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Criticism 44.4 (2002) 441-445
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Aharon Appelfeld: From Individual Lament to Tribal Eternity by Yigal Schwartz. Translated by Jeffrey M. Green, Foreword by Arnold J. Band. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2001. Pp. 194. $60.00 cloth; $19.95 paper.
Yigal Schwartz's Aharon Appelfeld is a work that moves the discussion of its subject beyond the context of the Holocaust, where most previous criticism of Appelfeld's work has remained. Schwartz's three-tiered book reads Appelfeld by using "Literature and Memory," "Literature and Place" and "Literature and Religious Anguish" as different points of entry to his multifaceted fictional world. Given that Appelfeld is still productive as one of Israel's most important writers, Schwartz's study, which appeared in a slightly different version in [End Page 441] 1996 under the additional Hebrew subtitle of "The Picture of His World," is necessarily a snapshot of a writer in progress. Appelfeld gained increasing distinction in Israel from the 1960s forward, a somewhat anomalous figure as a writer who brought diaspora concerns into a literature still focused on the theme of "Israeli-ness" in a period of national consolidation. From the publication of Appelfeld's first collection of Hebrew stories, Ashan [Smoke], in 1962, critical and popular acclaim steadily grew in Israel and abroad, until Badenheim 1939 (1975) made a splash in Europe and the United States. The early stories, as Schwartz points out, are crucial to understanding this later work, structured as they are "by the tension between the necessity and/or the desire to forget, and the necessity and/or desire to remember" (11). As a child survivor from Czernowitz, Appelfeld felt the biographical need to recapture the lost world of the European Jewish past, in both its assimilated and traditional forms, and come to terms with the Hebrew-speaking Israeli present. As this book argues, Appelfeld's fictional return to Europe in his later fiction, and his more limited exploration of the Israeli present, achieve "artistic greatness" (8) in classic, modern Hebrew form, exploring the creative tension between these two crucial sectors of the modern Jewish world.
Schwartz moves beyond previous Appelfeld criticism by shifting the discussion of his work to this larger frame of discussion. The Holocaust, as he accurately observes, is like the blank page Appelfeld himself places between the two halves of his novel The Age of Wonders (1978), separating its young protagonist's pre-war existence in Europe from the section entitled "Many Years Later When Everything Was Over." Schwartz insightfully places this novel at the center of Appelfeld's own vision and career. For unlike the assimilated Jewish writers peopling Appelfeld's fiction who tried to leave the "tribe" behind, Appelfeld's work, in Schwartz's view, protrays an exemplary process of both connection with and separation from the past that creates the authority of the classic work. Appelfeld's stories and novels reconstruct a world of both assimilated and traditional, often Hasidic, Jews in the Europe of his fiction, with struggles that reappear, in different form, in the post-war Israeli reality of survivors Appelfeld constructs with loving care. Schwartz's most eloquent insights portray the guilt that accompanied this negotiation between Jewish culture and modern, individual identity. That process did not come to a magical conclusion at the end of the war, with the revival of Hebrew literature, or writers of the "generation of the state" in Israel after 1948. The European concerns of Appelfeld's fiction, Schwartz notes, give him a "view with regard to the Jewish world that is more comprehensive than that of any recent Hebrew author since S. Y. Agnon and Haim Hazzaz" (3).
Appelfeld's comprehensiveness is not achieved through expansive realistic description, but through carefully constructed, Kafkaesque restraint that allows a seemingly absent world to appear through abstract, but precisely [End Page 442] evocative detail. Schwartz describes this artistic line between memory, Appelfeld's attempt to reconnect with the lost world of European Jewry, and the forgetting that post-war life in Israel required. The imperative of becoming a Hebrew writer meant...