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.
The novel begins with the death of Molkho’s wife after seven years of suffering from cancer. Molkho has looked after her faithfully all that time, and now at the age of fifty-two he is free to make a new life for himself. He is a minor civil servant, a junior accountant in the ministry of the interior. We are encouraged to think that he is a decent, good-natured man, but tightfisted, spiritually parsimonious. He is supposed by the people who know him to be culturally backward, but when he goes to the opera expecting to see Don Giovanni and finds the program changed to Orpheus and Eurydice, he is not entirely defeated; he knows the gist of the story and gets the hang of it in the end.
A new life for Molkho depends upon his finding a new woman. Most of the novel is taken up with four diversely emotional adventures: the “legal adviser” in the ministry, a widow much devoted to opera, is a possibility; a divorce is planned for Ya’ara, the childless wife of Molkho’s former youth-movement counselor, so she is offered to him. There is a Russian girl, Nina, whom Molkho is persuaded to accompany to Vienna. The fourth girl is an Indian child of eleven with whom Molkho nearly falls in love. These episodes provide most of the comedy, the farce, and the pathos of a book rich in all three.
But the most emphatic presence in the novel, to Molkho and to us, is his dead wife. Her maiden name was Starkman, but we don’t know the name by which she remains to haunt Molkho. Gradually we learn that she was imperious, culturally formidable, the perpetual critic in his life. Musing upon her death, Molkho asks himself:
Was her spirit finally at peace, quiet and resting somewhere, her compulsive criticizing over at last? Or was she still carrying on in the heavenly spheres, going from one to another and finding fault with each? Was the universe not good enough for her even now? Did she remember him?
His wife was a Jew, born in Berlin, a yekke as he thinks of her; there is a suggestion that her cancer marks the spiritual disease of such people when they come with enormous spiritual baggage to Israel. He recalls the times his wife “made him go from restaurant to restaurant until she found one clean enough to suit her.” She insisted that he take a shower at least once a day: “In bathtubs you just sit in your own filth!” By contrast, Molkho is a native of his region; he takes Israel as he finds it, unconditionally.
The novel is set in Haifa, but Molkho has mundane or exotic reasons for going to Jerusalem, the Galilee, Paris, Berlin East and West, and Vienna. He does so at the time the Israelis are pulling out of Lebanon after the war of 1982. A few local conditions are specified: the travel tax in Israel is doubled, newly arrived black Jews from Ethiopia are staging protest marches. But these details hardly matter. Five Seasons is about a middle-aged man and his dead wife and it might take place anywhere.
We stumble upon the central theme of the book as Molkho stumbles upon it when he walks about Zeru’a, the village in the Galilee where he meets the Indian child:
The dead keep giving us orders, he thought, not without satisfaction, recalling, while continuing his tour of the village, how his wife would send him out for such walks to perk him up from the long hours of sitting by her bed, mechanically making small talk.
“Not even the dead were ever gone for good,” he later reflects. Recurring once again to the image of his wife, he acknowledges that “her voice lived on in him, and he listened all the time.” For a whole year, he reflects with some bitterness, “she’s run my life by remote control…. It’s as though I’ve gone right on looking after her. How can I stop now?”
Near the end, in East Berlin, there is talk of Molkho’s descending into the underground: he is trying to find the house in which his wife was born. Playing Orpheus to her Eurydice, he is always looking back, but she never vanishes, unless we take his last word as indeed the last word:
It’s been nearly a year, he thought sadly. One I was sure would be full of women, freedom, adventure—and in the end nothing came of it. Why, I didn’t even make love; it’s as though I were left back a grade too. And it all comes from being so passive, from expecting others to find someone for me. Lovingly, he tried thinking of his wife, but for the first time he felt that his thoughts grasped at nothing, that each time he cast their hook into the water it bobbed up light as a feather. Am I really free, then? he wondered. And if I am, what good is it? Somewhere there must be other, realer women, but for that a man has to be in love. Otherwise it’s pointless, he fretted. A man has to be in love.
So the novel ends, more patiently than A Late Divorce, in which Israel, “my small maddening land,” never escapes from the image of the wife, Naomi, crazed, in an asylum.
What we make of Molkho depends upon what we think he has made of himself in that long year, those five seasons. It could be argued that, far from staying behind in his class at school—a reiterated metaphor in the book—or being otherwise kept back, he has graduated, moved ahead, having arrived at some reckoning with his dead wife and with death itself. But he seems to me a variant of Henry James’s John Marcher in “The Beast in the Jungle,” “the man of his time, the man, to whom nothing on earth was to have happened.” Not that James’s formula is precisely true of Marcher: in a certain light, much has happened to him. But Molkho, seemingly busy in the world, is marking time, running in place. In the end he comes to know himself better, which is something. The knowledge gives him a deeper tone: he will never again be ludicrous.
His Daughter is a translation of the novel published in Hebrew under the title Bito (1987). The central figure is Joseph Krieger, who has spent many years as a brigadier in the Israeli army. He lives in Jerusalem with his daughter Miriam, who is also a regular soldier. His wife, Nina, has cleared off to America. One day Miriam fails to come home. Krieger sets out to find her. His efforts to do so turn Yoram Kaniuk’s novel into a detective story and a psychological thriller. The plot is as complicated for the reader as the events are for Krieger: a succession of clues, mostly false, possibilities that come to nothing, a corpse that may not be the right one.
Some of the difficulties of the novel are inevitable, given Krieger’s position as the center of attention. We soon doubt that he deserves such attention. In the army, he has been a hero to some of his soldiers, a true symbol of Israel in the years after 1948:
We used to sit in the old Turkish fortress on Ben Yehuda Street, where the Army Canteen building now stands, and dream about our futures as soldiers in a new nation, fighting nobly to rescue our people. What infuriated us was that we had all missed out on the War of Independence by three years.
Luckily for Krieger, Israel has never been short of wars, so he has had a brilliant career, made many enemies among his friends, and come to retirement without having learned much. It would be wrong to say that he is a fool, but Yoram Kaniuk has run a considerable risk in allowing us to read the brigadier’s mind; it is a rough-and-ready text.
Most of our understanding of Krieger comes not from his sense of himself but from a series of letters he receives from the missing Miriam:
(Mother) couldn’t stand your pride and your strength: that was unbearable to her. If only you were less mighty and arrogant and more intimate and spontaneous and open. But unlike me and mother you don’t know what it’s like to feel worthless. You cannot accept that I’m somebody hard to reach, almost opaque; you can’t accept that mother suffers in order to feel that she’s alive. She didn’t want a soldier for a husband, she wanted a man who would tell her every morning how gorgeous she looked.
That can hardly be a full explanation of a bad marriage, but it is more than Krieger seems able to understand. Nearly everybody in the novel is improbably articulate: where one might expect nothing more than “Hello, how are you?” one gets a free session with a therapist. Nobody seems capable of understanding anything until it has been explicated from three directions. The only perception Krieger ever achieves is that he was born a few years too late and never found a war big enough for his pride:
My whole life was one long gruelling preparation for an event which never really happened. The wars that I had fought were just the minor fulfilment of a dream (something to be placed in parentheses); they were never the war I’d wanted. I had never tapped the secret overwhelming capacity for human endurance that I associated with the Battle of Stalingrad, say, a battle which even a veteran soldier like me had never experienced. I had trained myself to be strong, daring, resourceful, even going without food or water, such that one day I might meet the challenge, body and soul, of some hopeless struggle. In the end, perhaps out of excessive preparation, I had soured my life.
There may be an implication, in that passage, that Krieger is a representative figure, an extreme instance of the sabra, and of the price a country pays for producing such men as Moshe Dayan or Ariel Sharon. If there is such an implication, it perhaps explains why Krieger never becomes what he is evidently intended to be, a character richer and more diverse than the mere sum of the attributes he is given. Even with a dead daughter and a dead wife, it is hard to care about him.
The social and political settings of the novel are briefly but clearly indicated:
Here at the pool, the oldtimers were still dreaming about establishing the model State of Israel, while the country was turning ugly before their unseeing eyes.
In his mother’s clinic, Krieger listens to people complaining about “the slapdash, rapid resettlement of Israel”:
The white Berlin which they had built in their youth here was already played out, but they still yearned for it. They were lodgers for the night in a hostile land now full of Turks and Persians. “Everywhere you go you see Turks and Persians,” said Goldman, as if he had read my mind. “You used to walk down Huberman Street and smell German cakes and whipped cream on every corner.”
Krieger’s political judgment isn’t much more subtle:
I once told Nina that the Americans killed the Indians like John Wayne and then, three hundred years later, were as remorseful as Marlon Brando, whereas we Israelis have tried to play both roles, Wayne and Brando, at the same time and on one field of battle.
Reading this I agree with Nina that Krieger is “just using fancy words.” Does he mean that the Israelis should out-Wayne Wayne, subdue the Palestinians, and postpone remorse for three hundred years? Or what? Yoram Kaniuk, in his private capacity, supports Peace Now; in presenting Krieger as a man who seems mainly grumpy about losing his uniform and his dream he may be suggesting something about a particular type of character that has emerged in Israel; but there is little in Krieger to engage the imagination.
Unless I am much mistaken, David Grossman’s See Under: Love is an extraordinary novel. If I were to guess the source of the book, the impulse that has taken this form, I would choose one incorrigible conviction: that the Holocaust is an event about which nothing useful can now be said, and yet that this nothing must continue to be said.
The novel has four related sections. The first is set in Jerusalem, where Momik, a boy of nine, has to cope with his father and mother, his grand-uncle Anshel Wasserman (once a famous author of children’s stories who wrote under the name Scheherazade) who is now senile. The boy takes on the further responsibility of destroying the Beast—adults call it Nazism—which is hiding in a cellar and must be outwitted by the resources of detection and espionage.
In the second part, Momik is grown up. He and his wife, Ruth, have had a child, Yariv. There is another woman, Ayala, with whom Momik has had an affair. His marriage is collapsing. He goes to Warsaw to try to understand his grand-uncle’s life, and to commune in some way with a writer, Bruno Schulz, who means much to him. The official records say that Schulz lived and wrote in Drohobycz in southeast Poland, and that on November 19, 1942, he was shot dead by a Gestapo officer. Momik persuades himself that Schulz committed suicide, “escaped” by drowning. Gradually, he imagines Schulz’s life under the waves, in the company of salmon. He identifies himself sometimes with Schulz, sometimes with the sea, speaking of Schulz in the sea’s voice:
What a trip, Bruno, what a trip! A million years from now I will still be amazed, I will still laugh at myself for not recognizing the pain of you inside me, for how I whisked over thousands of miles propelled by rage at my rude awakening and on my way to you, no less, somewhere off the island of Bornholm, I’d sent my scouts out, the little Baltic runners, my sprightly wavelings, and they galloped ahead and touched you and hurried back to me, gasping and choking on the carcasses of fish they’d hit and the planking of the ships they’d sunk, and they raced out to my chariot and…
Sometimes Momik thinks of his life in communion with the lives of various characters in Schulz’s stories, especially in certain chapters of Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1937) and The Street of Crocodiles (1934).
The third section is the life of Wasserman, so far as Momik has been able to reconstruct it. In 1943 Wasserman was in a concentration camp, run by Herr Neigel, who had read and enjoyed Scheherazade’s stories as a boy. (Neigel seems to me to resemble Reinhard Heydrich, whom Goering appointed to effect the Final Solution; except that Heydrich was drawn to music, not literature.) Neigel will spare Wasserman’s life, so long as he keeps telling him, every night, new stories as sequels to the old ones. Meanwhile Neigel continues his work of extermination. (The arrangement bears a slight resemblance to the one by which Bruno Schulz, under arrest in 1941, worked as a “House Jew,” doing light carpentry and bits of painting, at the residence of SS Officer Felix Landau.) Wasserman would much prefer to be dead, and he bargains with Neigel for his death, but Neigel refuses: the storytelling must continue. Running short of invented characters, Wasserman enters into league with the unseen but ever-present Momik and together they drag into his stories many of the people they knew in Israel. Though busy with his daily chores, Neigel is alert to Wasserman’s narrative procedures. If he doesn’t like a new style, he orders Wasserman back to the old one:
“I don’t like this new style one bit.” “Ai, would that you blessed me with your patience, sir.” And Neigel, weary, almost whining, says, “I like simple stories!” To which the writer, with a trace of cruelty, replies, “There are no simple stories anymore.”
The fourth and last section is called “The Complete Encyclopedia of Kazik’s Life,” Kazik being the hero of one of Wasserman’s stories. I take it that the entries in this encyclopedia are meant to draw all the stories together, Momik’s as well as Wasserman’s and Schulz’s and, by inescapable implication, every story that might be told of Hitler, Himmler, and the Jews.
One of the many remarkable features of See Under: Love is Grossman’s control of the multiplicity of styles and emotional tones his several stories require, from the demotic to the sublime. Some of the episodes between Wasserman and Neigel show a rich and uncruel comedy in an otherwise appalling dance of death. Many of Grossman’s transitions, especially in the “Encyclopedia,” are so daring that a question of tact arises; but on every questionable occasion his sense of the issues involved is exact; his moral taste seems impeccable.
“A million stories, a million troubles,” Momik says to himself in the heart-breaking section called “Bruno.” It doesn’t take one iota away from Grossman’s achievement in this section if I say that it could not have been written if Melville had not written Moby-Dick and Joyce the “Proteus” chapter of Ulysses, merging Stephen Dedalus with the sea—“Their blood is in me, their lusts my waves.” Nor does it take anything from Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass to say that it required the example of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Later writers are not parasites upon earlier ones. The life and work of Bruno Schulz incited David Grossman to feel with emphasized reiteration and intensity what he might have felt under his own auspices but in less measure. What Grossman makes of Schulz, as a source of further feeling in Momik, is his own moral and artistic achievement. Schulz is to Momik what, in Christianity, the life of a saint is to a Christian who feels special devotion to it.
I have been wondering why these novels are, on the whole, so good. Surely their merit is not accounted for by the shared possession of a momentous racial and historical experience, culminating for survivors in the choice of living in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, or Haifa. On a brief visit recently to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, several intellectuals said to me: Why are Israeli Jews required to be better than other people? It was difficult to talk about the intifada, or Israel’s treatment of the people of Gaza, without implying that Israel has something to answer for, upon the very criteria of justice which Jewish religion has prescribed.
When I came back to Ireland, I saw Antonia Caccia’s TV film Voices from Gaza, which filled one’s mind with images of Israeli brutality. The novels under review don’t say anything about these matters; either because they are set in an earlier time or, a likelier cause, because they are thinking of nothing but the Holocaust, survival, the Golah (Exile). These are the primordial experiences; they cannot be taken away from a Jewish writer. In Prisms (1955) T.W. Adorno said that “since Auschwitz, it is barbarous to write a poem”—“nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch“—and that this recognition corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry. For all I know, there may be poets who think that Paul Celan’s Todesfuge should be the last word on the subject of Auschwitz. Some readers of See Under: Love may find the “Wasserman” section unacceptable because it turns the scenes between Wasserman and his master into comedy, sometimes grim, often nearly genial. I would not share that view; the conversion of horror into eloquence is, as a matter of moral and aesthetic principle, something I feel blank about. Theories of tragedy allow us to distinguish between content and form, but it seems glib to call upon such theories to account for See Under: Love.
I have only a small notion to add. These Israeli novels, and especially Appelfeld’s and Grossman’s, seem to assume that there is no point in ceaselessly nagging God about the extermination camps, but that on the other hand a Jew is bound to feel that ethics, as Levinas says in Totality and Infinity, comes before ontology and epistemology. The Jewish ways of being in the world make sense only by constant appeal to justice. Their God exists, and is kept in existence, mainly as the accused: the world in which God exists is a tribunal, continually in session. I can’t say whether this theology—it is not mine, after all—is good for the soul or not. But it seems to give fictive characters who have inherited or even rejected that tradition an emphatic, haggling presence in the world.
September 28, 1989