present-day Ukraine, fertile land for writers); the murder of his mother and grandmother by Romanian fascists (not seen, but heard); his own detention and escape aged eight; his years among Ukrainian peasants, including horse-thieves and prostitutes; and his ultimate metamorphosis from European Erwin to Israeli Aharon. Talking about these things in Appelfeld's study, it is hard not to contrast them with the cries for social justice echoing down the streets of Israel's cities, and judge the latter self-indulgent.

Blooms of Darkness, Appelfeld's new novel, while not autobiographical, obviously draws upon his wartime experience. A significant difference is that its young protagonist, Hugo, still has a mother (his father has been sent to a labour camp). When life in their town (Czernowitz in all but name) becomes intolerable for Jews, she leads Hugo through sewers, in order to deposit him in a rural brothel for safe-keeping. But fumes overwhelm the boy, and he sinks into the filthy water. His mother does not panic, and drags him to safety. The event is described matter-of-factly, without dramatics, false or otherwise. It is pure Appelfeld. When the boy recovers he asks what happened, because he remembers nothing. "There is nothing to remember," his mother replies.

Appelfeld heard precisely the same sentiments when he finally reached Haifa in 1946. "They told us to forget the past," he says. "Everywhere there were posters saying: 'You are going to become the New Jew'. And what did the New Jew look like? He was blonde and he was tall. I was already blonde, but I have yet to become tall. Of course, I tried to do as I had been instructed. I believed them when they said: 'There is nothing to remember'. I suppressed what memories remained. I kept them shut in a dark place.

"But I was very lonely on the kibbutz to which I had been sent. Who was I? One day the need to answer that existential question became irresistible. I made a list. I wrote down where I was born. I wrote the name of my father. I wrote the name of my mother. I wrote the names of my grandparents. And I was happy. I am not a political creature, but I protested against the tendency to deny your Jewishness. I just wanted to be a Jew. Not a New Jew."

Appelfeld's list was just the beginning. "For 60 years writing has been the centre of my life," he says. (But it is not the full story of his life; he has also helped raise Meir, Yitzak and Batya, to repair, as it were, the Appelfeld line.) In those 60 years he has written more than 40 novels. To their author they are "one large story", which is "the experience of the modern Jew in all its forms". When he writes his imagination becomes protean. "I want to be all that they were," he says. "I am an assimilated Jew like my parents. I am a communist and a socialist like my uncles. And there are days in my life when I am like my grandfathers, maternal and paternal, one of whom was a Sadigora Chasid, the other a Vishnitzer."

For many years Appelfeld's single-minded efforts at memory retrieval did not suit the national mood. "Israeli intellectuals found it hard to swallow a man like me," he says. Why write about the doomed Jews of Badenheim - too blind to see what was going on under their noses - when he could write about the creation of Israel? But slowly his genius has prevailed. Now he gets letters from children of survivors, which go something like this: "Our parents never told us their story, and we never asked. Now that they have passed away, your books give us some idea of what they experienced". Not so much the historical detail, it should be said, but the sort of experience that is inscribed on the body like an invisible tattoo. In France - where his books are seen as an on-going dialogue between psychiatrist and patient - he is a hero.

Trapped in the closet of the prostitute (who turns out to be accommodating in more ways than one), Hugo recollects his lost family and friends and concludes: "So long as you're in my memory your disappearance is only partial".

By chance I run into Jeffrey M Green, the translator of Appelfeld's new novel (and many before that), in Paris Square on Saturday night, where 50,000 Jerusalemites are prostesting, demanding a better life.

"It's rather like the passengers on the Titanic complaining to the captain about lumpy mattresses," I say. "At least we're complaining," he says. "Tell me," I say, "how did you manage to pick out so skilfully the different linguistic registers in Blooms of Darkness, from the precise speech of Hugo's ma, to the baroque effusions of Mariana the prostitute?" "I just followed Appelfeld's lead," he says. "His English may be a tad idiosyncratic, but he has an educated eye. I've learned a great deal about literature through him."

Just as any reader of Appelfeld will learn a great deal about life. The predicament of Hugo, left in the dark, with no perspective on anything, is a metaphor with universal application. But as the title of the book suggests, even darkness has its blooms.

Snapshot

BORN: February 1932, near Czernowitz in what was then Romania, now Ukraine

EARLY LIFE: His mother was killed in the Holocaust. He escaped from a concentration camp and spent two years in hiding. Arrived in Israel in 1946 and reunited with his father who he believed had been murdered by the Nazis.

CAREER: Multi-award-winning novelist, one of the most important writing in Hebrew. Has written over 40 works, focusing on pre-war and wartime Jewish life in Europe

FAMILY: Married to Yudit. Three grown-up children

'Blooms of Darkness' is published by Alma Books at £12.99. Aharon Appelfeld will be in conversation with Clive Sinclair at Keats House, London NW3 on November 1 at 7pm

Last updated: 10:30am, October 27 2011