My conviction that Aharon Appelfeld was the greatest Jewish writer alive began when I was perhaps 50 pages into his first novel to be translated into English, Badenheim 1939. It was a Holocaust novel, perhaps the greatest Holocaust novel ever written, I suddenly surmised, set in a spa town, before the war even started. It conveyed the desperation, self-deception, fratricidal impulses, paranoia and dread of a people sentenced to die.
What was so remarkable was that Appelfeld conveyed this sweeping psychological portrait of a people on the edge of annihilation without a single scene from a ghetto, a concentration camp, or a gas chamber. At the very end of the book there was a train. The train did all the work, I saw. I marveled at the weirdness, the historicity, the mythic economy, of this highly unusual creation, a masterpiece of irony that was at the same time exceedingly empathetic and gentle, at the same time as it terrified me. It was like a bedtime story written by Kafka. Then I forgot about it, or mostly forgot about it.
Why? I was in my late 20s, and not particularly interested in the Holocaust or Jews. I had a particular contempt for the phrase “Jewish writer,” which struck me as a kind of obedient nice-boy and nice-girl ethno-literary catch-basin whose purpose, aside from selling books to synagogue ladies, was to advertise the merits of the American dream by way of exposing a few of its more minor rich-person discontents. It’s a great country, says my son the professor! The entire exercise was nonsensical. Did Jewish writers write Jewish sentences, in English? No one would ever call Thomas Pynchon a “Jewish writer,” even if he turned out to be Jewish—and calling Kafka a “Jewish writer” sounded like something the Nazis would say before burning his books on a pyre. Was Ralph Ellison an “African-American” writer? Was Melville a “white whale” writer? Only illiterate morons who taught in universities talked or thought that way.
My sole literary connection to Jews or Jewishness came through my grandfather, who was Russian, and spoke Yiddish, and worked in a fruit store. He woke up at 4 a.m. to buy fruit, and he came home exhausted at 2 in the afternoon, and promptly fell asleep in his armchair, a lit cigarette often burning between his fingers. My job, as I saw it, was to take the cigarette from his fingers and put it out in the stand-up ashtray next to his chair, so that he didn’t burn himself or burn the house down.
I loved my grandfather, and used to sit for hours and watch him. I watched him snore. My reward for my watchfulness was that, often enough when he awoke, he would read me stories by Yiddish authors like I.L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem, mixed in with bits of Tolstoy and Shakespeare. He would read to me first in Yiddish, and then translate, and then go on with the story, sometimes in English, and sometimes in a mixture of both languages. When he died, during my second year in college, I missed him so much that I took up smoking. I knew that there was a void inside me now that would never be filled, because I would never hear his voice again.
And then I did. Ten years later, I picked up a new book by Aharon Appelfeld called The Iron Tracks. It was, in my estimation, an even better book that Badenheim 1939, which now struck me as perhaps too perfect a channeling of Kafka. The Iron Tracks was a book whose ironies were truly made of iron. It was an unflinching revenge fantasy, which left the reader on the hook for caring about the fate of a Nazi killer who ran a concentration camp. The structure of the book was perfect. And in the double-ness of Appelfeld’s voice, in his gentle irony, and in his empathy, beneath which lurked an abyss of horror and loss, and a precise accounting of the murderousness of others, I heard my grandfather’s voice again.
I have never been more grateful for the existence of any book. But now, I would have to be careful, very careful, in order not to lose what I had found all over again.
A year and a half later, I met Aharon Appelfeld, the author of these and other extraordinary books, through a mutual friend, who knew that I was going to Jerusalem, and suggested that we should meet. I said, sure. I called him, and we arranged to meet at his favorite café, where he met everyone. He reminded me of a shoe-maker, a little man with a confident but gentle manner, and strong, sensitive hands. We spent three hours gossiping, about American writers we knew in common, and magazine editors, and all the famous Israeli writers he taught when they were young. A bomb had gone off nearby two weeks earlier, and I had arrived soon enough to see the gory aftermath, and the mechanics of the clean-up, so we talked about that, but he didn’t seem particularly impressed. So we talked about the Carpathian mountains, and about the town where my grandfather was born.
He knew the town, of course. He knew that I had read all of his books, the ones that had been translated into English, because I told him that. He knew I wanted him to keep talking. Eventually, I told him why. He proffered the suggestion that we were landsmen.
Six years later, we talked again, for another three hours, over coffee, at the same café, mostly about books. Afterwards, he gave me a piece of excellent advice.
The last time I saw him, over a year ago, I brought a digital recorder. He seemed older, and physically more delicate. But the light inside him was still bright, and he didn’t flinch, which meant he could still write, and I could still hear my grandfather’s voice, while I talked to Franz Kafka in Jerusalem. I told him about Ben Marcus’s book, The Flame Alphabet, and the attempt to make a new language that wasn’t poisoned. He told me about the pleasure of being recognized by readers on the streets of Paris from the photos on his book-jackets, which is something that happens there with a frequency unmatched in any other major city—certainly more often now than in New York. I told him that he was recognized because of his cap, which had become his trademark.
That evening, I left his house, his new house, on a beautiful, quiet street, on the first floor, so he would have less trouble walking, and I walked for an hour, in order to get used to the likelihood that I would never see him again. Today, the absence that I mourned then is a reality. My consolation now is that his voice, and my grandfather’s voice, and the mountains that they came from, and the books and the cultures and the faith that shaped them, and the terrible things that they suffered in the name of all of those things, are still alive, thanks to his incredible skill and lifelong dedication to his craft, for as long as there are Jews who read books.
What follows is an edited transcript of portions of our conversation.
David Samuels: The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping, your most recent book to be translated into English, is a book, in part, about losing and acquiring a language. In that metaphor alone one can glimpse the entire story of the Jewish people in the 20th century. But let’s leave that aside for now. Your own mother tongue was German.
Aharon Appelfeld: Yes. My tongue was German, until I was 8. Then, the Romanians came, and actually, I’ve lost it. In the ghetto and then in the camp, we spoke Yiddish. So Yiddish came then.
Yiddish for you was the language of the ghetto and the camp, it was not your family language, or the language of your early childhood.
It was from somewhere before. We visited our grandparents in the summer. Long summer vacations in the Carpathians. They spoke Yiddish there.
What were those visits like? The Carpathian Mountains are a special, haunted, magical place.
You know it.
And here were these grandparents who lived in that place and spoke in another tongue.
Yes, yes. This was a kind of mythological place, with mythological grandparents.
In Czernovitz, everything was rational. There was no religion. There was assimilation, there was good music, theater. But in the Carpathians, everything was mythological.
My grandparents were farmers. They worked in the fields together with the peasants. They were part of it. Their religion was not middle class religion, for comfort. Religiosity is a permanent feeling that people have. Astonishment. A kind of astonishment at living and life.
In Czernovitz, there was a lot of irony, sarcasm, sophistication—all bad things.
Bad things that you’re a master of.
Yah, but all bad.
In the Carpathians, there was still something, I don’t know if innocence is the right word, but there was still some innocence. They would wake up in the morning to pray for an hour and to eat some breakfast, and go to the work with the peasants. There was something, you know, a special silence, that continued from the prayer to the work. How much I absorbed of that, I don’t know really. Grandfather tried to show me a siddur, you know, a prayer book. But I received it too late.
In this book, as well as in Iron Tracks, in plenty of your books, there is the attempt to convey the feelings that resulted from the radical severing of the emotional, the personal links between the old world and olam ha’zeh [this world]. What remains from the old world are these fragments of feeling, stray objects, the kiddish cup, or the man who says birkat hamazon [the blessing after meals] to himself. These things are no longer part of a whole, of an integrated relation to anything, but these fragments are still lodged in individuals, like shrapnel. It happened before the Shoah.
Yes. Yes. Yes. It’s true. It’s true. It was already a dis-integrated life.
My parents, they were Jewish people, they have never denied that they are Jewish, no. But then they were, they were somewhere else, it was not even an openly critical stance. They said, leave me alone. I cannot go to the synagogue, I cannot pray. Leave me alone.
It was painful for both sides. Because my grandparents were tolerant people you know. They loved their children and their grandchildren. And they did not want to impose on them things they do not like, they do not want, and so on.
But those long summer days on the farm are imprinted in me. The trees, the flowers, the waters.
How was that closeness to nature and sense of the unity between the physical realm where they dwelled and some sense of a larger spirit that united them with the heavens and the prayer-book different from the secular Zionist worship of the land, of the orange grove, the hoe. Did you feel a connection or a distance there?
I was too young really to appreciate it. For people like my parents, you should go to university, you should be a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer. A philosopher. But why? We have seen Zionist people in Czernovitz, I don’t know, the Zionist groups you know, like Hashomer Hazair. I of course was too young to appreciate all of it. It came to me later.
You were fed, you were rescued, you were given this Zionist ethic, after terrible suffering. On one hand, it was saving; on another hand it was foreign. But on another hand, did it echo in any way to your grandparents? Because in one sense, Zionism was a severing, a rejection of the superstitions of the past—
And yet, if the Carpathians are here, and Czernovitz is here—
Zionism is here, maybe somewhere between.
You see, David, it was a kind of attitude to life. What I received from my parents and my grandparents was a kind of delicacy. It was not, you know, without irony, of course, from my parents. A bit of sarcasm. But then, it was always delicate.
I can the say the same for my grandparents. They were delicate Jews. Just to give you an example, in our house, there were books. Everywhere there were books. On the table. On the bed. Under the bed. Under the table. All kinds of books. You are reading, you are not finishing, and so on.
At Grandfather’s, there was just one book on the table. So I asked grandfather, “Grandfather, why only one book on the table?”
He answered, “You know, it takes me long time to observe all the kochmeh there is in this, in this book.”
You understand some Yiddish, yah, David?
Some Yiddish, more Hebrew.
Some Yiddish. OK David.[In Yiddish] “This is a book that you should read and repeat, and repeat reading. Because it’s a book that is worth to read and to reread.”
This is a book that you have to read slowly. Everyday. You cannot jump from one book to another book, you know. Books demand your soul. So this was his answer.
Everything in his life, there was a meaning to it.
My parents were people with a split, maybe many splits, in their lives. From one side, they were devoted to the German language, German culture. Both of them completed the Latin gymnasium. So they could read Latin texts and Greek texts. They were rooted in the history of that. But on the other side, they also wanted to be rooted somewhere in Jewishness.
Did they? You were such a small child then. Why do you feel that was true?
It was true because, you see, when I met my father, we were separated during the war—
—and then you didn’t see him for almost 20 years, right?
Yes, 13 years. I had not heard from him, he had not heard from me. He was in Russia. He was liberated by the Russians, and the Russians took him to Russia. He was there for 13 years. So I have seen, first of all I’ve seen how much he’s rooted in Yiddish and how much he’s rooted in Hebrew.
‘I cannot be an Israeli writer. My biography is a different biography.’
In Czernovitz, he was an assimilated Jew. He attended the cinema, lectures. He had nothing to do with Jewishness. And suddenly here, to my surprise, every Shabbas he went to shul.
I know this fact of your biography, but I don’t know anything about what that was like for you.
It was complicated. Because not seeing me for so long, his attitude toward me was like to a child. I was 25 years old, I finished my first degree, I had a family, I had begun to write.
You were not 9 years old.
I was not 9, but his attitude was the same way. He used to call me Erwin, that was my childhood name.
“Ervin, it’s very cold, take a sweater now.”
I had children. I should say, say it to my children.
He was trying to be a mother to you, to make up for what he, and what you, had lost.
To be a father, a mother. So it was complicated, you know. And then for instance, his conception of what it means to be an intellectual, was that first of all you have to finish your doctorate.
How could you be an educated person otherwise?
Yah you have to be a doctor. You know, I enjoyed my studies at university, but I do not feel that this is my way. Research is not exactly my way of thinking. But he could not accept it. An intelligent person has to finish his university doctorate degree. Then you are, first of all, an honored person—
I had the same argument with my father. But this was an argument that you would have had in Czernovitz, if the war hadn’t happened.
Exactly, exactly. But it came after such a terrible war.
A war that changed everything, and also nothing.
Yah, it is. But I enjoyed very much to be with him. Diligent, sensitive, up to his last days.
That’s great. So many people, like my grandfather, who I was very close to, he was the only person who lived, and he looked for his family for years. His mother never re-appeared, his father, this brothers, his sisters. I think it took 15 years until he finally knew or accepted that everyone was gone. So it is something amazing that one day after thirteen years you see your father climbing a ladder, but every other crazy thing also happened during and after the war, so why not.
So they passed in Transnistria yes?
Some there, and the other part of the family was from Yarmolinisk, which was in southern Ukraine. They were army people, snipers, and they fought the Germans where they were. A different part of the family stayed in Russia until 1978, and then they came here.
So you have here a family?
In Be’ersheva and Kiryat Ono.
I think that one reason that I, and probably a good number of American Jewish writers connect so strongly to your work is that you are in a deep way a Jewish writer, which is different from being an Israeli writer. We read them, you know—Amos Oz’s stories are so well made, and I can recognize who these characters are. David Grossman. But they are foreign to me in a way that you are not.
The delicacy of your feelings, and the brutality of your perceptions, combine in a way that reminds me of my grandfather, and also of Kafka. Their sensibilities in turn shaped mine. So I feel an immediate intimacy with your voice that I can never feel with Amos Oz or David Grossman, who are admirable, but distant, and feel performative, like they are performing Israeli-ness for a certain kind of Israeli, and for a global readership.
I can read some Hebrew, so I can taste the words for ten or fifteen pages before I fall back on the English translation that the publisher has generously provided for me. So I also know that you are a master of the Hebrew language. But I wouldn’t say that you are an Israeli writer.
I cannot be an Israeli writer. My biography is a different biography.
I can imagine when you were starting out as a young writer, especially with this hard-won mastery of a new language, in which you become an adult and everything, how much of an achievement acquiring and mastering that language must have been for you.
So what did it feel like to understand that while you were going to be writing in the language of this new country, that your work was not going to belong here, that your stories were not the stories that they would value?
I understood it very, very early. When I came to Israel, I was 13 and a half years old. And I was in the kibbutzim and the farms, all kinds of farms, in order to become a peasant. To become, yes, a fighter and a peasant. But this is not my milieu. I went to all kinds of places, to Ma’abarot, you know, where people came from the camps to the kibbutz, and to Jaffa. There were all these people, Holocaust survivors, sleeping and playing cards and drinking in the night. Bohemians, you know.
I understood their way of life very well. How can you live another life than this Bohemian life when you are coming from the camps? You are going to have a home, a wife, sitting there, and drinking your coffee and being involved in, you know, family struggles, political struggles?
Who could lie? Who cares?
Right. To be a Bohemian was a way. And they were actually my first teachers, to build my personality.
In this new book [The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping], you only have a few lines about them. But those lines are very powerful. There’s a love of them, guilt, gratitude, horror. A need to distance yourself from them, because you are young and still have hope, and a life to live. All in those lines where you describe them.
Talk about that mix of emotions—because it was very affecting. It was a very honest account of your feelings.
There were lectures in Yiddish in Tel Aviv. And it was against the ethos of Zionism, you know. Come listen to Yiddish. As a young man, 14, 15, 16, 17 years old, I went to every lecture in Yiddish. I went to listen to them. And there were moments where Hebrew and Yiddish were somehow mingled together, you see.
In your head?
In my head, it happened. I was working, I was studying, a full day in Hebrew, everything in Hebrew. But in the night, I was free. So I would listen to Yiddish.
It was subversive.
Yes. Yiddish was not as a language, but as a Jewish totality. Yiddish. So.
You’re an adolescent. You’ve gone through this terrible, terrible experience. As far as you know, you’ve lost both your parents and you’re an orphan. You have to create yourself in a more radical way than most teenagers do. In the book, you have two parents, Agnon and Kafka.
But on the level of language, you have Hebrew and then you have Yiddish.
Yiddish, right. Yes. Because I wanted to be close to those people. You know, Hebrew speakers in a way, obsessive Hebrew speakers, and the usual they would say to us, ivrit and then ivrit. I’m not obsessive very much. In every kibbutz, they had a slogan—shkachlecha ha’avar, ha’atid lefanecha [“Forget the past, the future is in front of you!”].
That severing, that forgetting, did not happen already in Czernovitz.
Why was the urban life of assimilated sophisticated people who went to gymnasium in Czernovitz still organically connected to a Jewish totality in a way that the life here in the new State of Israel was not?
Because first of all, I was a child. And for the child, there are not clear separations. I had my parents, and also my grandparents. There were no rationalizations, you know.
Here, I was not 5, 6, 7, 8 years old. I was 14, 15, 16, 17 years old. And it was demanded of me to be the new Jew. Why should I be a new Jew? I love the old Jews, you know.
I loved my grandparents. I loved my parents. Even if they were different, you know. I liked them. I want to be like them. I don’t want to be different.
I remember when I’d finally written after years of struggling and struggling with the language, struggling with everything, descendants. I’d written a short story called “Bertha.” It’s about two characters, Max and Bertha.
Max is somewhere around 27, Bertha is maybe 12, 13. He picked her up, somewhere during the war, and brought her to Israel. A retarded child. But he cannot leave her. She’s retarded, but she has something magic in her blood. She is sitting, kneeling on the street. And he’s always leaving her. Giving her food and some money and leaving her, and hoping not to find her. But always he comes back, and she’s still sitting in the same place.
I brought this story to a newspaper, it was a very short story. And the editor said, what are you trying here, why Bertha? We came to Israel to forget Bertha. You are taking a retarded girl as the hero of the story? What are you going to learn from such a story?
“How will this story help us build a new nation of new people?”
Right. Why are you are bringing these retarded, limited figures into our life? Yes, I can see that you have some talent, but what does it mean?
So, this Zionist ethos, in its radical attempt at forgetting the past—was it necessary? Did it cause damage? How do you understand it now?
It’s finally gone, you know.
Bertha was for me, this is my mentality, you know. This I can understand. A youngster on the fields or the tractor or all the rest, these were not part of my mentality.
The weak, the ill, the old. People who would live their life. This is my mentality.
I’m not an outsider. I do not deal with sociology. Nor psychology. And not any kind of political ideologies. And here in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, literature was full of it. You were homo politicus. I could not fit in. Shkakleta ha’avar, Kadima! That was not for me.
I had never been an aggressive person, you know. In Zionism, there was a kind of aggressiveness. Change yourself. It’s a kind of aggression.
It’s funny because I feel the same way. Aggression is what I feel from the attempt to imprison people in these categories, which makes me a stranger now in America too. Why do you resist the demands of social justice? Why do you interfere with the necessary perfection of the future?
Both the Zionist and the American societies place a great emphasis on forgetting the past. And in both societies Jews felt guilt, terror. They also felt life.
The past was ashes, it was pain, it was their suffering, it was their dead parents. The Holocaust was a terrible trauma, and it is still frightening. And in both countries, they jumped away from it like it was hot. So there is now an absence, where the connective tissue of the past should be.
So people my age, younger, we have books we can connect to. My father, even though he didn’t believe in God, sent me to a Yeshiva. Why? Because maybe there, there was something that would give me a sense of connection. And he knew my grandfather and I were very close. I’m not religious now, but I’m grateful that I was able to sink into the text of the chumash, to learn Talmud, to understand and to feel something that formed but also explained the rhythms and emotions that came from my grandfather. I could feel how my own personality and imagination were part of a continuum. But people generally don’t have that now.
This rupture, is it simply modernity? And the Jewish version of modernity like the Jewish version of everything was more radical?
It’s modernity, there’s no question that this is modernity. Kafka, for instance. He was an assimilated Jew. But from the other side, he has a kind of thirst for Jewish thinking. Jewish religion. I mean not the form of a religion but—
What he created was his own Jewishness.
Yes. So it’s ruptured, as you say, from one side by a cruel history, by what happened, from the other side, by modernity. It’s Freud and Wittgenstein. You cannot deny them, and say I have never heard of them. Because they are in you, a part of you.
You’ve mentioned Agnon plenty of times, and the influence especially on the line level, how you structure Hebrew sentences, is a clear influence. So there’s a funny way what I said before was false, about you being a master of the Hebrew language and not an Israeli writer. Because Agnon is clearly both, and you and him fit together. You could have been his student.
With the catastrophe in between, you’re the thing that comes after him.
Yes. For me, Agnon was a hero. He came to Israel and is writing about Aaron, Moshe, Ruven. All the old names. They are still sitting in their shops and selling. They are singing, their parents and grandparents were singing. It’s a continuation of his town, Buczacz. Buczacz is here. And they are here, in the same synagogues.
‘In Israel, I was 14, 15, 16, 17 years old. And it was demanded of me to be the new Jew. Why should I be a new Jew? I love the old Jews.’
I used to walk with him through Mea Shearim, and he used to go to the sfarim stores to buy Hasidic and Kabbalistic books, you know. I went to him to see what he bought, and I used to do it the same, too, to go for hours between these small shops and buy books on Hasidism. I felt close to him. He would ask me to come with him.
Right, and that’s the difference, is the density of reference and learning. His learning and his childhood and his absorption weren’t interrupted by the war, and by concentration camps. There was no catastrophe.
Exactly. Therefore, I’d altered his modernity. Because there is a continuation. Still, he was not Agnon of Bucharest, it’s not the same of course. There is a lot of irony in his work.
How do you think Israelis read him?
They do not read him. Ha ha.
You are in some ways, though not exactly, a Yiddish modernist master who wrote entirely in Hebrew. Since I read you mostly in English, it is easy to imagine you more as a Yiddish writer.
Yah. I knew all the Yiddish writers.
Who in particular?
What did you think of him?
I will tell you. He was part of a group of writers who came to Israel and wanted to translate their work into Hebrew. But no one was interested in translating into Hebrew. So they used to leave their manuscripts with me, so I should try to do what I can. And most of them loved me because I could speak with them in Yiddish. They loved me because I was in the Holocaust and survived and came to Israel. And they felt my sympathy for them. So it was terrible.
Yiddish was suppressed. No one wanted to read, we are not educated to read Yiddish. And they were walking in here with their manuscripts. Published manuscripts. They were very famous before the war. Yitzik Manger.
You must have met Max Brod.
Of course, many times.
What did you ask him about Kafka? You must have been so curious.
He was a shmoozer. He told me what he wants. I left him talking.
Part of your inheritance from Kafka was the journey. Kafka’s journeys are a very specific thing. And you have your journey. There’s a way the ambiguity feels, and then there’s a rhythm to it suddenly, and things become so concrete and specific, like they are emerging from out of a fog. These are Kafka tricks.
And you have obviously mastered those tricks.
Let me begin of the external things. I liked my German, it’s an Austrian German. So he’s German. But this was somewhere also Jewish German, from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Jews spoke German in Czernovitz. And Jews mainly spoke German in Czechoslovakia, in Prague. And yet, neither one was Vienna. So it was at a remove.
It was not Vienna, but it was a bit of extension of Vienna. A province of Vienna.
So you think that Czernovitz German and Prague German were both Jewishly-inflected, and moved in similar ways?
Yes, yes. So his longing for, for Jewish spirituality, the longing for it, for Hasidism, Kabbalah, Bible. It came to him not through his father of course. It came to him not from his grandfather. It came to him from an inner source, from a very deep inner source. The longing to be a Jew. Even having some fantasy that if he will come to Israel and he will become more Jewish. It was a fantasy.
So, Max Brod, yes, I spoke with him a lot. He was a foreigner here.
A foreigner with manuscripts.
It was because Kafka, because Schocken was living here at the time. They gave him some jobs so he could live. And then he used to sell some manuscripts of Kafka’s.
By continuing to mention the names, you wanted to draw the reader’s attention to these two different literary parents that you claim as your own. So, it is natural to wonder, who did he take more from?
Well I don’t know it was for me, it was drinking cold water on a hot day, Kafka. Agnon was different. Kafka can be a savior.
Yeah. Yes, at once. In three pages.
Can be a savior at once. You read, and read, and read. Agnon you can appreciate, you can say some, how he’s coaxing the language, how he’s trying to be modern, using an old ancient language, and showing how to use it in a modern way.
Do you feel that Israel is a Jewish state? They always say that it’s the Jewish state.
You see, I don’t speak in, I don’t deal in such ideological terms.
I don’t even know what it means. That’s why I’m asking you.
Right. There are Jewish people here, no question.
There’s a writer in Warsaw named Hanna Krall, a great journalist. Do you know her?
I know her.
Yeah. So I was visiting with her. For her, Jews are people who came from the place she came from, and who went through this fire in Europe, and had to dance between different cultures and languages, you know? I understand what she means.
I don’t know. But coming back to your question, Jewish people live here. Tall, small, stupid, clever. All kind of people. They are speaking Hebrew. Bad Hebrew. Good Hebrew.
For me, I never speak about the state. I speak about Hebrew.
Talk about the qualities of the Hebrew language that made it such a powerful expressive vehicle for you? Was it how the words felt in your mouth?
So actually I have not learned it from teachers. I learned it by myself. When I came to Israel, after a year or two, I had lost my Hebrew that I have brought with me in pieces. I lost my German. I lost my Ukrainian Russian. I lost the Romanian that I learned somewhere. All of the languages that I had in my youth, I have lost them. Because I have not elaborated them and not also worked in them.
So you had to consciously make a language for yourself.
Yes. I was preparing my language. And how that was done, I am speaking a bit in the book about that.
Copy, copy, copy, copy, copy. It was like a craziness, actually. But it helped me, you know. And then of course, people in the streets—actually people in the beginning, they actually spoke Yiddish or another language and translated it into a kind of Hebrew.
And so the structure of the sentences was formed from different languages.
Yes, from Yiddish or from other languages. So it’s actually an illusion that they spoke Hebrew.
They never read a page of the Bible or never read a page of the Mishna.
Hebrew is a language that is fully formed in the bible—Biblical Hebrew. Then you have the Hebrew language in the Mishna, and you can find piyutim and other texts that that are written in the Middle Ages, which include poetry and mystic texts and response, and this and that. Still, the main body of the development of the language is from a different era of human development and experience, and then it suddenly jumps forward, with the command to speak it. There’s an elemental and unique quality to that development.
It was an existential need in ’46, ’47, ’48, ’49, ’50. People came from different countries, from the Orient or from wherever in Europe. They were mainly survivors from a pogrom or from a Holocaust.
Did that shape the quality of your own sentences, the specific quality of the language that was available to you? If I give you a hammer you can do one thing. If I give you a chisel, it does something different than a hammer.
Yes, yes, yes. I cannot define it or express it in an easy sentence, but yes. When I was in kibbutzim, the language came to me through the plants. You are working, yes. So it came to me through concrete objects that were part of the work I was engaged in. It’s not the way you absorb languages when you are a child.
Father will say to you, mother will say, this is an “etz.” But here, I was a grownup person. I was not ignorant in terms of my experience of life, but I was lacking in texts.
It’s a quality in your prose, of concreteness, a relation to physical objects, which made me wonder, is this quality what happens when the Hebrew language is used by someone who has the qualities of mind of a literary master? Or is it rooted in the specificity of your experience in acquiring this language?
Oh it’s, I think it’s a specificity of my fate, you know. Leaving my mother at the beginning of the war. Being separated from my father, being alone for several years.
It worked on me, you know. I can’t say exactly how much. Not speaking during the Holocaust. I could not speak. I could understand Ukrainian, because the maids in our home were Ukrainians. But my accent—
—would give you away.
So I didn’t speak. After the war, I could not utter a word because my muscles had atrophied. After wandering with the Russian army and with the refugees, Jewish refugees, speech came back to me, very slowly. I was stuttering.
Would you like a glass of water?
Yes, thank you. Would you like one?
Yes. How long are you going to stay, David?
In Israel, or right now?
Right now, as much as you wish. I mean in Israel.
I’m going to leave tomorrow morning. It’s a brief visit.
Have you talked to Philip Roth recently? The last time we met, we spoke about him.
We spoke last month.
And what did he tell you about stopping writing? Is it a lie, so he can work in peace?
I don’t know. I don’t.
There’s a period of Roth that I love, at the height of his wildness, especially the book with you in it. But I feel that my tastes were never American enough to connect to his characters the way I should. They are flat.
Yah he is American, no question. His form too. American Jewishness. His grandparents were still Galician Jews. But his parents were American.
The one I understood better was Bellow. Even though it was all about Americans, the businessman and the artist, and this and that, he was still a Russian in the way that he apprehended human nature and fate. There was a primitive, elemental quality to how he looked at people physically, he believed you could tell the quality of the person by the shape of their skull. That connection to the elements of our nature, to fate, is very direct and powerful on the page, and weirdly complicated.
Yah. No question that he was a powerful writer. A very powerful writer.
I want to thank you for spending some time with me today. I know at your age, to give the limited energy that one has to someone else is a gift, which must also be mixed with the thought that “I’d like to have it back.” But for me, it was fun.
It was fun for me, too.
I appreciate your gift to me very much. It was wonderful to see you again. I hope that you enjoy many more years of good health, and I look forward to reading all the other books that are hiding somewhere in this house.
Aharon Appelfeld died at 85 in January 2018 near Tel Aviv.
David Samuels has written cover stories for Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and other magazines. He is Tablet’s Literary Editor, and the Editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th century newspaper.