Aharon Appelfeld Creates a Jewish Saint in ‘Suddenly, Love’
In his new novel, the great Israeli writer conjures a slow-burn connection between an innocent caretaker and her aging charge
In literature, innocence is often mute. That is because innocence, like childhood—for which it is perhaps another name—does not yet realize that it is incomplete, that there is another way of being in the world. The innocent person can no more appreciate the value or rarity of his innocence than the fish can appreciate water; only when the medium disappears can you begin to appreciate how perfectly sustaining it once was. Guilt, or maturity, draws the outline around innocence by which it comes to be perceived for the first time. Its blackness makes a pattern of a whiteness that would otherwise be blank.
That is why, the more acutely a writer mourns the loss of goodness, the more compulsively he and his characters talk. Think of Hamlet, whose chatter seems to make action impossible, or Milton’s Satan, whose eloquence makes him the unintentional hero of “Paradise Lost.” Perhaps the supreme example is Dostoevsky, whose underground men and self-accused criminals measure what they have lost by the intricacy and volume of their confessions. Goodness, on the other hand, is usually approached indirectly and bashfully in literature; no one can claim that he possesses it, only declare a faith that it must be out there somewhere. In “Un coeur simple”—“A Simple Heart,” a short story from his collection Three Tales—Flaubert gave a classic example of this kind of estranging treatment of goodness. Felicité, the servant whose mean, obstructed life story emphatically does not belong to someone “like you and me,” Flaubert tells us, is treated with the kind of defiant credulity accorded to saints’ lives:
Felicité evoked Paradise, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, the blazing cities, the dying nations, the shattered idols; and out of this she developed a great respect for the Almighty and a great fear of His wrath. … Felicité worshiped devoutly, while enjoying the coolness and the stillness of the church. As for the dogma, she could not understand it and did not even try.
“Un coeur simple” is an uncanny modern restatement of the ancient Christian exhortation to humility and childlikeness: As Jesus says in the Book of Matthew, “Verily I say unto you: Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” If one must be limited to be as holy as Felicité, then limits are to be embraced. The story’s famous ending, in which the dying Felicité has a vision of her stuffed pet parrot as the Holy Ghost, captures this paradox perfectly: It is at the same time grotesque, absurd, and genuinely sacred.
What would a Jewish version of this tale look like? In a tradition that does not sacrifice reason but reveres it, that turns study itself into a sacred activity, does goodness still look like simplicity, or does it take other forms?
These are the fascinating questions posed by Suddenly, Love, the new novel by Aharon Appelfeld. For Appelfeld, too, has written a story about a naively good servant, Irena, a woman whose innocence and credulity are so foreign to us that they resist being dramatized. Unlike Flaubert, however, he treats her as one of a dyad, along with her employer, the sick and aging Ernst. And it is in the relationship between these two, rather than in isolation, that Irena’s goodness is allowed to flower and reveal itself.
Despite its title, nothing about Suddenly, Love, translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green, happens suddenly: The book is quiet and static, like the lives of the people it deals with, and when action does intrude it is usually dispatched in an aside, as though to get it over with. The mundane atmosphere is established in the first sentence: “Ernst turned seventy, and for his birthday Irena baked a cheesecake and decorated it with strawberries.” Over the course of the novel, several more cakes are baked, meals prepared, visits made to the hospital—this is a story of repetitions, not singular events. (“Ernst’s recovery is slow, and it has its ups and downs,” is the representative beginning of one chapter.) Most repeated of all are the descriptions of Ernst’s attempts, torturous and usually unsuccessful, to sit down at his typewriter and produce some pages of his long-gestated memoir. The question of whether he will be able to do this before cancer claims his life provides the story’s slow-burning, minor-key narrative suspense.
If Ernst finds it hard to write about his life, that’s because—like so many European Jews of his generation, at least the ones who survived—he has led more than one. Appelfeld does not mention exactly when the story is set, but it’s possible to deduce that it must be around 1980, which means that the seventy-year-old Ernst was born in a rural Romanian-Jewish world that disappeared in the Holocaust. He himself lost a wife and baby daughter, who along with his parents were among the thousands of Jews drowned in the River Bug by Romanian soldiers. After the war, which he survived as an officer in the Red Army, he came to Israel and worked an investment adviser, but he still writes in the German of his childhood.
Like most of Appelfeld’s writing, then, Suddenly, Love qualifies as a Holocaust story. But the key to the book’s view of Jewish history is that the true rupture of the 20th century came well before the Holocaust. By the time Ernst was born, his parents had already moved to the city and lost touch with the ancient traditions still carried on by his grandparents. When Ernst himself becomes a teenage Communist, actively hostile to Judaism—to the point of committing arson against synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses—it seems like merely the natural end-point of the process of deracination that began before his birth:
All I saw was how miserable they were. Only over the past few years did I come to understand that my parents bore within them an ancient heritage from which they had been cut off. Perhaps they themselves didn’t realize it, but their behavior bespoke a nobility that had been diminished and had lost its value. … It was a silence born of a nobility that extended back for many generations. Unfortunately, my parents had lost the positive silence of their ancestors, the silence that is prayer and connection with the God of their fathers. What remained with them was only a barren silence, without any connection to heaven, just a noble despair.
Now, at the end of his life, Ernst is trying to atone for the Communist crimes of his youth by reconnecting with his ancestors. And it is in this effort that he most needs the help of Irena, who in addition to cleaning and cooking for him offers him a running fountain of Jewish authenticity. Irena, too, is marked by the Holocaust: She was born in a DP camp after the war and grew up in Israel in a kind of hermetic bubble with her traumatized parents. Even after their deaths, she continues to keep the family apartment just as it was.
Ordinarily we might think of this as a kind of paralysis, a failure of mourning; but that is not how Appelfeld intends it. Rather, we come to see that Irena has kept up precisely that connection with the past that Ernst severed. And her reward is that she is able to enjoy her parents’ ongoing presence. They visit her, not quite in the form of disembodied ghosts, but in some real and tangible way, and in doing so they sustain her simple faith in God. When Ernst asks Irena, “Are you religious?” she answers more truthfully than he realizes by simply saying, “I do what my mother did.”
In a Jewish context, Appelfeld seems to say, innocence means continuity. This does not necessarily entail keeping the rituals of our ancestors—Irena is only intermittently observant—but it does mean loving and trusting them, seeing ourselves as a link in the same chain. The modern Jewish sin, Appelfeld suggests, is to have broken that chain out of pride and self-hatred, as Ernst did when he gave his allegiance to the working class rather than his own family. And his punishment is that he is unable to write to his own satisfaction, as he tells Irena:
Why aren’t we able to love our people the way the Russian authors love theirs? Nothing is simpler than to love. Nothing is more natural than to love. But Jewish artists seem to be handicapped. First they hated those who preserved the tradition and accused them of being primitive and drugged. Then they hated the Jewish shopkeeper and said he was a greedy exploiter who deceived people. And when the Holocaust survivors came, they said they were human dust. Why did Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Turgenev love their people, and why aren’t we able to love as they do?
Some elderly people employ aides for physical therapy; Irena serves Ernst as a form of emotional therapy, teaching him how to regain his love for his people and his ancestors. And as he learns to love her—not quite sexually, but bodily, with embraces and tender caresses—the dry springs of his writing begin to flow again. Several of the later chapters in Suddenly, Love consist of long passages from Ernst’s memoirs, in which he summons up his summer visits to his grandparents in the Carpathian Mountains, and their way of life there—pious, gentle (they are even vegetarians), in harmony with their Christian peasant neighbors. It is not at all convincing in historical terms—was any Eastern European Jewish community ever so idyllic?—but as an expression of Ernst’s nostalgia it is affecting.
The problem with Suddenly, Love is that we are never quite certain whether what seems to be nostalgia, or sentimentality, is recognized as such by Appelfeld. It’s obvious that, in writing this tale, Appelfeld flies in the face of several kinds of modern skepticism, which he does not even try to banish, but simply ignores. What are we to make of a story in which the love of a naive woman redeems a brilliant man, and in which a servant finds total self-fulfillment in catering to the needs of her employer? This is a novel steeped in longing for the past, and one thing the past did very well was enforce gender and class hierarchies: Can we still accept these as uncomplainingly as Appelfeld asks us to?
Which is another way of asking, does passivity still look to us like another name for goodness? That doesn’t feel like a very Jewish equation, and as Ernst’s invocation of Tolstoy and Chekhov suggests, there is something more Russian than specifically Jewish about the novel’s brand of nostalgia for the land and the ancestors. In one of the many dreams that populate the book, Irena is with Ernst in his childhood Carpathians, and he tells her: “We were born here. Because of some mistake we were driven from this paradise and cast into exile. But finally the mistake has been corrected, and we have returned to the place where God and man dwell together.”
For an Israeli writer to locate the Promised Land, not in Israel, but in the dreaded and despised Europe of the Holocaust, is an audacious and pointed move. The 20th century was certainly a time of rupture in Jewish history, as in world history, and it is intriguing to think that perhaps the way to heal the traumas that still afflict Judaism is to restore that breach—to regain a more loving and less fearful view of our ancestors’ lives. Suddenly, Love doesn’t convince us that such a thing is possible, but Appelfeld does present it as beautiful and desirable—and infinitely elusive, like innocence itself.
To read Tablet Original Fiction by Aharon Appelfeld, click here.
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