Aharon Appelfeld’s great achievement is in presenting the mind of a survivor; not that of a “Holocaust survivor” per se, but that of a person who has been through such severely dehumanizing and existentially threatening experiences, and the permanent damage done to their psyches.
My favorite of his works are The Immortal Bartfuss and The Iron Tracks, which in turn present two very different personalities, one obsolescent, one vengeful, both beset by the same sense of pointlessness, that they have outlived whatever meaning could be ascribed to their lives, and that their meaning should have come in death. (Alexander Kluge has occasionally treated this theme with great success.) The Holocaust looms in their memories, but hardly ever articulates itself; it is shown through who they currently are, not by what happened in the past, and Appelfeld’s talent in this is acute. Arnost Lustig and Imre Kertesz have achieved similar portrayals, but Appelfeld’s has always been for me the most immanent. And not without reason. Compare this quote from a Lustig interview:
CER: It must be difficult to forget your experiences from Holocaust.
LUSTIG: No, not at all. I’m not thinking about it. I’m writing about it. It’s very different. It’s like you had two lives; one “literature…life as a writer” and one real, existential.
CER: So when you write about the Holocaust, it isn’t a process of coming to terms with your experiences?
LUSTIG: I’m not writing about it. I write about a lot of other things. It’s only set at that time. Look, every writer can write only about what he is familiar with, what’s under his skin. So I write about what I really know. I could write about anything. But why would I write about everything when I can write about something in-depth? Literature tries to discover something that is invisible in a man, something mysterious: his impulses, his incentives, the causes of his actions. Why he is acting the way he’s acting. Unexplained things. In that case it doesn’t matter if you write about a concentration camp.
with this quote of Appelfeld’s, from an interview shortly after Badenheim 1919:
Q: What is your main difficulty as a writer?
APPELFELD: You see, first of all, to be a Jewish writer is a heavy obligation. My close family was killed. My natural environment, my childhood, my sweetest memories were killed. And so it’s a kind of obligation that I feel; I’m dealing with a civilization that has been killed. How to represent it in the most honorable way–not to equalize it, not to exaggerate, but to find the right proportion to represent it, in human terms.
For Lustig, the experiences become background for literature; for Appelfeld, they are the literature. It may make Lustig the more imaginative writer in that regard, but Appelfeld at his best has a styleless immediacy that I have never seen Lustig reach.
But this is not Appelfeld’s only theme. Badenheim 1939 is one of his more famous works, and deals with vacation resort housing the bourgeois of Austria. Many of them are Jewish, and at the end, when they are taken off to the camps under the pretense of being separated and relocated, many of them are still oblivious to their impending doom. A late speech by a sick, crippled rabbi, dismissed by all the book’s characters, explains the theme:
“What do they want? All these years they haven’t paid any attention to the Torah. Me they locked away in an old-age home. They didn’t want to have anything to do with me. Now they want to go to Poland. There is no atonement without asking forgiveness first.”
The rabbi’s voice took the column of people by surprise. He spoke in a jumble of Hebrew and Yiddish. The people could not understand a word he said, but his anger was obvious.
The problem is that Appelfeld is not an ironist. Superficially, the novel appears to be the mirror image of many of his other books: the great unspoken tragedy in the past in The Iron Tracks becomes the great unforeseen tragedy in the future in Badenheim 1939. But the symmetry is not so simple. Appelfeld moves the locus of his representation out of the Jews’ minds (they are, in general, portrayed as unsympathetic victims) and into the setting itself.
There is a forced allegory with two groups of fish in a tank, one of which massacred the other, and the question of whether they should be separated. There is much gaiety while they ignore the increasing anti-semitism in Austria and Germany. And most directly, there is this passage, about the cloistered, stuffy Professor Fussholdt:
Professor Fussholdt read the proofs of his book. At one time his lectures had given rise to quite a controversy in academic circles. It was he who had called Theodore Herzl “a hack writer with messianic pretensions,” and his associates “petty functionaries who jumped on the golden bandwagon.” Martin Buber too did not escape his barbs. It was Fussholdt who had said that Buber couldn’t make up his mind if he was a prophet or a professor. If anyone deserved the title of a great Jew, according to Fussholdt, it was Karl Kraus: he had revived satire. And now the professor was sitting and proofreading his latest book. Who was he attacking now? The journalists, the hacks, so-called “Jewish art”? Perhaps his book was about Hans Herzl, Theodore’s son who had converted to Christianity. Or perhaps it was a book about satire, the only art form appropriate to our lives.
It is too leaden for irony. Appelfeld writes as though he is not just impatient with his own characters, but furious at them. He has internalized the material so deeply that these people can only be portrayed as fatally misled suckers, who have bought into the notion of civilized Germany so deeply that they have forsaken the roots and the only other people whom they can really trust: their own. It’s not that Appelfeld is off the mark here; just ask Walter Rathenau, who considered himself as much German as Jew, and was assassinated by right-wing extremists. The problem that his view is so closely identified with the viewpoint of his survivors that he comes off as moralizing. There is little to be learned from the people he portrays, other than that in his opinion, they were wrong. They followed their country, not their people.
Kraus is a fascinating example, though, since he represents an anti-authoritarian voice, but a wholly secular one. I wish that Appelfeld had said more about Fussholdt and, by way of him, Kraus, since while there is little surprise in seeing the idle classes disregard warning signs, seeing the intellectuals do so is far more interesting (if ultimately not too surprising either). Does Appelfeld find Kraus and satire to be falsely sanitizing forces while evil storms are brewing? He’s not the sort to answer this question, but the anger comes through. But when spoken in the voice of the author, attacking these future victims, the book loses its poise.
Appelfeld emigrated to Israel very early on, and in the interview above, he speaks as though he were a follower of Ben-Gurion, a forceful but pragmatic Zionist. (It’s worth remembering that Zionist founder Theodore Herzl wasn’t interested in Jerusalem.) The recent Ha’aretz interview with Appelfeld seems to have disappeared from the archive, but via a tip from The Elegant Variation, I located an copy of Ari Shavit’s interview with Appelfeld. It’s difficult to summarize, since he doesn’t articulate a clear political standpoint, and I recommend reading the whole thing. There are two things that stand out. First is that this is a man who is more concerned with intra-Jewish struggles than with anything else: Zionism vs. Europeanism, settlers vs. land-for-peacers, internalized self-hatred, etc. Second is the constant turning back on his own thoughts:
I am careful to keep things in proportion. Precisely because I went through terrible things. But in the past two years I have stopped using the bus and I am ashamed of it. I am afraid that the bus will blow up and I am ashamed that I am afraid the bus will blow up. And when I sit in a cafe in Jerusalem, I am not relaxed. The cafe could blow up, too. And when my granddaughter goes to school, we ask whether she came back or not. Maybe something happened. Now the emotional side is something interesting. Because in the Holocaust I was a boy who lost his parents and lived the life of an animal, I should have been taken to a madhouse immediately afterward. Or to a hospice.
This form of servitude to one’s own emotions is what Appelfeld has lived with and expressed in all his work. It does not express itself in ideology; when he attempts to do as much, as in Badenheim 1939, the effect is muted. But in his chronicles of survivors, it is precisely the right tool.