The Immortal Bartfuss
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1749
Aharon Appelfeld is a survivor of the Holocaust whose writing is stamped by a melancholy sense of the doom he managed to elude. Born in Chernovtsy, Bukovina (then Rumanian, now within the Soviet Union), he was eight when the invading Germans sent him to a labor camp in 1940. There both of his parents died, but the boy managed in 1941 to escape into the inhospitable countryside, working as a shepherd and farm helper for three years, hiding his identity from hunters of Jews. In 1944 he became a field cook for the Soviet army. After the armistice he made his way to Italy with a small tide of refugees, and from there he migrated to what was then called Palestine. Appelfeld made a home on the outskirts of Jerusalem with his Argentine-born wife, two sons, and one daughter. His works are written in his adopted Hebrew, which, he has said in interviews, encourages a sparse, compact, elliptical style.
Appelfeld has published novels, story collections, and one book of essays. The Immortal Bartfuss is his sixth novel to be published in the United States. His best-known translated work is Badenheim, ’ir nofesh (1975; Badenheim 1939, 1980), literally “Badenheim, resort town” in Hebrew. Badenheim is a Jewish summer resort near Vienna, where visitors indulge themselves in rich food, idle conversation, and the usual vacation romances. The local sanitation department, however, begins to darken the communal climate by registering all vacationers and preparing their genealogies. The book’s final paragraph grimly moves Badenheim’s Jews to a freight train headed east while a Panglossian impresario continues to assert his faith in a rational and benevolent world.
In Tor-ha-pela’ot (1978; The Age of Wonders, 1981), the Holocaust again overtakes a group of bourgeois, assimilated, unwary Jews in an isolated Austrian town—and again Appelfeld makes no explicit reference to such historic events as Adolf Hitler’s Anschluss, which annexed Austria to Germany. Indeed he refrains, here as in his other fiction, from any direct allusion to contemporaneous history. As in a Kafka text the overpowering ordeal descends inexplicably, irrationally, irresistibly. The Age of Wonders is a chillingly pessimistic study of Jewish self-denial, self-estrangement, and self-hatred, with secular Central European Jews denying their Judaic culture and despising their pious Eastern European brethren.
Kutonet veha-pasim (1983; Tzili: The Story of a Life, 1983) is a simpler tale than the first two, with the protagonist’s wanderings an approximate outline of Appelfeld’s own during and after World War II. Tzili is a slow-witted Eastern European girl who is abandoned by her impoverished Jewish family when they flee the Germans. Mistaken as the bastard daughter of a Gentile whore, she manages to survive excruciating hardships. Appelfeld here writes a bleak folktale depicting the endurance of the simpleton with animal strength as opposed to the destruction of self-conscious intellection.
In Nesiga mislat (1984; The Retreat, 1985), Appelfeld returns to the provincial Austria of the late 1930’s. A middle-aged actress, Lotte Schloss, is dismissed by her theatrical company for being Jewish; she retreats to her daughter’s home, only to find her Christian son-in-law hostile and her daughter docile to his wishes. What further refuge? Lotte heads for a place called The Retreat, an old mountaintop hotel near Vienna which invites aging Jews for lessons in adjusting to a Gentile society, promising the painless eradication of Jewish accents and traits. The novel concludes flatly and forebodingly, with the reader aware that European Jewry’s encounter with tragic history is about to reach its apocalypse. A retreat, after all, is no escape.
To the Land of the Cattails (1986) is set in Appelfeld’s native province of Bukovina, near the Ukraine. The coprotagonists are Toni, a beautiful but self-centered thirty-four-year-old Jewess, and her sensitive, adolescent son, Rudi. The divorced, promiscuous mother journeys eastward with her half-Gentile son to her rural homeland. Yet they never complete their return. They find Jews murdered and uprooted along way stations, with Toni’s parents turning out to have mysteriously vanished. Rudi is separated from Toni, never to find her again. He innocently joins a cluster of Jews at a rural railroad station. They are waiting to be taken where all Jews in the region have been told to go—and where few will live to tell their tales. Again, Appelfeld’s voice is muted, impassive, neutral rather than naturalistic: no congested, suffocating boxcars; no SS guards wielding whips; no electrified barbed wires; no gas chambers. Readers will bring their own awareness of modern history as nightmare to this as well as to Appelfeld’s other fables.
With The Immortal Bartfuss Appelfeld abandons the milieu of a pre- and post-World War II Europe, except for brief reminiscences, and focuses on contemporary Israel. The central character survived the Holocaust and now resides in the seaport town of Jaffa. He is brooding, insular, self-isolated, and emotionally narcotized. At fifty, Bartfuss has one estranged married daughter, Paula; another, Bridget, who is retarded and lives at home; and an embittered wife, Rosa, whom he never loved and whom he cannot forgive for having survived the war by fornicating with peasants. For her part, Rosa cannot forgive him for having attempted to escape his responsibilities toward her and their daughters by leaving Italy after the war on an immigrant vessel. Somehow, she discovered his plan and managed to board the same boat. Thereafter she plays Medea, instilling venom in her daughters against their father.
Bartfuss sleeps in a room apart from his wife and impaired daughter, leaves the apartment at dawn, and returns close to midnight. He sits in cafés for hours at a time, incommunicative, solitary; alternatively, he wanders along the seashore for hours, again incommunicative and solitary. He has learned wariness, secretiveness, miserliness, has “developed a clipped language of refusal, protective syllables that were accompanied with a shrug of his left shoulder, all of which said, ’leave me alone.’”
Why is Bartfuss called “immortal”? Appelfeld hints that the epithet originated during the immediate postwar years, when Bartfuss belonged to a large smuggling ring in Italy and survived fifty bullets in his body, somehow escaping arrest. Now he makes a mysterious but apparently lucrative living as some sort of underworld trader who dispatches his business in a rapid outburst of transactions that consumes no more than fifteen minutes of his working day. So he has ample time to reflect and ruminate about his precarious past and detested present. Appelfeld summarized Bartfuss’ behavior in an interview: He “has swallowed the Holocaust whole, and he walks about with it in all his limbs.”
Nevertheless, Bartfuss’ feelings, while atrophied, are by no means dead. In a café he sees Theresa, his close friend from concentration camp days, but she rejects his attempts to renew their intimacy: Memories frighten her; she can only live for the moment. An old confederate from Italy rebuffs Bartfuss’ offer of a loan. When he wants to buy Bridget the gold-plated watch she covets, his daughter instead runs away from him, fearful of her mother’s disapproval if she accepted her father’s gift. Bartfuss is in an existential crisis: His burden of being is oppressively heavy.
Thirsty for fellowship, Bartfuss confides in another old confederate, Schmugler, only to have the latter dismiss his gesture; an angry Bartfuss pounds the man’s face. He then buys an Omega watch for Bridget and renews the bonds of empathy with a former mistress, Sylvia. Sylvia, however, is soon taken ill and dies. Despairingly, Bartfuss asks Sylvia’s former husband, “What have we Holocaust survivors done? Has our great experience changed us at all? . . . I expect . . . greatness of soul from people who underwent the Holocaust.”
Bartfuss now knows what to do: He will overcome his inclination toward morbidity, withdrawal, and solitude. He will act generously, opening his soul, seeking out the people from whom he has kept his distance. In a grotesque yet pathetic scene he encounters Bridget, who tells him that she no longer fears him. He takes her to the seashore as in Italy he used to take mutely passive women for his sexual gratification. She clings to him, and when she twists her ankle in the sand he solicitously massages her leg. The full-breasted Bridget lies on her back with her eyes closed; Bartfuss feels his sexual impulses tested and wins a moral victory over such shamefully incestuous desires. The hapless Bridget, however, is then browbeaten by Rosa for having left home without permission.
Bartfuss soon meets Schmugler again and seeks his forgiveness for having hit him; they become friends, promising to meet regularly. He then chances upon another living ghost from his Italian past, Marian; Bartfuss was the only man who had treated her kindly without having sought her compliant sexual services in return. This mentally defective woman cannot recall Bartfuss, but he nevertheless insists on stuffing a bundle of bills in her pocket. Then he returns home, warmed by his good deed, and finally feels himself enveloped by the guiltless, worry-free full sleep against which he has fought for years.
Is Bartfuss a mythic character, a Wandering Jew even when settled—or, rather, unsettled—in Zion? Appelfeld’s flat, understated, ambiguous tone offers this possible meaning. What cannot be doubted is that Bartfuss is a psychically scarred Holocaust survivor, victimized by one of history’s most horrendous assaults, imbued with the folkloric deathlessness of the Jewish culture which has been besieged for many centuries, yet has managed to persist. At the end, remarkably, he has clearly crossed over from psychosis to fellowship. As Appelfeld comments, “He still hasn’t lost his human face. That isn’t a great deal, but it’s something.”
Aharon Appelfeld has earned perhaps a minor but surely a significant place in contemporary fiction. On one level his novels belong to the subgenre called Holocaust literature, as he focuses on the prelude or aftermath of a reality beyond a writer’s imagination or direct expressiveness. Here he is in the company of Elie Wiesel, Jerzy Kosinski, and Primo Levi, and may be their aesthetic master with his resonantly disciplined prose and deeply disturbing images. On the plane of literary tradition his acknowledged ancestor is Franz Kafka, whom he has saluted for his objectively detached style, clarity of vision, ruminations on Jewish identity, and precise sense of the absurd. “Kafka’s works,” Appelfeld has informed the American author Philip Roth, “illuminated the narrow path which I tried to blaze for myself.” The path may be narrow, but the furrow traced by Appelfeld’s fiction will prove indelible in the world’s literature.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 54
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