The walls of Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld's modestly furnished writing studio in Mevasseret Zion, a suburb of Jerusalem, are hung with plaques and testimonials to his achievements as a writer. Many of them are in Hebrew, but one bronzed award from the American Jewish committee and the editors of Present Tense commends his novel Tzili, The Story of a Life as "the outstanding book with a Jewish theme published in the United States in 1983." The room's numerous bookshelves are crowded with books in Hebrew, Yiddish, English, German and other languages. There's a view to a quiet garden. And there's an aged computer on a worn-looking writing table. The 65-year-old Appelfeld, who writes in Hebrew but speaks English, albeit limitedly, explains that the computer belongs not to him but to one of his sons. "I write in longhand," he says.
Somehow this seems appropriate, for there is about Appelfeld's writing something determinedly unhurried, immutable, fixed on a past that is still with us, and him, no matter how time tries to hustle us forward. In novel after novel, he has probed at our dying century's worst wound, the Nazi attempt to annihilate the Jews of Europe. His new novel, The Iron Tracks (Schocken), is the story of a concentration camp survivor who repeatedly and compulsively travels an Austrian train route that begins and ends at the station where he and 24 fellow prisoners, including "a few dead people, and two children," were abandoned by German guards inside a bolted railroad car.
Given his minimalist style, one expects Appelfeld, who is casually dressed in a brown cardigan and dark blue shirt, his deepset eyes shielded by glasses and his balding head tufted with gray hair, to be elliptical, remote, cool. But the author proves different from his fiction. He is talkative, direct and uncommonly warm. Early on, informed that his interviewer's husband was born in Appelfeld's Romanian hometown of Czernowicz but left as an infant, Appelfeld pulls from his bookshelves two large antiquated books about the Jews of Czernowicz, pointing out photographs of bustling streets, an imposing synagogue, the faces of bright-eyed children. A few minutes later, seeming as eager to give his interviewer's husband a sense of his history as to talk about his own, he points to the far wall of his study on which there hang two watercolors of Czernowicz and says: "Go. Look at them. You'll be able to tell your husband what he doesn't remember."
A Lost World
As it turns out, these paintings once belonged to Max Schuster of Simon & Schuster. "He came from Czernowicz, too," Appelfeld says, smiling at the coincidence. "And his stepdaughter, a friend of mine who lives in Jerusalem, inherited them after his death. They held little meaning for her, but a great deal for me, so she gave them to me." This leads him to talk about Czernowicz and the trauma that befell him there when he was seven years old. "At that time, the Germans were sweeping through Romania," he says, his expression turning serious. "My mother was taken away and killed. And my father and I were put into separate concentration camps."
At eight, Appelfeld escaped from his camp, Transnistria, and for the next four years managed to survive by living on the outskirts of a Ukrainian village as a kind of mascot to a group of prostitutes and thieves who employed him to run errands. In 1944, when he was 12, the Russian army liberated the region, and he joined the army as a kitchen boy, marching west with it into Yugoslavia and Italy. He spoke German, the language of his parents; Yiddish, the language of his grandparents; Ukrainian, the language of the marginal villagers among whom he had lived; and Russian, the language of the troops with whom he was traveling. But he had no schooling beyond the first grade, had no familiarity with written language and knew no Hebrew. "So you could say I had no language," he says, "no language in which to unburden myself of my thoughts. In fact, it wasn't until I was 14 and emigrated to Israel that I began reading." That was 1946. "I worked on a kibbutz," he explains. "We worked all day, and in the evenings we studied a bit of Hebrew. But I was very ambitious and after I learned to read Hebrew, I realized I loved reading, and eventually I learned to read Yiddish, Russian and German, too."
After three years on the kibbutz, Appelfeld served for two years in the Israeli army, then enrolled at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. There he studied philosophy and literature, discovering with particular passion the work of Franz Kafka, to whose writing his own has often been compared. He also began writing in Hebrew-at first, p ms and fragments, things he calls "stutterings"-and soon he began publishing. A collection of his short pieces appeared in Israel in the mid-1950s. But it was not until 1962, when Appelfeld published Smoke, a collection of short stories about Holocaust survivors, that his career as a writer was fully launched.
"Writing about the Holocaust wasn't a simple proposition," he says. "At the time, people in Israel weren't interested in the Holocaust. It was a heroic age, and people said, 'Don't speak about the Holocaust. Forget it. We are making a new Jew here, a blunt and blond Jew. We are remaking ourselves.' " But Smoke, he says, "was highly appreciated because of its understated tone."For Appelfeld, who found "the moral drive of my writing in my experience during the Holocaust," Smoke's favorable reception validated his own fictional impulse, and he went on to write numerous other works about the German onslaught against the Jews. But productive though he's been, for most of his life he has supported himself and his family-his wife Judith, to whom he's been married for 34 years, and their three children, now grown-through teaching. He worked as a high-school teacher until 1977, then became a university professor. "I'm a professor at Ben Gurion University," he marvels. "Me, who left school after the first grade."
Smoke has never been published in the United States, but, beginning with Badenheim, 1939, published by David R. Godine in 1980 and dubbed "a small masterpiece" by Irving Howe in the New York Times Book Review, Appelfeld's Holocaust fiction soon found an avid American readership.
In the process, Appelfeld has had several American publishers, and the story of his progress from house to house is in large part a classic illustration of the need of an author to feel attached to an editor in order to maintain loyalty to his publisher. Drawn to J Kanon, whom he met while on sabbatical in the States through his friend, novelist Leslie Epstein, Appelfeld moved to Dutton and remained there for his next two novels, Tzili (1983) and The Retreat (1984).
When Kanon left Dutton, Appelfeld defected to John Hermann at Grove. Hermann edited Appelfeld's next four novels: To the Land of the Cattails (1986), The Immortal Bartfuss (1988), For Every Sin (1989) and The Healer (1990). Then Hermann exited Grove and Appelfeld sold his next book to David Rosenthal at Random, which published Katerina in 1992 and Unto the Soul in 1993. His next book, a collection of essays called Beyond Despair (1994), was something of a departure. "Random House wasn't interested in it," says Appelfeld, so he published it with Fromm International. But he is still with Random House, under the Schocken imprint, which is not only publishing The Iron Tracks but also reissuing The Retreat and Unto the Soul in paper. "I've been after Aharon for about 10 years," says Arthur Samuelson, Schocken editorial director.
"On our list, Appelfeld stands right in the middle between Elie Wiesel on the one hand and Franz Kafka on the other, both of whose complete works we have in print," Samuelson adds.
For his part, Appelfeld calls Samuelson "a very good editor, one who was looking for a good translation." Being well translated is of great concern to Appelfeld, as it is to all authors whose work must reach a public that will read it in a different language from the original. "Some of my books have been less well translated than others," he says, but he is happy with Jeffrey M. Green, the translator of The Iron Tracks, who has also translated several earlier works of his.
In Israel, Appelfeld notes, "it is not necessary to have an agent," and he declines to name his first American agent. But since 1990, he has been represented by Andrew Wylie, "a man," he smiles, "with a terrible reputation but one who is very kind to his authors."
A Circular Route
Appelfeld bridles when asked why he writes only about the Holocaust-a question, he reports, most Americans ask him. "It isn't true that this is all I write about," he says. "I have written about Israel in a couple of novels. The first is a book about my adolescence called The Searing Light, and another, a book called The Skin and the Coat, is about Jewish emigration to this country after the war. But neither has appeared in the United States.""Like any great writer," explains Samuelson, Appelfeld "has a subject but isn't limited by it." Like the protagonist of Iron Tracks, who rides the train on a circular route, he has "been circling around the issues of the holocaust in each book, seeing it from a different angle," says Samuelson. "The existential situation it describes is not unlike his own as a writer who has a subject that both grounds him and from which he is struggling to be free."
A prolific author, as the list of just his American publications reveals, Appelfeld has many unpublished manuscripts. He writes virtually every day from eight in the morning until about one in the afternoon, then has lunch and reads until four, when he g s back to work for two hours to reread and edit his morning's production. Some days, he spends hours just moving a comma. Indeed, he was once quoted as having said, "To remove a comma or to put in a comma is a moral issue for a writer."
The painstaking process by which Appelfeld writes results in works that are stripped, gaunt, denuded of details. In this they are reminiscent of Israeli architect Moshe Safdie's world-renowned Children's Memorial, a building on the grounds of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, which makes its devastating point through the mere use of echoing space, darkness and candles. Safdie recently told this reporter that his goal had been to give visitors not further information but "just a moment of contact with memory." When Appelfeld hears this analogy, his face lights up. "Exactly," he says. "I don't like to use too many words. For me, the unsaid is far more important than the said."
He g s on to explain that, in part, he writes the way he d s because the reality of the Holocaust surpassed his imagination, anybody's imagination, but also because he believes that the use of too many details in a work deprives the reader "of the chance to be creative. Reading isn't just sitting back and getting spoon-fed by a writer."
Appelfeld's reluctance to spoon-feed readers hasn't caused him to go unappreciated. His books have been translated into 27 languages. He has just seen Israeli publication of another Holocaust novel, one he calls The Ice Mine (it has not yet been taken by an American publisher). And his unique voice, one that Philip Roth in the New York Times Book Review defined as situating "the fiction it narrates midway between parable and history," has won him a place of honor not just in the ever-burgeoning field of Holocaust fiction, but in the emerging canon of post-War international literature. Correction: The writer cited by Judith Viorst in the Dec. 8 Interview who took her life in the final stages of cancer is Charlotte Perkins Gilman.