The Loneliest Number?


Under the Light of Jerusalem
By Aharon Appelfeld
Paintings by Meir Appelfeld
111 pages. Toby Press. $29.95.

The Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld was 14 when he arrived in Israel, a survivor of the Shoah. His mother had been murdered by German soldiers while the family was at a resort; Appelfeld, a small distance away, heard her last cry. With his father, he was taken to a Ukrainian concentration camp, but then escaped by crawling underneath the camp’s fence, which at this early stage had yet to be electrified. Appelfeld spent the next few years hiding in the forest, enduring bouts of starvation, diarrhea, and constant terror that he would be caught. He has also said he was raped.

It was not easy to be a Holocaust survivor in Israel at this time. Everyone talked about building a new country, tilling the land, and fulfilling the promise of Zionism. A feeling of hope and optimism, fueled by the recent victory in the 1948 war, was pervasive. Appelfeld was tough, like his fellow émigrés. Someone, he writes, for whom the "fires of hell cling to his skin.” In his recently published memoir, A Story of a Life, he reveals that he felt nostalgia for his days in hiding.

What saved him were Jerusalem’s cafés. You don’t need to be a Holocaust survivor to know that a good café is a sanctum where, left alone to sit for hours, you easily lose yourself in your own thoughts. But the Jerusalem cafés where Appelfeld went in the '50s and '60s were filled with European refugees for whom the ever-present smell of cigarette smoke, coffee beans, and cognac was now the only link they had to their annihilated cultures. They were rich places for Appelfeld to sit and write, and A Table for One describes how the combination of observing Hitler’s victims and mulling his own experiences led to his rebirth. He had been completely isolated when he was in hiding—a “mute creature" is how he describes his younger self—but after his time in these cafés he had found his literary voice.

Though he is not especially well known in this country, Appelfeld ranks as one of the world’s greatest living novelists. His prose is spare and restrained, a melding of Kafka and Beckett with Jewish mysticism and folklore. His novels are fables in which the horrors of the Holocaust are never explicitly evoked, but only hinted at. Their power derives from what’s been omitted; they are expressions of silence. In his masterpiece, Badenheim 1939, a group of middle-class Jews frolic at a vacation resort. It’s largely left to the reader to imagine what’s going on in the outside world and the fate that will befall them. Appelfeld writes mainly about how they blithely go about eating their meals, attending orchestral conferences, and taking walks in the woods. Few writers have ever conjured up such a terrifying dullness.

Appelfeld says he developed his highly elliptical approach to the Shoah by watching survivors like Tina, a frequent visitor to one of the cafés he visited in the '50s. She had been at Auschwitz, and shortly before its liberation took a bad fall that left her crippled for the rest of her life. Despite this, she was always in good cheer and smiling. When someone asked her how she was, she would reply, “I feel good.” A mere three words, yet Appelfeld heard in them a full expression of her suffering. “What was left unsaid loomed larger than what was said," he writes about Tina. Through her, he began to realize, “artistic expression lies between the words—in the echo that the words evoke.”

Each of the chapters in this book is accompanied by a painting by Appelfeld’s son, Meir, a recent graduate of Royal Academy of Art in London. They are moody works with thick, hazy brushstrokes in the colors of ochre, dark green, and desert yellow. They depict mostly houses and natural vistas from modern-day Jerusalem, and it can be hard at times to see how exactly father and son’s visions are meant to mesh. Appelfeld writes that his son’s paintings arise from a “steady observation from the sidelines of life, from where a simple beauty emerges,” much the same way his writing emerged from a sitting in a far off corner of a cafe. But while Meir's work does have a somber, elegant quality, it lacks the despair and bleakness that characterizes Appelfeld’s writing.

A Table for One is better read as a continuation of the project Appelfeld began in last year's The Story of A Life. That book ended with Appelfeld coming to Israel, and while it is a powerful account of the trauma Appelfeld witnessed, it was loosely structured and short on details as if Appelfeld was somewhat reluctant to reveal his life story. A Table for One feels more focused and impassioned. It’s also in many ways more fascinating, for while the Holocaust has been written about extensively, few authors have described their struggle afterwards to find a way of describing the indescribable.

Neither A Table for One nor The Story of a Life are traditional memoirs. They're nearly devoid of any references to the author’s personal life (Appelfeld has provided more specifics about his experiences during the Holocaust at a recent Jewish Book Fair event than he does in either of these books). But Appelfeld has always believed there is much about life that literature cannot do justice, and that the novelist much stand humble before the full force and complexity of reality. There’s no reason his autobiography should be an exception to these principles. “I knew then there were sights and things that I would never tell, not even to myself,” Appelfeld writes. “They were so divorced from common sense, so unbelievable and so terrifying that it was better not to talk about them. Any mention of them was liable to make an unbelievable legend of terror out of the Holocaust, or even worse—a fabrication.”