Child of His Time
Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld, Israel’s greatest living writer and author of the new Until the Dawn’s Light, retains his capacity for wonder
I would like to begin with two quotations from Sigmund Freud:
E.T.A. Hoffmann used to explain the wealth of imaginative figures that offered themselves to him for his stories by the quickly changing pictures and impressions he had received during a journey of some weeks in a post chaise, while still a babe at his mother’s breast.
What a child has experienced but not understood by the age of two he may never again recover, except in his dreams.
Many years ago I asked Aharon Appelfeld, the great Israeli novelist, why he did not write an autobiography—even though his best title, his only title, A Child of Our Time, had already been used.
“If I do,” he answered, “I will no longer be able to write my novels.”
The notion that the exploration of one’s own life, particularly one’s childhood, will drain the well of imagination is of course common enough. Call It Sleep and Midnight’s Children are among the greatest novels of the last century. That neither Henry Roth nor Salmon Rushdie, having re-experienced, having revivified, their boyhoods, could produce another work remotely as beautiful is enough to give anyone pause.
Nonetheless, the answer Appelfeld gave to my question—as he surely knows—is both true and insufficient. A more complex response lies in his small 1993 book Beyond Despair, which is as profound a meditation on the relation of memory to imagination as anything I know. Once, at Boston University, he gave a lecture based on one of its chapters. Afterward, my students stood together, not moving, not speaking, in the courtyard. “I can’t stop trembling,” said one of them, as I approached this little grove of human aspens. Holding the book now, I can’t help trembling myself.
Appelfeld, who survived a concentration camp as a child before immigrating to Palestine in 1946, begins by describing the equivocal relationship he and all survivors had with memory. The first task for all of them was not to remember. “Anyone who underwent the Holocaust will be as wary of memory as of fire. … People learned how to live without it the way one learns to live without a limb of one’s body.”
Naturally enough, among this remnant the need to think and write about what had befallen them could not be repressed. But how to do so? The disproportion between the events themselves and the means to express them was too great: “The sights were dreadful and immense, and words are frail and impotent.” The inevitable result was a kind of distortion, a falseness, a misemphasis. The testimonies and memoirs were written in haste, without skill, with no sense of proportion or introspection. In each a battle raged between revelation and concealment. Most were marked by “a search for relief” and not the search for truth. Moreover, in Israel there existed a sense of shame, a feeling of guilt, that exerted a constant pressure to celebrate brave Ghetto fighters and partisans and noble peasants who risked their lives to save Jews, rather than expose the overwhelming majority who were at best indifferent or actively tried to kill them.
But even worse than faulty or distorted recollections were those unfettered by personal experience at all. These writers of fiction were attracted to “the bizarre, to the exceptional, to the speculative and—far worse—to the perverted.” Appelfeld does not give an example, but I will: the Grand Guignol and inauthentic horror in The Painted Bird.
Do not think that Appelfeld exempts his own work from such criticism. On the one hand, “memory itself proved to be the enemy of my writing.” But when he turned to imagination, his poetry and fiction consisted mainly of sentimental excess and cries to God. Caught between a memory that failed him and an imagination he could not trust, he came to the turning point when he stopped writing about himself and instead focused on a Jewish girl with similar experiences. “Miraculously, as though with a magic wand, my compulsive memory was removed” and in its place came a redefinition of memory itself: not so much recollection, or thoughts that could be put in words, but certain sights, sounds, smells, colors, sensations, what, significantly, Hoffmann called “quickly changing pictures and impressions.”
Then, in the place of actual memory came the freedom to experience, or re-experience, what we can call privileged moments: something as simple, Appelfeld tells us, as a few twigs floating on the surface of a pond, the sun on them, the way they shiver in the wind and turn, and turn again, on the current. In such moments, and in their recollection, one may undergo a feeling of enchantment that Appelfeld calls “true memory,” or “inner memory,” or “a warm emotion.” (Here we should very much think of such moments, such recapturings—a madeleine in a teaspoon, an uneven paving stone, a few notes from a sonata—in Proust, who has been neglected as one of Appelfeld’s masters.) Once in possession of “inner memory,” Appelfeld was able to write not “what happened but what had to have happened.” That is say, his work, moved from history to art, not only to his Tzili, the Story of a Life but to all the other wonderful novels as well.
But we have yet to answer fully the question: why no A Child of Our Time? The answer may be in another Appelfeld book that, like Tzili, is called A Story of a Life. This is less an autobiography than what Appelfeld called it, “segments of contemplation and memory,” just as Beyond Despair is called “reflections and feelings,” or, elsewhere, “a series of sensations and images and above all emotions.” In that non-autobiography Appelfeld says what I think any sensitive reader might have deduced from his entire oeuvre: that, in fact, about those six years of war, “I don’t remember, and that’s the whole truth.”
Philip Roth’s legacy of writerly narcissism left a generation of young novelists with the wrong idea of what makes great literature