For Every Sin
See Under: Love
There is an episode in Aharon Appelfeld’s The Age of Wonders (1978) in which the main character, Bruno, takes a trip from Jerusalem, where he lives, to Knospen, his birthplace in Austria. Wandering along Habsburg Avenue, he recalls lost people and gone times: father, mother, aunts, uncles, the music teacher Mr. Danzig, the maid Louise. The town itself has hardly changed.
Even the Jewish shops have preserved their outward appearance, like the Lauffers’ drapery shop. None of them has survived but their shop is still standing at exactly the same angle as before, perfectly preserved, even the geraniums in their pots. Now a different man is sitting there with a different woman. Strange—they don’t look like murderers.
The last reflection is startling in a novel by Appelfeld. He rarely allows his characters to utter such feelings, even though he gives them cause for nearly any utterance. Generally in his novels, when someone is going off the rails, the narrative voice counsels patience, hard thing though it is.
Aharon Appelfeld was born in 1932 in Czernowitz, a town that is now part of the USSR but was then in the Bukovina region of Romania. His parents were assimilated Jews, they spoke German, refused to have anything to do with the Yiddish of their rowdier neighbors, and considered their domestic culture a superior form of humanism. These distinctions did not count when the Germans took over the town in 1940, deported Aharon’s parents—“they were lost in the Holocaust”—and sent him to a work camp in Transnistria. He escaped and spent the wartime years as a fugitive in the forests of Europe. In 1944 he was picked up by Russian soldiers and brought to the Ukraine. By the end of the war he was in Italy, and from there, with the aid of relatives, he got to Tel Aviv. Since 1946 he has made his home in Tel Aviv and, more recently, in Jerusalem.
Seven of Appelfeld’s novels have now been translated into English: in addition to The Immortal Bartfuss, For Every Sin, and The Age of Wonders, we have Tzili: The Story of a Life, which transfers to a young girl experiences contiguous to his own as a boy on the loose in Europe; The Retreat; To the Land of the Cattails; and, Appelfeld’s most celebrated novel, Badenheim 1939, which records the absurdity of much petit-bourgeois Jewish life in Europe before the war, and the drastic form of its collapse.
Three themes haunt Appelfeld’s fiction: lost childhood, lost language, and the fortune or the fate of surviving the Holocaust. In For Every Sin, as in The Age of Wonders, the survivor tries to go back; just after the war is over, Theo Braun decides to walk home to Baden-bei-Wien. The book describes his encounters on the road—with another survivor, Mina, various refugees bent on vengeance, a man who looks like his Uncle Salo. He comes upon a transit camp, where those accused of having informed on Jews are beaten. He recalls his childhood: his gallant but crazy mother, his nearly always absent father, his Uncle Karl, a watchmaker. In the end, Theo knows that he can’t go home again, the shtetl wouldn’t be there for him.
These events are conveyed in a style mostly bare, as if it had earlier gone through every form of gaiety and aspiration and emerged wary of such extravagance. Theo is a victim, but he is not allowed the pathos of victimage: he is just as violent as the refugees he meets. One moment he is remembering the warmth of his mother’s love, the next he is beating up a stranger after a quarrel about religion. Most of the events of the novel are delineated as if they were arbitrary: on each occasion something else might have happened with equal validity. Appelfeld is not a historical novelist, even when the events in question come from his own life. He doesn’t propose historical explanations. The apparently ordinary details of life on the road or in the back streets of Tel Aviv are not given as if they had exemplary value, or as if they enforced an irresistible sequence of causes and effects.
Moreover, his narrators do not seem fascinated by the particular events they observe, or even by the semblances of cause and effect that in another novelist would pass for historical explanation, but by a vaguely discerned mythology beyond the happenings. Things mean, but their meaning is not yet evident. In Anatomy of Criticism and other books, Northrop Frye has written of mythologies as expressions of “the primary desires of existence, along with the anxieties attached to their frustration.” A mythology, in that sense, refers to life as such: it is not an abstraction from life, or the gist of it, but a narrative in which such desires and frustrations emerge beneath or beyond the appearances that people encounter. Appelfeld is a mythologist; he watches and waits for disclosures that are merely postponed by the parade of seemingly arbitrary events. Meanwhile he gives more credence to children than to adults, to the dying than to the hale and hearty, to mothers than to fathers.
The mother, in Appelfeld’s fiction, also means his language, German, the mother tongue, and the feelings its syllables cherished. At the end of For Every Sin, Theo concludes that the Yiddish of the camps has done him in. If he were to meet his mother, she would rebuke him:
When he left the camp and set out, he had only wanted to uproot from within him the words that had stuck to him. Words like “toytn” and “lemekh.” He knew that if he met his mother, she would scold him for using the foreign words that had clung to him. His mother was sensitive to words, to choice, to the correct order. Even in the rabbinical divorce court she had tried to correct the rabbis’ German, making the chief justice of the tribunal angry. He had shouted: “This is not the academy of the German language but a divorce court. One does not, madam, correct a rabbi’s language.”
Theo’s father, too, was “punctilious about…language, but it was a different kind of insistence: on syntactical precision.” In the end, the mother’s diction and the father’s syntax were destroyed, the feelings they had housed were silenced:
That language which his mother had inculcated in him with such love would be lost forever. If he spoke, he would speak only in the language of the camps. That clear knowledge made him dreadfully sad.
In The Immortal Bartfuss, loss of the old words becomes part, now hardly explicit, of the larger loneliness. Bartfuss, a miserable, miserly survivor from the Holocaust, lives in Jaffa with his hated wife, to whom he does not speak:
True, there had also been other days, when they spoke. They had been so few and so short that nothing remained of them except a kind of distant twilight. The barren silence that had overrun them had left nothing of those days, not even a scrap. Even in their second year together the sentences were truncated and had come out as mumbles, actually kinds of syllables that had quickly become like thorns.
Bartfuss makes a living by buying and selling hardware; he wanders about, seeing strangers, trying to talk to them, failing to do so. He meets a former friend, Schmugler, fails to get him to talk, and beats him up. He buys an Omega watch, hoping to give it to his mentally retarded daughter, Bridget. At one point, barely awake on a bus to Tel Aviv, he says to himself:
The summer has passed and the fall has come. I have to open the treasure and pay my debt. Loyalty has not died out. The people who were in the camps won’t betray their obligations. There are sacred debts. A man is not an insect. The fear of death is no disaster. Only when one has freed himself of that fear can one go forth to freedom. For we foresaw that.
Bartfuss, himself penurious, has a high notion of those obligations. When his mistress dies, he has a conversation with her former husband:
“It doesn’t depend on us anymore.” Bartfuss said irrelevantly, “What have we Holocaust survivors done? Has our great experience changed us at all?”
“What can you do?” The man opened his round eyes.
Bartfuss was surprised by that question and said, “I expect generosity of them.”
“I don’t understand you.”
“I expect”—Bartfuss raised his voice—“greatness of soul from people who underwent the Holocaust.”
The man lowered his head, and on his lips was a skeptical smile of hidden wisdom.
“I don’t understand, ‘generosity’?”
When Bartfuss meets Marian, a girl he had known in Italy, she can’t or won’t remember him:
But it was very important to Bartfuss that this miserable, stupid woman remember him and thank him for what she had received from his hands, for nothing in return, the candy. If she had admitted that he had given her boxes of candy, he would probably have left and gone on his way. But she didn’t remember, and, on that murky evening, it mattered to him that this woman should thank him. She didn’t understand what he wanted and stood near him, frightened and confused.
“At least say ‘thank you,’ ” he said.
“I’ll say it, I’ll say it,” she said, as her face became more and more wrapped up in fear.
At the end, unable to find greatness of soul in anyone, no more than we can find it in him, Bartfuss goes back to his apartment to sleep the sleep of the dying. It doesn’t occur to him to ask himself Leibniz’s question in Principles of Nature and Grace: Why is there something rather than nothing? But if he were to ask it, he would say that the divine decision which ensures that there is something rather than nothing is of no more account than the other one, conveyed in the same divine breath, that there are certain things rather than other things. So powerful are his mythologies that the reader is not inclined to argue with them.
A.B. Yehoshua has published two novels, The Lover and A Late Divorce; two collections of short stories, Early in the Summer of 1970 and Three Days and a Child; and a book of essays on Jewish identity, Between Right and Right. Five Seasons was first published in Hebrew under the title Molkho (1987), and indeed the change of title is unnecessary. The book is Molkho’s story. It is not a family saga, even though Molkho has three children, a mother, and a mother-in-law. For many pages we learn that the children are “the high-school boy,” “the soldier,” and “the college student”: they are not important enough to have personalities and destinies, though we are eventually told that they have names, Gabi, Enat, and Omri. We are to concern ourselves chiefly with Molkho.