- Aharon Appelfeld and the Problem of Holocaust Fiction
I. Appelfeld and Lang1
What had been written about World War II had been mainly testimonies and accounts that had been deemed authentic expressions; literature was considered a fabrication.Aharon Appelfeld, The Story of a Life, 105
The problem many find, with literary fiction about the Holocaust, is that it is fiction. The thought which governs our discomfort with the idea of Holocaust fiction is primarily a moral one; but one with epistemic implications lurking in its depths. We feel ourselves under a duty to those who suffered, to confront as best we can the unvarnished facts of their suffering, and to refrain, above all things, from embroidering them, falsifying them, with any admixture of our own concerns. Here, more than anywhere else, we feel, we stand in need of forms of writing which can stand, to borrow Aharon Appelfeld's phrase in the epigraphic passage above, as "authentic expressions" of reality. And imaginative fiction, we imply, fails that test —is not, whatever other virtues it may possess, an "authentic expression" of reality.
I was first led into the line of thought developed here by a chapter in Berel Lang's brilliant and searching enquiry into the intellectual roots of the Holocaust, Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide. In Chapter 6 of that work, Lang deploys a rather impressive version of the [End Page 79] argument briefly summarized above. But then, towards the end of the chapter, having demonstrated at length the impossibility of any adequate literary response to the Holocaust, he grants, unexpectedly, the possibility that "literary and moral genius . . . may transcend these or any other supposedly intrinsic limitations" and cites three instances of writers, Celan, Borowsky, and Appelfeld, whose work may seem "to overcome the limitations asserted here in the form of a general rule" (Lang 155).
Philosophers' "general rules" are not supposed to admit of exceptions. Lang avoids contradiction by modestly disclaiming any ambition to prescribe for genius. His argument, he suggests, identifies only certain general risks which any writer of Holocaust fiction must run.
The question remains to what extent writers are able to avoid these dangers, with the presumption that at best they will not escape entirely and that even insofar as they do the writings have to be read as a response to these dangers,(ibid.)
But this, though it allows a general ruhe present case to survive some counter-instances, leaves open the intfor the philosophy of literature, How do they do it? What is it about the work of Appelfeld, for instance, that enables it to surmount the dangers which Lang identifies? What, precisely, does Appelfeld's "literary and moral genius" consist in? That is the question I propose to pursue here.
The general form of Lang's argument is that certain features essential to imaginative fiction make it incapable of dealing effectively with the historical realities of the Holocaust. Lang notes, to begin with, that imaginative fiction lives by the representation and analysis of individual consciousness in all its diversity. It is equally essential to our understanding of the Holocaust, Lang suggests, to see that, by its nature, it denied the diversity of consciousness. That denial is, for Lang, a function of the dispersal of causality. The fate which overtook European Jewry was neither the consequence of, nor capable of being averted by, any individual act or volition on the part of its victims; equally, it was in the nature of Nazism that it worked to submerge the individual wills and personalities of its adherents and tools in the workings of a vast and impersonal bureaucracy of death. So far, then, as Holocaust fiction follows the general rule of all fiction in representing to its readers characters whose choices determine events, it falsifies its subject matter. [End Page 80]
Secondly, fiction opens a space of narrative contingency between the writer, his fiction, and what that fiction is notionally "about." Within that space a vast array of possibilities open up, between which the writer is free to choose, precisely because that choice is not determined by his subject matter. Whatever choice he makes, he risks falsifying that subject matter in...