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Aharon Appelfeld’s ‘To the Edge of Sorrow’

The Israeli master’s latest novel to be translated to English is about the intricate work of forging a community, and a national narrative

Bailey Trela
February 03, 2020
Photo: Cole Burston/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photo: Cole Burston/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, who died in January of 2018 at the age of 85, came late to Hebrew, the language in which he composed dozens of novels, stories, and memoirs. Having been born in modern-day Ukraine to German-speaking parents, it was only after Appelfeld fled to Israel in the years following the war that he devoted himself to the language, painstakingly translating novels word by word and slowly developing his facility. The refraction of his youth through the distance of exile and the adoption of a new lingua franca (especially one in which he found an ingrained respect for precision, owing to its biblical tradition) helped to produce a corpus of works marked by a spare poeticism and a tendency, in the vein of Kafka, toward archly metaphorical meanings.

To the Edge of Sorrow, Appelfeld’s latest work to be translated into English (in this case by Stuart Schoffman), is in a sense a shadow novel, a somber reflection of Appelfeld’s most famous work, Badenheim 1939. While the latter book, suffused with a caustic irony, depicted the bitter infighting and self-recrimination of a community of Jews trapped in a resort town as persecutory policies began to trickle in, the new work takes as its focus a community of survivors struggling to persist in straitened circumstances. Centering on a band of resistance fighters hiding in a Ukrainian forest, the book trades in Badenheim’s overwhelming air of paranoia for the equally fraught anxieties of community-building—it is a book of creation, a summoning of togetherness in the midst of overwhelming separation.

The book’s protagonist and narrator is Edmund, a 17-year-old who bears the psychic wounds of guilt from his harried escape; at his parents’ bidding, he slipped away from a transport train, and made his way into the woods. It’s not simply survivor’s guilt that nags at Edmund, however—Appelfeld’s psychological compass is too well-attuned to leave it at that. Even before the persecution had reached its peak, we learn, Edmund was absent, withdrawn, and curiously vindictive despite his passivity. “In those days I was blind and merciless,” he explains. “I felt that my parents were drowning in their own world and blocking my way.”

The lambent, almost Zweigian lyricism that often suffuses Appelfeld’s writing immediately hits a snag in To the Edge of Sorrow. As the group moves from woods to wetlands to mountaintop, the romantic ideal of the landscape—often limned by Appelfeld with a psalmic quality, a loving attention to cool waters and green meadows—is abandoned in favor of a tactical reading of the natural world. Beyond reflecting the transformation of Appelfeld’s Jewish refugees into a roving, warrior band, this reinterpretation of the landscape lies at the heart of one of the novel’s most powerful conceits. “I assume that when the time comes, not far off, we will become forest creatures,” Edmund reflects. The refugees’ inhabiting and repurposing of the forest functions as a reclamation and rewriting of the sylvan myths that undergirded German nationalism in the early years of the 20th century.

Unsurprisingly, To the Edge of Sorrow is at heart a story about transformation, about the intricate work of forging a community, and a narrative, in the calamitous smithy of the war. As a text, the book is driven by its characters, who Appelfeld constructs with a sensitive grace and humanistic depth; they are luminous concoctions, awhirl with mysteries and passions, at once sentimental and tragic. The refugees’ leader is the ascetic Kamil, a self-appointed spiritual guide prone to manic-depressive mood swings and stirring, gnomic exhortations, and whose central concern is Appelfeld’s as well: What, he asks, is the point of survival if the soul emerges from the wreckage torn, tousled, and debased?

The portrait of Kamil is a filament around which the central struggles of the text coalesce, though Appelfeld’s done an incredible job of peopling the book with a cohort of rich characters. There’s Felix, Kamil’s sensitive deputy, who “seems to have derived his feelings from music” and occasionally is heard to hum a Bach cantata; Danzig, a giant of a man with a considerate heart who takes care of Milio, a watchful, silent 2-year-old who was rescued outside of a ghetto; and Grandma Tsirl, a 93-year-old seer and prophetess, a physical embodiment of the tradition—cultural, religious, and familial—the resistance fighters have been forced to leave behind.

In general, the fighters are addled with guilt over the raiding they’re forced to do to survive. Appelfeld’s greater design becomes clear when the band salvages from a ransacked Jewish home a bundle of texts, including a Hebrew Bible, “an elegant Hebrew prayer book,” and “a very old High Holiday mahzor.” When Edmund notes that without books the fighters “would have no physical claim on a world we lived in yesterday,” the note of Zweig in his phrasing (particularly The World of Yesterday) seems significant; Appelfeld’s fictions frequently feature evocations of a golden, lyrical past that is at once impossibly distant, owing to the magnitude of midcentury Jewish persecution, and seemingly a moment or step away—as though the utter incomprehensibility of the Holocaust had slurred the demarcations of time.

Significantly, the books tether Edmund to a richly material memory of home—to his parents’ reading aloud, for instance, from a copy of Proust one year during Yom Kippur, when he was “enchanted by the melodious prose, [and] the serenity of household objects.” Appelfeld has always been concerned with the domestic traces of Jewishness and their remarkable persistence; far more than other things, they remain after the displacement of their original owners, and seem to frustrate the co-opting of Jewish space. When, in an abandoned Jewish home, Edmund notes the persistent odor of camphor in a closet “full of city clothes, blankets, and down quilts,” he’s sensing a record of familial and communal life that’s curiously difficult to erase.

Though that’s not to downplay the explicitly Jewish significance of the rescued texts. To the reclamation of the forest as physical space, Appelfeld adds the rebirth of a Jewish intellectual tradition in a sort of sylvan symposium; at evening, the members of the camp talk and argue, debating the purpose of Jewishness and how it will exist in the new world. Appelfeld’s masterful depiction of this dialogue is rife with internecine and doctrinal squabbles, with rationalists who argue that Judaism is now impossible (“It’s an ancient, complex culture, and if one is not exposed to it from childhood, its iron gates refuse to open”) and Marxists who assert that escaping the ghetto was also, fundamentally, a flouting of their parents’ teachings.

There is, too, a latent fear in the camp of the mysticism that Kamil seems to embody. His mission—a reforging of the Jewish spirit—strikes some of the fighters as delusional and dangerous. One night, a frustrated fighter shouts at him:

“We’ve gone into the mountains not to receive new tablets but to save our lives. Protecting life is an important value, and revenge is not without value. To connect with the old beliefs that led us to the ghetto and the camps—this is an unforgivable sin. This is not a time for mystical delusions.”

It’s no accident that Edmund’s dreams of homecoming, which stipple the text, often take the shape of “mystical delusions” in which “everything is as it was,” down to the two poplar trees that sentinel his former home. Appelfeld’s point would seem to be that a reconciliation with the ancient strains of Judaism must entail a reconciliation on the closer level of the domestic and intimately familial as well.


Throughout Appelfeld’s oeuvre, return is frequently figured as a fantasy, a hazy, perfumed vision of cozy lanes and apple-blossom rains. The protagonist of The Age of Wonders, for instance, returns to his hometown decades after the war and slowly takes note of the absence of its Jewish residents and how “everything stands there without them, comfortable and homely, bathed in the same familiar light returning every year in its placid provincial rhythm.” The central irony that Appelfeld’s lyricism tends to discover in these moments is that, after the Holocaust, so much of the world was not a waste, a desolation, but was instead still immediately and lushly available.

If the rapture of the lyrically material past has often served a simple contrasting function in Appelfeld’s work—highlighting the cruel persistence of mundane reality and emphasizing the shocking devastation of the Holocaust—in To the Edge of Sorrow it takes on a new cast. Though their language is one of lust and revelry, Edmund’s memories of his youth are a persistent source of shame. In the weeks leading up to his family’s deportation, Edmund was distracted by his frantic amours with a young girl named Anastasia. The lushness of the language in these passages—“when evening falls … we are pressed tightly together under a willow tree and drinking greedily of each other”—seems a form of corruption when set against the simple, crisply elegiac prose of the book’s main narrative.

Ultimately, it’s a mark of Appelfeld’s mastery that these verdant bursts of libertinage can cohabitate with the shocking descriptions of Jews rescued from transport trains that begin to appear in the book’s second half, and which frustrate the text’s nascent salvation narrative. “We assumed the refugees would be weak, wounded, and in pain,” Edmund reflects, “but not people whose exhaustion had shut down their souls.” The fragile sense of community the refugees have worked so steadily to confect is shattered, at once, by the utter strangeness of suffering, and by the fear of self-recognition that consumes Edmund and his fellow fighters. Edmund is “repelled” by the “human skeletons” filling the camp; he admits that the “heart, almost defiantly, refuses to identify with them.”

The starkness of these observations can sometimes butt up uncomfortably against the book’s tidier gestures. When retreating German forces shell the band’s mountaintop base, devastating the group and killing Kamil, the remaining members undergo several significant changes. Isidor, a fighter given to delivering sourceless and melodious prayers, is forced into a weeping that shares many of his praying’s most elusive qualities while Milio is designated by his presumptive father Danzig as the band’s future glossator; he has “sat and watched and packed vision after vision into [his] soul,” and will one day recount it all.

The gesture toward the future is significant. Appelfeld’s nature scenes are imbued with a moral meaning, and frequently mirror the migrations and wanderings of Jewish history—the band’s nomadic exile in the wetlands comes to signify forgetfulness, while their stay on a mountaintop stands, unsurprisingly, for salvation. What’s interesting, in a work of such direct resonances, is the way a specific parallel is treated. Kamil’s rhetorical figuring of the band as a last bastion of Jewishness and his insistence on the band’s learning Hebrew, as well as the collective’s fundamental uncertainty about the nature of their community—whether it should be religious or secular, self-contained or expansive—all help to portray Appelfeld’s encampment as a model and metaphor for the State of Israel. Yet Appelfeld never clearly states the parallel, an elusiveness that serves to suggest the immanent political reality of the Israeli situation, and its status as an unfinished and ongoing project.

In the end, the elegant conversions of the book’s finale are a clue to Appelfeld’s mission. To the Edge of Sorrow is ultimately a work of careful artifice, of neat, almost hermetic resonances, and so it’s no surprise that it ends with a familiar image, another reclamation. Whereas Badenheim 1939 famously concludes with the arrival of a transport train that comes on like a stony, biblical thunderclap, its appearance “as sudden as if it had risen from a pit in the ground,” To the Edge of Sorrow offers up a new vision of rail-bound departure. The surviving members of the militia are “packed together in one carriage” of a military train, in grim mimicry of the transport trains’ suffocating closeness, though as the group’s new leader points out, the destination, this time, is home—wherever that might be, and whatever that might mean.


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Bailey Trela is a writer living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Full Stop, Harvard Review, and The Threepenny Review.

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