In February 1982 , I submitted my doctoral dissertation in the Hebrew literature department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The topic was ‘‘The Developmental Structure in Aharon Appelfeld’s Early Prose.’’ When my advisors returned my thesis to me, I sent it, with fear and trepidation, to Aharon Appelfeld, whom I had never met.
Appelfeld read the dissertation and invited me to discuss it in his home in Mevaseret Zion, and since then he has become an inseparable part of my life. In fact, I know much more about Appelfeld, in certain respects, than I know about my father and mother, who are natives of Hungary and, like him, are Holocaust survivors. My mother came to Israel after surviving one of the death marches from Auschwitz to Germany at age fourteen. My father, who was about seventeen, was among the fortunate passengers on the Kasztner transport who made it to Switzerland, after a short spell at Bergen-Belsen. Thanks to Appelfeld, I now know more about my mother and father—about the cultural space from which they came, their childhood and youth, their dreams and nightmares, their loves and disappointments, and their complex encounter with the State of Israel. Moreover, thanks to Appelfeld I know a lot more about what he terms ‘‘the Jewish people’s hundred years of solitude in modernity,’’ as well as about Western culture, its positive and negative manifestations, and human nature.
In 1986 Appelfeld moved from the Hakibbutz Hameuchad publishing house to Keter Books, where I was, since the previous year, editor of Hebrew prose. In 1988, I edited a manuscript of his for the first time: the novella Floor of Fire. Since then, I have edited seventeen other manuscripts of Appelfeld’s. First at Keter, then at Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan, which I joined in 2008—and to my great delight, Appelfeld followed suit. The most recent of his manuscripts that I’ve had the privilege to edit is To the Edge of Sorrow, which was published on February 29, 2012.
Author-editor relations usually unfold away from the limelight. What transpires in the ‘‘editing room’’ is usually akin to the psychologist’s office, in that both entail a relationship whose effectiveness depends, according to convention, on an unwritten confidentiality agreement. The breach of author-editor relationships therefore involves a particular kind of sensitivity. This is because in the editing space, unlike in the psychologist’s office, it is not at all clear who is the professional authority, since the author does not concede that the editor is a greater master in the art of writing even if s/he accepts the editor’s comments (some, most, or all of them). In candid moments, many authors have testified that admitting their text has been treated by another person is akin to hanging their soiled undergarments in the open, and, worse, as diluting what they cherish most: their voice.
No wonder, then, that one modest shelf can accommodate all of the world’s writings on author-editor relationships. And yet, despite the scarcity of works on this subject—such as the relationship of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Thomas Wolfe and Maxwell Perkins, Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish, and the fragmentary information on Yosef Hayim Brenner’s relations with the authors he edited (Reuveni and Burla among others); or today, the relationship Menachem Perry had with A. B. Yehoshua versus with David Grossman—it is obvious that this is fraught psychocultural territory, the intelligent exploration of which may shed light on some of the mysteries of artistic creativity.
In this modest essay I wish to break the ‘‘confidentiality agreement’’ between myself and Aharon Appelfeld. I would like to expose (with his permission, of course), a little of what takes place behind the scenes of the editorial process; to point out a few milestones on the road upon which his manuscripts travel before becoming books.
First is the scene in which he delivers a new manuscript to me. Appelfeld, it should be said in advance, belongs to a small group of writers who always have several manuscripts in the final stages of preparation. In other words, he does not finish one manuscript, publish it, and begin working on the next. Rather, he writes multiple new manuscripts concurrently while polishing nearly finished texts.
This phenomenon is editorially significant, and consequently has an impact on scholarly reception. Since at any given time Appelfeld has several manuscripts in near-perfect condition, he has to decide each time which manuscript to pull out of the drawer to work on. He makes this decision—sometimes in consultation with his editor—based on several criteria. Not insignificant is how different his new manuscript is in relation to his most recently published book, or the last several books released. This is an important criterion from a publishing perspective, since in recent years Appelfeld has released a new book every year, alongside a reprinting of a previously published work. The publishing policy regarding Appelfeld’s writings is a fact that scholars and critics who follow the author’s development must take into consideration, since the books’ order of appearance in Hebrew (and, of course, to a much greater extent in other languages) does not accurately reflect the order of their composition. As an example, To the Land of the Reeds (2009) was published in Hebrew after And the Rage Is Not Yet Over (2008) but was written more than fifteen years prior to it.
After he decides which manuscript to pull out, Appelfeld summons me to receive it. The ceremony of handing over the manuscript has taken place in several locations over the last twenty-five years. Initially it was in Jerusalem, mostly at the Anna Ticho cafe´, where Appelfeld used to sit and edit his manuscripts. It is nestled in the garden of a stone building that belonged to Jerusalem’s first eye doctor and his artist wife and is now a museum, providing an intimate meeting place. Anna Ticho replaced other Jerusalem cafes, such as Nava and Max, about which Appelfeld has written in his illustrated book, It Is Yet High Day. These venues all share an atmosphere reminiscent of Central European cafes in the Habsburg era.
Later on, probably due to the growing inconvenience for Appelfeld of taking the bus to Jerusalem (he doesn’t drive), our meetings took place in cafes in Mevaseret Zion, Appelfeld’s neighborhood in the western outskirts of Jerusalem. First we met at Aroma, in the crowded and noisy Mevaseret Mall, then at Sack Kemach, near Appelfeld’s house, and, after it closed, at Cafe Atara, a somewhat sterile branch of the mythological Jerusalem cafe on Ben Yehuda Street. The cafes were chosen, among other reasons, because of their ties with Appelfeld’s childhood, but also because for him, they are a space in which an ongoing human exhibition is on display.
Those who have had the privilege of sitting with Appelfeld in these cafes have seen how he surveys the myriad characters who happen upon the place with his gigantic eyes, further magnified by his lenses. They know that many of his portraits, even those that detail characters in Europe during both the pre–First World War and pre–Second World War eras, are based on his impressions of cafe patrons in Jerusalem, beginning in the 1950s.
In the last two years, our meetings have taken place in Appelfeld’s home. We meet in his study, in the lower part of the house, a room laden with bookshelves which seem to have been arranged according to some logic, long ago lost. A disproportionate ratio between books and storage space has usurped its order. The walls without books, many of which are Appelfeld’s works translated into dozens of languages, are tiled with appreciation certificates, citations, awards, and honorary doctorates from prestigious institutions in Israel and many other countries around the world.
Once we are both seated, Appelfeld sips his tea, I my coffee, and we talk about this and that: literature, politics, family . . . life. And then, Appelfeld reaches over to the chair next to him, lifts a rubber-band-bound folder—it used to be of brown oak tag and is now of blue plastic— hands it to me, and says, ‘‘There, this is for you.’’ And after a minute he adds: ‘‘Perhaps we should read a little?’’ He begins by reading the opening paragraph. His voice is very quiet and forces me to listen closely. The musicality of his reading is emphasized by the movement of his right hand as he reads, like a conductor performing a work according to the score laid out in front of him. His soft voice undulates, emphasizing what he deems worthy of emphasis, suppressing what he thinks should remain in the background, and marking, with utmost precision, the text’s caesuras, the breathing pauses, which he considers no less important than the explicit semiotic units.
After the first paragraph he halts, reviews it with his eyes again, and then continues through to the end of the chapter. Then he asks, ‘‘A little more?’’ and reads through to the end of the second chapter. Again, he asks ‘‘A little more?’’ and reads through to the end of the third chapter (Appelfeld’s prose is written in relatively brief chapters, usually three or four pages per chapter). Then he stops, puts the manuscript on the table, and asks me, ‘‘So, what do you say? There’s something new to it, isn’t there?’’ Then he repeats exactly the same question with a slightly different intonation, which paints it with the color of a hesitant judgment. And only then, after some forty minutes, does he hand me the manuscript.
This ceremony has great importance in my eyes. From Appelfeld’s vocal performance of his written text, I learn how to approach it. His hand movements accompany me at any given moment of editing. They remind me, at any place where I think something should be changed, that I must retain the unique rhythm of his prose. Thus, when I think a word should be removed or added or the word order of a sentence changed, I am careful to suggest alternatives that would suit the text’s rhythm, which is markedly poetic-lyrical, and—this comes across in Appelfeld’s vocal reading—relies on a melodic pattern that blends elements from several languages.
By the way, one of Appelfeld’s iron rules in this context (which I have adopted for myself and have used when I edit other authors’ manuscripts) is to avoid ‘‘artistic patchings-up’’ as much as possible. When Appelfeld encounters discord in a sentence that cannot be readily overcome, he will delete that sentence without any remorse. The same applies to two sentences, three, a paragraph, even a whole chapter.
The editing process of Appelfeld’s manuscripts involves multiple stages. Appelfeld writes the first draft by hand. He writes and revises several times. Once he is more or less content with the manuscript, he gives it to a typist—who types it up on a typewriter! This is the text that Appelfeld places in his drawer, for either a short or a long time, and then goes back to revise by hand, as is his custom. This is the version that reaches me: typed on a typewriter and corrected in Appelfeld’s angular handwriting.
I make my comments on this manuscript and give it back to Applefeld. At the beginning of our professional relationship, we used to meet face to face to go over each and every page and discuss each and every emendation. In recent years, now that a solid understanding has been established, I tend to work on the manuscript at home and send it to Appelfeld with my comments. He reads, accepts some changes and marks those he doesn’t, and then we sit and talk. Then the manuscript is sent to the publishing house and typed on a computer. It undergoes several proofs. One of these is done by Appelfeld himself. At this stage as well, he almost always makes a few changes. And again, we discuss those changes. And that’s it. The manuscript goes to the typesetter, ready to face its fate.
In this essay, I will shine a small spotlight on three steps on this editorial course. First, I will present a page of Appelfeld’s manuscript in the initial state in which I received it: typed on a typewriter, with the author’s handwritten emendations. This passage, which is quite instructive, comes from the manuscript of To the Edge of Sorrow, which, as of the time this is being written, is Appelfeld’s most recently published novel:
There was a certain calmness in Grandma Tzirl’s voice that relaxed his face at once and he asked, ‘‘Did you know my grandfather closely?’’ ‘‘I knew him well, we were neighbors, and I remember you too, my little chickadee. On Shabbat and the high holidays you used to walk to the synagogue with your grandfather, always dressed so nicely.’’ ‘‘Why weren’t my parents happy about me going to synagogue?’’ ‘‘Each generation has its ways, but they meant well. Your parents bought a turntable and loved listening to <classical> music. They would sit for hours on the glassed-in porch and listen. After hours of listening they looked like spiritual people. They probably connected with the origin of the melodies. Any other melody was grating to their ears. While they were listening to music, you sat with your grandfather in the small synagogue of Vizhnitz Hasidim. The prayer of Vizhnitz Hasidim is very sweet. You tasted more than a morsel of it and it inhabited you.’’ The privilege of being a trusted shliah. tsibur is not conferred upon just anyone. And you have been graced with this privilege, and it will stay with you all your life. You are blessed.
<At night, several fighters were given gloves from the hands of Reb Hanoch. Reb Hanoch dresses us in wool hats, gloves and vests, and although we don’t talk much about him his presence is felt and seen. A day does not go by without his gifts. He knits day and night, and every garment that leaves his hands is pleasant and warm. It’s a shame that we do not know how to thank him adequately for his efforts.>
To the Edge of Sorrow is the story of a group of Jewish fighters in the Second World War preparing themselves for a decisive battle with the enemy. The dramatic turn of events is told through the eyes of Edmund, a seventeen-year-old boy who follows the fighters after losing his parents. Over the course of the story, he changes from a gentle boy into a young man. At the same time, however, he and his companions are exposed to the roots of the tribe’s personal and collective feeling and sorrow—each in his own way, according to his nature, against the backdrop of his memories. In To the Edge of Sorrow, as in many of Appelfeld’s stories, there are ‘‘transformative characters’’ who function as mediums between the visible, realistic, cruel world, and the grandparents’ naive world of faith.
Two such characters figure in the above passage: the first is Isidore, who occasionally sounds the prayers and nigunim that he heard in his childhood at the Hasidic synagogue where his grandfather took him to the dismay of his assimilated parents; these prayers and nigunim connect the fighters with the heritage of their forefathers. The second is Grandma Tzirl, who calls Isidore by his childhood nickname, Itche Meir (which is a combination of the names of Appelfeld’s sons: Yitzhak and Meir), and who is herself an authentic representative of their grandparents’ generation, offering some of the fighters a sort of ‘‘protective religious vestment’’ that shields them from the filth and hardships of this world.
Grandma Tzirl’s function as protective amulet for some of the fighters— she is perceived as an idolatrous figure in the eyes of others who cannot bear the presence of any religious display—is manifested, first and foremost, in her wide spiritual range. Meditative listening to classical music, which triggers spiritual elevation, is, in her eyes, a legitimate expression of religious yearning, which is similar in intention, though not in essence, to the prayer of Vizhnitz Hasidim, which she labels ‘‘very sweet.’’
And here, we reach the crux of the matter: why did Appelfeld delete the two passages that emphasize this substantive resemblance? I am referring to the sentences: ‘‘After hours of listening they looked like spiritual people. They probably connected with the origin of the melodies. Any other melody was grating to their ears,’’ and ‘‘The privilege of being a trusted shliah tsibur is not conferred upon just anyone. And you have been graced with this privilege, and it will stay with you all your life. You are blessed.’’ This question has several answers, and they have something to teach us about Appelfeld’s art of storytelling. One of the answers is that the above sentences contain interpretive and emotional excess, which, according to Appelfeld’s poetic principles, is unforgivable. Applefeld always prefers events and descriptions to interpretation and emotive amplification. Wherever he identifies interpretive excess—and especially any expository, moralistic, ideological tendency or emotional congestion—he will ax it mercilessly unless it serves to ironically portray pompous characters.
These two passages were deleted for another reason that is consistent with the previous one: Appelfeld most likely thought that the passage was satisfactory without the deleted sentences. It seems that this is true, as the situation that he describes is anchored in concrete qualifications, as he believes it should be—that is, in linguistic combinations that ‘‘do the job,’’ despite the reader’s lack of awareness thereof, according to one of the tenets of Appelfeld’s poetics. By this, I am referring to all of the metonyms included in the photocopied page before us in the final typed passage, metonyms that Appelfeld left intact, each serving as a marker of a cultural space: ‘‘turntable,’’ ‘‘glassed-in porch,’’ and ‘‘the small synagogue of Vizhnitz Hasidim.’’ The adjectives ‘‘glassed-in,’’ on the one hand, and ‘‘small,’’ on the other, are highly significant. ‘‘Glassed-in’’ denotes an area surrounded by a transparent though impermeable partition, which separates the assimilated Jews from the real world; whereas ‘‘small’’ denotes the naive and humble acceptance of the yoke of religion by the Carpathian Jews.
At this editorial stage, Appelfeld added the adjective ‘‘classical’’ to these two appellations to compensate for the deletion of the sentence that revealed the parents’ music listening habits. The handwritten paragraph that Appelfeld added at the end of the photocopied page is also instructive of both his art of storytelling and his perception of man and the world, which are naturally intertwined. Reading the page in sequence, one expects, after the deletion of the two specific lines, that Grandma Tizrl’s and Isidore’s now-expunged tête-à-tête would be supplanted. But Appelfeld makes a different move, which is very typical of his poetics. He adds a new situation that parallels its antecedent and yet is very different in its orientation. The spiritual Grandma Tzirl, who blesses Isidore in the deleted sentence, akin to Isaac blessing Jacob, is replaced by Reb. Hanoch, who is not a man of words. On the contrary, he takes care of a tangible and very essential need: providing the fighters with warm clothing to prevent them from freezing while out on a mission. This substitution reflects two poetical-philosophical axes in Appelfeld’s world. The first is that any spiritual issue is invalid nonsense unless it is given expression in the tangible world. The second is the switch from Grandma Tzirl, who takes the place of the biblical Isaac, to the feminized Reb. Hanoch—who not only provides the woolen garments but knits them as well. This expresses the complexity of gender in Appelfeld’s work, which is evident in its connection to issues relating to ‘‘the eternity of the tribe.’’ In many of his pieces, the characters who are most connected to the roots of collective existence and who preserve the ongoing linkage therewith are not Jewish men, not even those who serve as ‘‘holy vessels’’—rabbis, cantors, etc.—but instead women, usually elderly, seldom Jewish, and mostly . . . ‘‘kosher’’ non-Jews.
My editorial perspective on Appelfeld’s manuscripts, as with any other manuscript entrusted to me, is that of a ‘‘double agent.’’ On the one hand, I try to ensure that the text is faithful to the author’s unique voice—from which s/he sometimes deviates for various reasons. On the other hand, I represent the readers. I check to see if there are any places where the eagerness for a unique authorial voice is no longer just idiosyncratic; that is, that the language becomes such that only the author can understand it.
Appelfeld is a communicative author, and therefore my main task, in this context, is to listen carefully to the text and comment in places where I identify a change in his tone of voice for which I cannot find justification. I will present two examples to illustrate this point. While they are not dramatic, both are characteristic and suggestive.
על חוד הצער
After considering several titles, Appelfeld had named the manuscript that I discuss here On the Edge of Sorrow. I liked this title, but something bothered me about it and I did not know what it was. From an editor’s perspective, selecting a title has an advantage. The title’s few privileged locations make it possible to postpone the decision to the last minute since it does not alter the text’s layout or typesetting.
And so, at the eleventh hour, I called Appelfeld and asked him if we could change On (על) the Edge of Sorrow to To (עד) the End of Sorrow He asked why, and I told him that he usually does not give his books titles that rely on idioms. In Hebrew, the word for ‘‘razor’’ is ta‘ar (תער), while the word for ‘‘sorrow’’ is tsa‘ar (צער). Due in part to this aural proximity, the idiom ‘‘on the razor’s edge’’ strongly reverberates in his desired title, On the Edge of Sorrow. I told Appelfeld that I thought the linguistic history of this two-tiered structure should be blurred. Appelfeld disagreed. He didn’t like To the End of Sorrow. I suggested a compromise: To the Edge of Sorrow. He agreed, and the title was changed.
The second example, which will conclude my discussion, reflects what sometimes takes place at the final stage of editing, a moment before the manuscript departs from the hands of author and editor. Two passages are before you. The first is the opening passage of To the Edge of Sorrow, as I first received it from Appelfeld. The second passage is exactly as I received it after Appelfeld’s final proof, including his corrections; that is, with the deletion of the ultimate line.
My name is Edmond <,> <and> I am seventeen. Since spring we have been crawling on these hills; most of them are barren and a few are sparsely forested. These forest clearings are to our detriment, but we have learned to camouflage ourselves, mislead, stick to the ground, take advantage of blind spots and surprise the enemy. The enemy knows he is dealing with damaged and resolute people, he sics his trained fighters on us, assisted by gendarmes and peasant informants. We will not surrender easily.
My name is Edmond and I am seventeen. Since spring we have been crawling on these hills: most of them are barren and a few are sparsely forested. These forest clearings are to our detriment, but we have learned to camouflage ourselves, mislead, stick to the ground, take advantage of blind spots and surprise the enemy. The enemy knows he is dealing with damaged and resolute people, he sics his trained fighters on us, assisted by gendarmes and peasant informants. We will not surrender easily.
Here, too, the change doesn’t appear to be significant. It is doubtful whether any of readers not versed in Appelfeld’s poetics would give it any importance. Unlike the lines that Appelfeld deleted in the previous passage, the current sentence does not contain emotional or interpretive excesses that should be removed, nor is it a cumbersome sentence with discordant wording that disrupts the elegance of the linguistic continuity that bookends it. However, anyone who has seen Appelfeld perform this passage, with the gestures of his right hand conducting the reading, knows that this concluding sentence is essential. Its importance is also clear beyond a shadow of a doubt to anyone who is familiar with the openings of Appelfeld’s stories, even if they have not had the honor of watching Appelfeld read this passage (it is present from the opening of the first story in his first book, ‘‘Three,’’ in Smoke, through all his other marvelous openings, like the those in the novels The Age of Wonders, At One and the Same Time, Lost, Layish, and Wild Blossoming). I will try to clarify.
The openings in Appelfeld’s stories are miniature representations of their parent texts. They determine the nature of the particular reciprocity between the narrative pattern, the heroes’ mental state, and the story’s rhythm and are bound with one another in a knot that cannot be undone. Rhythmically, the task of narrating in these passages—assigned to different types of narrators—may be compared to the alternations between two basic positions of the hand: clenching and opening. The clenched hand stands for an introverted, compulsive narrative technique, reflecting an attempt to control feelings of chaos and anxiety by demonstrating control over the linguistic medium. The open hand stands for a free, flowing narrative technique, reflecting a kind of existential confidence that does not require the ‘‘safety net’’ of lucid and rigid linguistic-syntactical structures. The openings of Appelfeld’s stories—which are miniature representations of the entire text ordered according to a set rhythm—have a fixed poetic pattern that is of crucial importance.
They begin, to continue using the hand image, with a clenched fist, then the hand opens slightly, quickly clenches again, as if in a frenzy, and then opens once more, this time with a broader motion. This initially happens as if by choice, and later on, out of what appears to be loss of control. Finally, the hand tightens again, but not entirely, and it is clear to the readers that this position is temporary. The narrator is about to lose control, and the fingers will spread open in a gesture of helplessness. Therefore, generally speaking, Appelfeld’s opening passages, and his stories, are oriented toward their narrators’ gradual surrender of their attempt to control the events. This orientation is reflected rhythmically by the relative decrease in the occurrence of short and ordered rhythmical phrases, on the one hand, and by the relative intensification of long and diffuse linguistic sections on the other. Indeed, those passages end with a short, tightly organized sentence. But due to the information it contains and the rhythmical pattern in which it is set, it is perceived as a desperate attempt to dam mighty waters with a thumb.
Our opening passage is constructed in the same way. It begins with the sentence: ‘‘My name is Edmund and I am seventeen.’’ A brief and tightly ordered rhythmical-semantic unit (which was even tighter in its earlier version: ‘‘My name is Edmund. I am seventeen.’’) It is followed by a relatively long sentence, which begins with a description of an ongoing situation (‘‘Since spring . . .’’) that refers to the surrounding landscape. It then breaks down into a sequence of actions, like stones tumbling downhill (‘‘camouflage, mislead, stick to the ground, take advantage of blind spots, and surprise the enemy’’). These actions (which follow the alleged contrast ‘‘but’’) are meant to block the burst of anxiety that was generated by ‘‘these forest clearings [that] are to our detriment.’’
The next sentence is similarly constructed. Its first half presents a confident and calming stance, at least on the surface: ‘‘The enemy knows he is dealing with damaged and resolute people.’’ In contrast, its second half adds information that undermines this stance. It implies an unequal balance of power: ‘‘damaged and resolute people’’ versus ‘‘trained fighters assisted by gendarmes and peasant informants.’’ This information, added to our historical knowledge, makes the adjective ‘‘damaged’’ much more appropriate here than ‘‘resolute.’’
And now, when it is clear to us that this whole matter will end in catastrophe, comes this one little sentence ‘‘We will not surrender easily.’’ Through its enthralling and preposterous heroism, it reveals the beguiling nature of the story’s tragic existential rhythm—one little sentence is supposed to stop the horrifying insanity recorded in the annals of history. I gave Appelfeld a passionate defense of this heroic-pathetic ‘‘thumb in the dam’’ sentence and asked him to overturn his verdict. Appelfeld patiently listened to my arguments, read the entire paragraph and its concluding sentences a second and third time, and agreed. And in fact, in the bound book, the sentence appears as before, as though nothing had happened. But something did happen, at least for me, as a privileged reader who was permitted a peek into the workshop before the product left it in its final form, wrapped in an attractive colorful package. This glimpse into Appelfeld’s workshop allows me to see the work (or at least its seams) from the inside time and again, with each new manuscript I read. It gives me an understanding of the mental state into which Appelfeld’s work transports me, and, I believe, all of his attentive readers. It is a semi-hypnotic state, similar to that of a child listening to a lullaby at bedtime. The song’s melody is enchanting, soothing. But somewhere deep, on the edge of consciousness, warning lights are flickering, apprehensively signaling the volatile, violent, and threatening material hidden behind the mesmerizing notes.
Translated from the Hebrew by Nili Gold. Reprinted from the Fall, 2013 issue of The Jewish Quarterly Review, with permission. © The Jewish Quarterly Review. All rights reserved.