Aharon Appelfeld Appelfeld, Aharon (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Aharon Appelfeld 1932–

Rumanian-born Israeli short story writer and novelist.

A survivor of the Holocaust, Appelfeld writes about the pain and isolation of its victims in an understated, Kafkaesque style. Two of his novels, Badenheim 1939 and The Age of Wonders, have recently been translated into English from the original Hebrew. Neither novel deals with the Holocaust overtly or realistically. Appelfeld relies instead on symbolism and parable to evoke the hopelessness of the Jewish situation and to examine the emotional and cultural essence of Jewishness.

Dov Vardi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In ["Tor hapelaot" ("The Age of Amazement")] P.A. (never called anything else) is a writer who considers himself more an Austrian than a Jew. As a liberal, he opens his home to a Judeo-Christian Friendship Society. He vituperates at the Jewish petit bourgeoisie and merchants no less vehemently than the most rabid Austrian anti-Semites. It is they who are the root of all evil. Ironically, a series of vicious attacks on his works charging them to be foreign to the pure spirit of Austrian literature is launched by another Jewish writer. So the writing on the wall is there, but P.A. remains oblivious to it with a degree of self-centeredness that is almost pitiful. He fails in his efforts to restore his reputation, and with it comes his failure as father and husband.

The narrator is the twelve-year-old son who records the world about him with the sharpness of childhood observation. Through his eyes we sense every nuance in the intimate family circle and note the strange and extravagant behavior of some which borders on the grotesque. The work opens with mother and son returning from a summer holiday in a first-class coach. A nightmarish situation hinting at the future suddenly ensues when the train comes to a halt in the middle of nowhere and the "non-Austrians" are called out to register at a mysterious police post. The reaction of the various Jewish passengers dramatizes the quandry: there are those who accept, there are those who feel...

(The entire section is 581 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

You know almost from the beginning what's going to happen at the end of "Badenheim 1939."… And yet when the final catastrophe actually befalls the Jewish inhabitants of "the holiday resort of Badenheim, the Music Festival city" …, it comes as a considerable shock.

In fact it seems a transition to a different order of reality, one that makes you look back on the novel's previous developments as part of a feverish but slightly romantic dream. And this, you suddenly perceive, is approximately what the real thing must have been like: no matter how grim the forebodings of what was to come, no one could have anticipated what was actually to happen. All of which means that the full impact of "Badenheim 1939" sneaks up on you. To say the very least.

This is especially true because the novel gets off to an inauspicious start….

I was thrown at first by the rather threadbare Kafkaesque device of representing the enemies of Badenheim's Jews with a Sanitation Department that blandly and anonymously moves into town, then requires all the Jews to register, then sets up barriers to the outside world, and finally arranges for the transport to the East. After all, to identify the oppressor as a faceless and benign-seeming bureaucracy does not precisely accord with reality.

But the more you are exposed to its effect, the more the narrative strategy of "Badenheim 1939" grows on you. And by the...

(The entire section is 519 words.)

Thomas Flanagan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The imaginative literature of the Holocaust seeks to imagine the unimaginable, and artistic failure is therefore a condition of its enterprise. Indeed, the reality is so monstrous that artistic success might well have the effect of blasphemy, its order and harmony an affront to what we know from reason and experience: the horror of deaths in numbers beyond reckoning, of chaos yoked to efficiency. Which should not at all be taken to mean that art can escape the responsibility of attempting a task which would seem to be, by definition, incapable of fulfillment.

Art will always find strategies, partial successes, failures which authenticate their intentions. The strategy employed by Aharon Appelfeld, an Israeli novelist whose own childhood was grievously assaulted by the Holocaust, is an extraordinarily daring one, and it has produced a short novel [Badenheim 1939] that is elegant, resonant and deeply disturbing. Its power to shock is embedded in its very elegance, an elegance of structure, image, voice. Seemingly, the novel records the days and seasons of an Austrian resort town patronized by middle-class Jews, their hours given over to rich pastries, concerts, innocent flirtations, pink ice cream, readings from Rilke…. The weather of mild skies, strawberry tarts and fragments of idle conversation, is the weather of European social comedy, and at times, by its intention, the novella seems a pastiche of dozens we have read—cool, shapely comedies of life in a genteel resort.

But disturbing notes are struck. The Sanitation Department, within the town but not of it, steadily extends its authority, meticulously registering the summer visitors and preparing genealogies…. The Department stays open at night; you can sit in an armchair, listen to music, leaf through a journal and dream of Poland, which comes gradually to seem an idyllic, pastoral place to which, mysteriously, the visitors may one day be traveling. And on the periphery of the town, "Porters unloaded rolls of barbed wire, cement pillars, and all kinds of appliances suggestive of preparations for a public celebration."

Our disturbance is generated less by our knowledge of what surely must be happening than by the seemingly bland, narcotized acceptance...

(The entire section is 933 words.)

Gabriele Annan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The content of Badenheim 1939 is disturbing, and so is its form. It is a fable—but only just. The protagonists are not horses, or pigs, or denizens of other times and planets, or even Everyman. They really are Jews, and under its banal all-purpose name Badenheim is as real as Kafka's unnamed Prague…. Some of the characters are nameless: the conductor, the headwaiter, the schoolgirl. The heart sinks at this, but there is no need to worry: the chill hand of allegory lies very lightly. The characters with names are no less and no more symbolical than the ones without: each represents a stage in life, a profession, a status, and an attitude—or in some cases, like the schoolgirl's, the lack of an attitude—toward the sinister events of the story. By spreading the narrative fairly evenly among them the author makes it impossible for the reader to attach himself too strongly to anyone: which is just as well, or the end would be too harrrowing.

Besides, this is a very funny novel. While young Mrs. Fussholdt in her bathing suit on the lawn is slowly going out of her mind with boredom, Professor Fussholdt sits in his room correcting the proofs of a book on satire, "the only art form appropriate to our lives." Is he speaking for the author?…

The most shocking thing about this novel is not its satirical humor, though, but its charm. Appelfeld manages to treat his appalling theme with grace. The atmosphere is not so much tragic as imbued with a Watteau-like melancholy. The characters emerge like Gilles from their bosky setting: funny, sad, helpless commedia dell'arte figures, touching...

(The entire section is 672 words.)

Robert Fyne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of the most difficult of literary forms to master is the contemporary fable. Usually steeped in allegory, allusion, metaphysics or other forms of esoterica, this genre is one in which a book's literal meaning may be weakened by the symbolic content…. Indeed, the fable writer must walk a delicate line, balancing artistic expression with syntax and order.

Such a writer is … Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld. Badenheim 1939 … is a work of extraordinary merit, a novel carefully constructed in simplicity, an allegory lyrical in style and content, a story expressing pathos and happiness, humor and mirth, surrealism and impending doom. This fable is a tale of the Holocaust. (p. 712)

With skill and care, [Aharon Appelfeld] has produced an allegory imbued with charm, dignity, sensitivity and—in its own compassionate way—horror. Badenheim 1939 is another study of … historical events, which by themselves seem ineluctable. Here is a book of major importance; it deserves our serious attention. (pp. 712-13)

Robert Fyne, "Not Far to Go," in The Christian Century (copyright 1981 Christian Century Foundation; reprinted by permission from the July 1-8, 1981 issue of The Christian Century), Vol. 98, No. 22, July 1-8, 1981, pp. 712-13.

Joel Agee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"The Age of Wonders," the second of Mr. Appelfeld's books to be published in English, deals with a [subject similar to that of his first book, "Badenheim 1939"]—the story of a Jewish intellectual and his family clinging to their Austrian homeland in the very teeth of the "Final Solution"—but the manner of the telling, especially in the first of the book's two parts, is unrelentingly tragic, and this is accomplished with an artistry I found more affecting than "Badenheim's" eerie comedy and graceful concision. (p. 1)

[In Book One there are] many desolate epiphanies, fathomless little pools of sorrow that open up here and there in the steady flow of the narrative with cumulative tragic force: "My...

(The entire section is 664 words.)

A. Alvarez

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 473 words.)