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Aharon Appelfeld 1932–

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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

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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 insulted and others who try to conceal their identity. None have a choice. Further train journeys follow until the final bizarre adventure with the father being "smelled out" and humiliated by rough Tyrolean peasants in a crowded third-class car. As we descend further into a deranged Kafka-like world, the train itself becomes an awesome symbol of Jewish destiny.

As the novella closes, son and mother are both thrown into a "transport" on their death journey. Eventually the boy will be one of the "lucky" child survivors of the Holocaust, the likes of whom people Appelfeld's earlier stories—young scavengers who find refuge on sunny beaches in Italy, waiting for illegal transportation to Palestine. Here the boy is still doing his Latin and algebra, preparing for examinations, as his mother tries to keep life going. This while "nearby in town boys and girls caroused through the night, and in the morning banged on our door and shouted: 'Jews!'"

The beating of the Rabbi by his tormenters is a scene containing a brilliant metaphor. The entire Jewish community, practicing and non-practicing, has been ordered to report to the Temple. As the candles die out and "thick darkness blows through the casements beneath the high vaults," the merchants creep up toward the holy ark. "The Rabbi did not cry out. All night they tormented him, their heavy voices cutting the darkness like dull saws." It is not the Rabbi being tortured by his wayward flock: it is God Himself!

The soft musical prose by which Appelfeld has been distinguished is especially restrained in the present work. His language is pure and "classical," shunning neologisms. The atmosphere that he creates is a chiaroscuro that glows with the magic of reality. "The Age of Amazement" has just been awarded this year's Bialik prize. Its art is impressive and every reading unfolds new layers. (pp. 342-43)

Dov Vardi, "Israel: 'Tor hapelaot'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1979 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 53, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 342-43.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 519

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 time you experience the stunning conclusion, you understand what Mr. Appelfeld is up to. It is not just the summer of 1939 in a single resort town he is trying to dramatize, but the entire pre-World War II experience of the Jews of Germany and Austria. And in the larger frame of reference it is not so much National Socialism that is the enemy as it is the illusion that any Jew could survive unscathed.

This is finally the sorcery of "Badenheim 1939"—the success with which the author has concocted a drab narrative involving rather ordinary characters, and made their experience profoundly symbolic yet never hollow or allegorical. It's almost uncanny, for instance, how the specific incident of the Jewish community's rifling its own pharmacist's shop for drugs becomes retrospectively symbolic of Kristalnacht; or how the town of Badenheim manages to seem all at once a gingerbread cultural center, a ghetto and one of those model concentration-camp communities that the SS prepared for inspection by the International Red Cross.

In Mr. Appelfeld's hallucinatory world it probably would have trivialized the horror to have designated the enemy as mere Storm Troopers. After all, in this world even Death himself appears as a relatively benign fellow strolling freely in the rose garden and the lounge of a local sanitarium whom the patients address "as if they are speaking to a tame animal, laughingly and cajoling." Compared with the hidden enemy who haunts the pages of "Badenheim 1939," Death and Storm Troopers are nothing. (p. 86)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "'Badenheim 1939'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 9, 1980 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. IV, No. 2, February, 1981, pp. 85-6).

Thomas Flanagan

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 933

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 of the monstrously bizarre. The vacationers accept it, and so too does the voice that reports their days, a voice which at times is cozy, comfortable, but at other times stands back, almost to tease them. But our disorienting puzzlement finds here only its beginnings. How is it that these cultivated savorers of Rilke and white strawberries are unaware that their entire culture is being destroyed? (The present title, incidentally, points us rather too helpfully toward the puzzle. Nowhere in the novel are we given a date, and the title in Hebrew, characteristically bland, says only Badenhaim, 'ir nofesh, "Badenheim, resort town.") There are elements of allegory, to be sure, but the textures of scene and language, the particular stance of the narrative voice, resist allegory: To assume allegory would be to trivialize.

Neither, of course, are we given the assurances of realism, not in a novel where random, brief, inexplicable yet historically prophetic images of disaster flicker like mirages upon the imaginings of the characters. Flickerings only, casually rejected by the reason, shunned by the will. What Appelfeld has done, I think, is to take as his very subject the imagination's inability to comprehend a disaster at once senseless and total. That inability was as present then, when terror and annihilation were unfolding themselves, as it is now, in historical retrospect, if in far different form. He has created the landscape of imagination's limits, a landscape peopled by those whom culture both nourishes and narcotizes, for whom everyday pleasures, sights, fragrances, annoyances, create the illusion of a reality more dense than that to which the imagination refuses to give a name.

At the railway station, Badenheim distant now, the conductor of the resort orchestra says expectantly, "Soon we'll arrive in Poland. New sights, new people. A man must broaden his horizons, no?" An engine arrives, coupled to four filthy freight cars. "Get in!" yell invisible voices. "And the people were sucked in. Even those who were standing with a bottle of lemonade in their hands, a bar of chocolate, the headwaiter with his dog—they were all sucked in as easily as grains of wheat poured into a funnel. Nevertheless, Dr. Pappenheim found time to make the following remark: 'If the coaches are so dirty it must mean that we have not far to go.'"

The final resonances of the novel are muted, ambiguous, at once melancholy and sardonic. That final paragraph moves suddenly and savagely to fact, but fact which has been stylized, cut down to invisible voices and a brutal simile. Frozen-framed at the very instant of his fate, at the door of the freight car, Dr. Pappenheim speaks his own epitaph, indomitable in his feckless assertion of a rational and benevolent universe. In his final moments, he is Dr. Pangloss, but Appelfeld has made calculated use of the complexity of our response. We have known from the first pages what will happen to the people of Badenheim, but it is a knowledge which we impose upon the text, and the text exists therefore as a kind of double-writing, a mannered and elegant comedy which dramatizes a reality in which words such as "elegance" and "comedy" are weightless, meaningless. He has compelled form to express the formless, the void, the black night in which culture, art and civility serve only to betray us.

Thomas Flanagan, "We Have Not Far to Go," in The Nation (copyright 1981 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 232, No. 4, January 31, 1981, p. 122.

Gabriele Annan

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 672

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 but not to be taken quite seriously. Diverse as they are, most of them share a gentle dottiness, an endearing Donald Duck irritability quickly melting into good nature and sentiment. Their pathos is enhanced by the fact that they are bent on pleasure in a pleasure resort….

Only one of them has any sense of "ills to come." The book opens with a mysterious, ominous passage about the local pharmacist's wife, Trude [who is haunted by forebodings]….

The reader shares her sense of doom and unlike her knows exactly what it is to be. All the other characters refuse to see or even guess at it. They cooperate with events. In fact, you might call this work a scherzo on a theme by Arendt. That would be a remark in bad taste, but then Badenheim 1939 is, at least in part, a bad taste joke—made with exquisite taste….

Appelfeld is a Proustian connoisseur of intra-Jewish snobberies….

The hatred of the assimilated Central European Jews for the Ostjuden from Eastern Europe is a major theme. The deportees crowding into Badenheim and the summer visitors already there accuse each other of being Ostjuden, and the Ostjuden in general of being the cause of what is going on. On the other hand some of the characters in their new and threatening circumstances seek strength in acknowledging the Eastern past they have tried to suppress and advertise their pride in it. They begin learning Yiddish: the headwaiter finds "the language very interesting." When an ancient orthodox rabbi appears among the deportees the agnostic Germanized summer visitors eagerly adopt him like some folkloric mascot….

But underneath this conscious revival of pride in their origins there is something much more strange and sinister, a genuine Sehnsucht for the East. Sick Trude is the first to feel the pull back to the suffering from which they have all escaped either in their own or in their forebears' generation. The pallor she sees in their faces from the very beginning is not meant to be, I think, simply the pallor of impending death: their sickness is a longing for suffering and death—and it sends an unfamiliar and uneasy frisson down the reader's spine.

Gabriele Annan, "Before the Deluge," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1981 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, February 5, 1981, p. 3.

Robert Fyne

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 188

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

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 664

"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 sleep that night was strange: I had lost everyone and retreated into myself as into the silence of high-growing reeds."…

[A plot] synopsis provides just the spine of Book One—its real wealth is in an abundance of incidents and details and symbolically charged interconnections that are presented with impressive economy. The writing, insofar as it can be judged without reference to the original Hebrew, seems to be very good—gentle in tone and musically cadenced.

Having said this, though, I find it surprising to come across a very occasional but all the more jarring botched phrase like this one, describing the onset of mental illness in a young woman: "Her face … had suddenly been overshadowed by a secret passion, pale and consuming, that gradually had spread across her neck." Needless to say, secret passions don't spread across necks, and pallor doesn't produce shadows. It may be the translator's error, but distressingly, the image reappears three pages later, where the passion spreads past the neck to the fingertips. It's disconcerting to come across crude problems of organization in the midst of such subtle and careful writing; several confusing shifts backward and forward in time, for instance, do not serve any discernible artistic purpose.

The blank page that separates Book One from the second, considerably shorter section—as well as the heading: "Many Years Later, When Everything Was Over"—must obviously be taken to signify more than a simple pause indicating the passage of years. Since Mr. Appelfeld, perhaps wisely, does nothing to belabor the obvious, not even so much as to use the word "holocaust," the reader is handed the burden of imagining the vast gap between Bruno the boy and Bruno the man who returns to his hometown from Israel two decades after the war. I have no complaint about the radical break in the tone and pacing of the narrative—it seems fully justified, indeed necessary; but I wonder whether the vividness of Bruno's character is not impaired by so much silence surrounding him….

And yet [the] sequence of alienated and rather sad encounters [in Book Two], along with the many brilliant small scenes and cameo portraits of Book One, engages us strongly, beyond the scope of the narrative, for the questions it raises about the nature of ethnic and cultural identity, about the self-hate that can pose as emancipation, about fidelity and betrayal, and, of course, more specifically, about Judaism. What, in fact, is a Jew? The anti-Semites Bruno's father encounters in trains define the word with sadistic jibes and laughter; his literary critics explain it by the concept "decadence"; to Lonka and Louise, the essence of Judaism is contained in the memory of tender, romantic lovers; for the "mongrels" at the Henrietta bar, it is a precious mystery that is transmitted genetically. The question rings as a silent subtext through every page of the book. It is a mark of Mr. Appelfeld's artistic integrity that he never proffers a didactic or dogmatic answer, but allows the question a wide range of emotional and philosophical inflections; and that is a major source, as well, of the novel's power. (p. 20)

Joel Agee, "The Calm before the Storm," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 27, 1981, pp. 1, 20.

A. Alvarez

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473

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….

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. (p. 33)

[The last third of the book] 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….

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. (p. 34)

A. Alvarez, "Enemies Within" (reprinted by permission of the author), in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, February 4, 1982, pp. 33-4.

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Aharon Appelfeld World Literature Analysis


Appelfeld, Aharon (Short Story Criticism)