Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1934
Aharon Appelfeld is a survivor whose writing is stamped by a melancholy sense of the doom he managed to elude. Born in Czernovitz, Bukovina (then Rumanian, now within the Soviet Union), he was eight when the invading Germans sent him to a labor camp in 1940. His mother was killed, his father died in the camp; the boy managed in 1941 to escape into the inhospitable countryside, working as a shepherd and on farms for three years, hiding his identity from hunters of Jews, growing up without a proper adolescence. In 1944, he became a field cook for the Soviet army, after the armistice made his way to Italy with a small tide of refugees, and from there migrated to Palestine in 1946. Though he knew no Hebrew before the age of fourteen, he writes exclusively in his adopted language and is admired as a polished stylist. His published works in Israel include six collections of stories, eight novels, and one book of essays. The Retreat is Appelfeld’s fourth novel to be published in the United States.
The first, called Badenheim 1939 when David R. Godine, Publisher issued it in 1980, was titled Badenheim, ’ir nofesh in Hebrew, which translates literally as Badenheim, resort town. Badenheim is a Jewish summer resort near Vienna, clearly resonant of the existing Baden, whose visitors are middle to upper-middle class, addicted to rich pastries, strawberries, readings from Rainer Maria Rilke’s lyrics, concerts, and flirtations. The climate of mild skies, self-indulgent appetites, and idle conversation promises a Continental social comedy. It is, however, darkened by the Cassandran moods of the local pharmacist’s wife, herself ill, who has hallucinatory visions about her native Poland. Then the local sanitation department ominously extends its authority, registering all summer vacationers, preparing genealogies, festooning its walls with travel posters proclaiming that “The Air in Poland Is Fresher.” Most of the guests remain smugly optimistic about the prospect of leaving for Poland, whose cultural standards are said to be high, while porters unload rolls of barbed wire and cement pillars. The novel’s final paragraph savagely moves the Jews to a freight train headed east while a Panglossian entertainment impresario, Dr. Pappenheim, blindly asserts his faith in a rational and benevolent world. The author’s theme seems to be the inability of the bourgeois imagination to understand the total disaster of totalitarianism.
In Tor-ha-pela’ot (1978; The Age of Wonders, 1981), trains also play a crucial role: The first and longer book of the novel begins in a first-class train compartment, only to conclude in a cattle car. The narrator is a twelve-year-old boy whose return trip with his mother from a summer holiday is marred by an unscheduled stop far from any station. Politely, “all foreign passengers and all Austrian passengers who were not Christians by birth” are requested to register with the “security forces.” Reluctantly, a diversity of passengers file out to record their Jewishness; an elegant lady disdains to admit her kinship with what she regards as vulgar, lower-class Jews. Evidently, the Anschluss of March, 1938, has enfolded Austria within Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Nevertheless, Appelfeld refrains, here as in his other fiction, from direct allusion to historic events. All the boy knows is that “nothing would ever be the same again.” He finds his parents and their friends arguing obsessively about the nature of Jews and Judaism as anti-Semitic stresses increase by a series of incremental tremors.
The boy’s father is a famous Austrian writer, called “A.” in Kafkaesque fashion, whose lofty reputation is attacked by a sequence of articles calling his characters “Jews whowere now useless, corrupt, perverted; parasites living off the healthy Austrian tradition.” The critic, himself Jewish, dies, but his anti-Semitism is adopted by the father, who desperately advertises his assimilated Austrian outlook, curses the Jews “infesting Austria like rats,” and drifts into madness, writing pamphlets excoriating the Jewish petite bourgeoisie. Eventually he abandons his wife and son, fleeing to a Gentile mistress in Vienna; mother and boy are rounded up for a final journey on a “cattle train hurtling south.”
In book 2, about twenty-five years later, the reader discovers that the boy—now named Bruno—has somehow, like his creator, survived the Holocaust; his parents did not. Like Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kroeger, he returns to his native town, only to dawdle aimlessly in parks, bars, and eating places. He encounters several living relics from his boyhood, climaxing with a Jewish bachelor who married his Gentile housekeeper, became a cattle farmer, and grew to hate Jews, and who now tells Bruno to leave town and is assaulted by him. Bruno then departs, emotionally desolate, “empty of thought or feeling.” Despite this relatively weak coda, The Age of Wonders is the most impressive of Appelfeld’s books that have to date been translated into English. It is a chilling, plangent, remorselessly pessimistic study of Jewish self-denial, self-estrangement, self-hatred, of flawed human beings pushed into tight corners of base self-betrayal by circumstances whose enormity overwhelms description.
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 East European girl, neglected and abused by her large, impoverished Jewish family. When the Nazis come, the family flees but leaves Tzili behind to guard the house, rationalizing that no harm will come to a simpleminded child. Harm consumes many others, but somehow Tzili survives the slaughter, mistaken as the bastard daughter of a Gentile village whore. Execrated as one of the devil’s brood, she is tormented by the peasants with sticks and ropes until she meets Mark, a wandering Jew, whose articulate cleverness contrasts with her intuitive, inchoate feelings. Mark impregnates her but then leaves their mountain refuge for death among the peasants in the plain. Toward the close of the war, Tzili joins a small band of camp survivors, delivers a stillborn child, and embarks for Palestine without regarding it as the Promised Land. Her last desire, aboard ship, is for a pear; it is not available. Appelfeld has written here a bleak folktale depicting the survival—on a level of minimal expectations—of the simpleton with animal strength, opposed to the destruction of self-conscious intellection and reflection.
In The Retreat, Appelfeld returns to the provincial Austria of the late 1930’s, again with no explicit reference to Nazis, concentration camps, or the imminent world war. The featured personage—though hardly the protagonist—is Lotte Schloss, an actress in late middle age who has pursued her career with a grim determination that precludes love for her husband or daughter. In 1937, she is dismissed by her theatrical company for being Jewish; she retreats to her daughter Julia’s home, only to find her parsimonious Gentile son-in-law hostile and Julia docile to his wishes. What further refuge? The retreat itself, organized by a Jewish horse trader, Balaban, who has bought an old mountaintop hotel near Vienna, and issued a prospectus to aging Jews in the district offering, at first, a kosher kitchen as well as bracing mountain air and peace of mind. The mention of “kosher” alienates potential guests, so Balaban revises his brochure to emphasize sports and calisthenics but above all “assimilation into the countryside” and painless eradication of “embarrassing Jewish gestures and ugly accents.” This proves to be the right lure, and soon the establishment is filled with Jews who have been spurned by their assimilated offspring.
Balaban himself, however, begins to adopt such “Jewish” characteristics as overeating, arguing, smoking, and card playing. He finds himself unable to forget his Jewish origin in a Polish village where he had a clever sister called Tzili. (It is unlikely that she is the primitive Tzili of Appelfeld’s previous novel, but one then wonders why he gave her the same name.) Occasionally, Balaban descends to the plain’s village—Appelfeld’s recurring metaphor for Jewish immersion in Gentile culture—only to return drunk and enraged, calling Jews “loafers, cheats, liars, money-grubbers and gamblers. There was no hope for them but a forced labor camp.” Several months after Lotte’s arrival, Babalan becomes ill, reverts to the Yiddish of his youth, assumes the appearance of a simple Jewish laborer, and dies. His death puzzles the other inmates: “They would recall him as a riddle which refused to be solved.”
Lotte entered the retreat in a mood close to suicide: “If nobody wants me any more—I’ll go to the Jews.” Nevertheless, she is befriended by Herbert, a journalist also dismissed for his Judaism, who hews to the integrity of the great Viennese satirist Karl Kraus. Herbert arranges an acting grant for Lotte despite her awkward poetry recital at another inmate’s funeral service. In return, she matures to the realization that her theatrical talent had never exceeded mediocrity, “that she had never plumbed the depths of a single role.”
Appelfeld’s characters are flat in this parable, characterized by no more than two or three traits, deficient in motivation and ambiguous in development. Each represents a stage in life, a status or an attitude toward the issue of Jewish fate and identity. By spreading the narrative fairly evenly, the author precludes the reader’s strong response—let alone attachment—to any of them. Thus, the reader encounters the ambitious-for-her-child Jewish stage mother (Lotte’s); the mousy husband-father (also Lotte’s); the denier of his Jewish self (Adolf Wolf); the self-hating Jew who detests Judaism (Isadora); the anti-intellectual pretender to Gentile identity (Lang); the intuitively good, stable peasant (Robert, the janitor); the troubled, unstable Jewess who fantasizes about Gentile lovers (Betty Schlang); the modest defender of Judaism (Lauffer); the disillusioned, pragmatic Jew who insists that his sons convert to Christianity and reject him (Max Hammer).
The Retreat ends on a baffling note. Negatively, the men who descend to the village are beaten and bring back scant provisions. The world narrows down to simple dimensions of cooking and eating. Affirmatively, the retreat’s quarrels become muted and die quickly; the residents help one another, so that “If a man fell or was beaten he was not abandoned.” Nevertheless, the supply of goods and money is drying up; people are afraid at night; and the reader knows—without authorial warning—that European Jewry’s encounter with tragic history is about to reach its climactic stage. A retreat, alas, is no escape.
Do Appelfeld’s novels belong to the subgenre called “Holocaust Literature?” Not literally, since they never mention the monstrous reality of deaths almost beyond reckoning in the “Final Solution.” Symbolically, however, they surely do. For Appelfeld’s artistic strategy is to produce fiction whose structure, imagery, and tone meditate harrowingly on the meaning of contemporary Judaism. He struggles with the culture of self-rejection to which many Jews succumbed in Western and Central Europe. In his flat, understated manner he passes a scorching judgment on the spiritual and psychological meanness of Jewish assimilation to a dominant Gentile society. Like Gustave Flaubert, he flays his Bouvards and Pecuchets for their banal and narcotized acceptance of monstrously irrational hatreds. Like Marcel Proust, he depicts bizarre intra-Jewish snobbery and status-scoring. Like Franz Kafka, he ponders whether being Jewish is an incurable disease. Aharon Appelfeld lacks the intensity, range, and imaginative power of these literary ancestors, but he shares with them the honesty of refusing to proffer any didactic or dogmatic solutions to fundamental problems of ethnic and cultural identity. His sadness at man’s capacity for victimization and cruelty is almost inexpressible. He bears witness to a chapter in human history for which no explanations can fully account.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 53
Kirkus Reviews. LII, February 15, 1984, p. 151.
Library Journal. CIX, March 1, 1984, p. 508.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 8, 1984, p. 2.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, May 20, 1984, p. 38.
The New Yorker. LX, June 4, 1984, p. 133.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, February 17, 1984, p. 72.
Quill and Quire. L, August, 1984, p. 37.
Time. CXXIII, May 28, 1984, p. 86.
Washington Post Book World. April 18, 1984, p. 1.