Aharon Appelfeld was born in Czernovitz, Bukovina—the northernmost tip of Romania—in 1932. According to his biographical note, “In the Nazi sweep east, his mother was killed and he was deported to the labor camp at Transnistria, from which he soon escaped. He was eight years old. For the next three years he wandered the forests. Some time in 1944 he was picked up by the Red Army, served in field kitchens in the Ukraine, and thence made his way to Italy. He reached Palestine in 1946.” In other words, he is a man without a childhood, like the hero of Kozinski’s The Painted Bird. He had, instead, a particularly stern version of what is sometimes called “a European education,” which has more to do with good and evil and survival than with the Latin and algebra his narrator sweats over while the world disintegrates around him.
In The Age of Wonders Appelfeld creates the childhood he never had: comfortable, intellectual, and strategically displaced a few hundred miles west of Bukovina. The narrator’s father is an established Austrian writer—novelist, essayist, fervent admirer of Kafka and friend of Zweig, Schnitzler, and Max Brod. He and his wife and Bruno, their only child, live not too far from Vienna, not too far from Prague, and he hurries between the two capitals as his successful literary career requires. The family is Jewish upper class, more or less assimilated. When philandering Uncle Salo gets drunk at Bruno’s birthday party he holds forth about their distinguished relatives: “he counted the musicians, painters, and writers, the converts and the international speculators.” Note those converts; they are Jews whose Jewishness is marginal to their lives, a quirk of ancestry that has no bearing on their cultured agnosticism. Like Proust’s pained, sophisticated tightrope walkers, they are Western Europeans to whom Yiddish is as remote and barbaric as Urdu.
But the time is the late 1930s and their world is changing. The change, however, is seen through the eyes of a twelve-year-old narrator who is concerned with his parents and his sensations, not with politics. History intrudes only obliquely, as a sudden strangeness, an inconvenience. When the book opens Bruno and his mother are returning home from a lonely, romantic summer holiday in the deep country: “all that simple splendor, consisting of no more than black bread, fresh milk, and apples in an old basket.” They share their first-class compartment on the Vienna express with a beautiful young woman who the child assumes is a baroness, a paralyzed boy in a wheelchair, a man “who looked like a diplomat.” In the middle of the night the train makes an unscheduled stop at an old sawmill far from any station:
Suddenly a clear voice broke into the emptiness: express train number 422 begged the passengers’ pardon for the inconvenience. Due to the special circumstances, the security forces requested all foreign passengers and all Austrian passengers who were not Christians by birth, to register at the office that had just been opened in the sawmill.
Slowly, reluctantly, the passengers file out: the baroness, the diplomat, the resolute little cripple are all Jews.
Evidently the Anschluss has taken place, the Nazis are in Austria, and the security forces are gearing themselves up to their new tasks. But Bruno is too young to understand this and no Germans appear in The Age of Wonders. All he knows is that his family and their friends begin to argue compulsively about Jews and Judaism. The world is suddenly full of wealthy, irreligious Austrians who are apparently different from other wealthy, irreligious Austrians by being “not Christians by birth.” Later, offstage, the war begins, but Bruno’s only evidence of it is the gradual unhinging of his father, the equally gradual breakdown of his parents’ marriage, and the arrival of frightened, faceless refugees whom his mother feeds and clothes until the house is stripped bare. Meanwhile, he copes with lessons and examinations, intently studying the friends, relatives, and servants as they pass through, noting the strangeness of the way the light falls across the floor, or of the gesture of a hand or the droop of a mustache. In Appelfeld’s allusive world a slight derangement in perception stands in for a radical derangement in the national psyche. There is no politics, no preaching, only shards of fierce argument briefly overheard, as though a door had opened on a roomful of quarreling adults, then banged abruptly shut again.
What the child overhears is Jews quarreling about Jews. The blurb calls this, disingenuously, “the humiliating routines of Jewish self-hatred.” It is nothing of the kind. Appelfeld’s subject is Jewish anti-Semitism—not a topic that has been much encouraged since the Holocaust and one, perhaps, that still can be handled with impunity only by an Israeli novelist writing in Hebrew. When Philip Roth, in Goodbye, Columbus, hinted that the Jewish nouveau riche could be as shifty and vulgar as any other nouveau riche he was denounced from the pulpits by indignant rabbis. That is unlikely to happen to Appelfeld, not only because his methods are more sidelong than Roth’s and the opinions of his characters harder to ascribe to him, but also because the phenomenon he is dealing with is mostly European, as remote, I imagine, from American-Jewish experience as all those English city gents with their bowler hats, furled brollies, Savile Row suits, and Oxford drawls who materialize irregularly, like Magritte hallucinations, in London’s more elegant synagogues.
Bruno’s family would have felt comfortable with the Sunday, Bloody Sunday congregation at Upper Berkeley Street, except that their synagogue-going days are far behind them. All that remains of their Jewish inheritance is what an aunt sardonically calls “the noble seal” of circumcision. When the passengers on yet another train bait Bruno’s father, he answers bitterly, “Am I not an Austrian like you are? Didn’t I go to school here? Graduate from an Austrian gymnasium, an Austrian university? Weren’t all my books published here?” He is outraged not by their anti-Semitism but by their inability to distinguish him from “the little Jews who could think of nothing but money” whom he, too, hates.
Even worse are the Ostjuden, who appear “like evil spirits” when the family, accompanied by Bruno’s schizophrenic young Aunt Theresa, is waiting at the end of another holiday for the express home:
“Who are those people?” asked Theresa….
Mother bent down and whispered, “Jews,” as if she were explaining an incomprehensible word picked up on the streets.
“Lately they’ve been appearing in droves,” said Father, rather overloud.
As though these Jews from the east were omens of disaster, Aunt Theresa breaks down on the journey, drags the family from the train in the middle of the night, and forces them to spend hours scouring the countryside for a church in which she can pray. That done, the fit leaves her, and she returns docilely to her convent sanatorium where she eventually dies a convert, having found peace with the nuns and also, in her letters, an increasingly limpid prose style. Father approves—on both counts.
A series of articles appears in a provincial paper denouncing him and the characters in his books as “parasites living off the healthy Austrian tradition.” Inevitably, the obscure author, who dies before his critique is finished, is himself Jewish. Equally inevitably, Father comes to believe the man is right: his life’s work is tainted, a failure. After the critic’s death his accusing ghost “took up residence amongst us as an adopted member of the family.”
Meanwhile, other members of the family are coping with their troublesome inheritance in different ways: an uncle “had converted and gone to study theology in Antwerp; a well-known cousin of ours had written an attack on Judaism as a religion without divine grace”; a family friend, Dr. Mirzel, is writing a book with a prophetic and highly ambiguous title, The Destruction of Judaism—Relief and Recovery.
But there is no relief for Bruno’s father. An aunt leaves instructions to be buried with Jewish rites: “Father brought some Jews from the provincial capital. They spoke in an unintelligible language and scurried about the rooms kicking up a racket. It was ugly and shameful.” So is the hideous Jewish almshouse where Father’s friend Stark, blond and military-looking, has gone to be circumcized after he converts to his mother’s religion. When the family visits him, the elderly inmates attack Father like creatures from a nightmare. “No wonder people hate them,” he hisses. “And later too, in the train, he did not stop cursing the Jews infesting Austria like rats, infesting the whole world, to tell the truth.”
Stark’s conversion is the last straw. As the net tightens round the family, Father drifts inexorably into madness, “writing and rewriting sentences and paragraphs, as if they were not words written on a page but crimes that could not be left unpunished.” Eventually, he disappears toward Vienna, leaving his wife and child to be rounded up with the town’s other Jews—none of whom they know—for a final railway journey on a “cattle train hurtling south.”
The last, third of The Age of Wonders is an extended postscript. Bruno, now his father’s age, with a failing marriage of his own, returns from Jerusalem to the town of his birth. The Jews have mostly gone—the couple who remain deny their origins—only the place remains more or less as it was: “Strange, he reflected, objects survive longer; they are passive. Otherwise how could they withstand such changes?” People are less resilient and time has worked its usual degradations. The lovely, bounteous Louise, once the family servant, is now an old bag working for the sanitation department. She has outlived two husbands and a regiment of lovers, including several of Bruno’s uncles, whom she remembers tenderly. He finds an illegitimate daughter of his philandering Uncle Salo and a depressed young woman who tells him, “My granny used to say that Jews always suffered and that was why they were kind to other people.” It is the only good word anyone has to say for the Jews in the whole book. The elderly are considerably less forgiving: “Ever since you arrived,” he is told, “things have been stirred up. Jews again. All that old nightmare again. Isn’t it over yet?” In the end, Bruno gives in to their resentment and leaves, with nothing resolved, nothing revealed.
As a coda, this seems excessively long and unfocused—inevitably, perhaps, since childhood revisited is never as vivid as childhood re-created, nor, for Appelfeld, is the subliminal ache of chronic anti-Semitism as interesting as the sickness in its acute form. More important, he is an Israeli writing about a Europe he has abandoned; Gentile anti-Semitism concerns him far less than the intricate social stratifications that set Jew against Jew for reasons of pure snobbery.
Shortly before the final landslide begins, a colleague from the Jewish-Christian League comes to Bruno’s father with a petition: “There were Jews and Jews, not all Jews were merchants. A list of Jewish intellectuals who had contributed to Austrian culture should be drawn up. All the parasitic elements should be dealt with ruthlessly.” Father wholeheartedly endorses this Kafkaesque solution, not because he admires Kafka but because it corresponds to a European version of reality.
As a small child before the war, I too, like Bruno, remember hearing my apolitical parents discussing with dismay the arrival in Britain of the Jewish refugees from Hitler. What dismayed them was not the persecution those poor souls had fled—being English, my parents expected all Continentals to behave badly to each other—but the difficulties that would be provoked for the Anglo-Jewish community by these newcomers with their impossible accents and alien ways. “There were Jews and Jews,” and no one was more aware of that than the Jews themselves: the Sephardim looked down on the Ashkenazim and all of them looked down on the fugitives from the Pale who, speaking a separate language and having lived in separate ghettos, insisted on behaving like a race apart. European Jews were shocked by this, since even those who were not assimilated believed they were separated from other Englishmen, Germans, or Frenchmen only by their form of worship.
They were wrong, of course, and Appelfeld describes what happened to them when, to their horror, they were stripped of everything except their ethnic origin and a religion they no longer believed in and were lumped together with a horde of strangers as foreign to them as they had inexplicably become to their compatriots. In the hands of a writer less subtle and private The Age of Wonders could easily have become a moral fable or a tract. Instead, the tone is plangent, upset, vaguely bewildered; adult lunacy is accepted as just another strange component of vanished childhood, and that, in the end, is far more chilling.