Just as I was getting around to writing a memorial for Aharon Appelfeld, the Israel novelist who died the first week of January, his good friend Philip Roth took leave in late May. They were both 85.
They were also both heavyweights of literature — one a panther, the other a pixie, both indelibly marked as Jewish writers, but so much more. Each left behind deep shelves of narrative, both gone within months of one another.
Roth was tall, imposing and fierce. His work roared. (Would you let Mickey Sabbath put on a puppet show at your kid’s birthday party?) Appelfeld was round-faced, quiet and elfin, his novels peopled with stutterers, the feeble-minded and the mute. (You would let him read bedtime stories to your kids, but only his children’s book “Adam and Thomas.”)
Roth “survived” the Holocaust as a schoolboy in his beloved Newark in the Garden State. Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography was one of the many books he read after putting down the pen for good in 2012.
The boy born Ervin Appelfeld in a village near Czernowitz (then Romania, now Ukraine) lost his mother and grandmother to Romanian soldiers loyal to Nazi Germany when he was nine. He leapt from a transport taking him and his father to a forced labor camp in Transnistria, ran into the forest and survived in the company of thieves.
One day, a john patronizing a prostitute who’d been looking out for the boy accused Appelfeld of being “a bloody Jew.” The boy took this cue to separate from the forest dwellers to fend for himself, eventually being picked up by the Red Army and assigned kitchen duty.
Appelfeld once said that while the Holocaust hovered over virtually all of his work, a more pervasive theme was loneliness.
The authors were friends for nearly 35 years; their discourse — from coffee and walks through London, Jerusalem and New York – was published in Appelfeld’s 1993 volume, “Beyond Despair: Three Lectures and a Conversation with Philip Roth.”
In the book, Appelfeld answers the question repeatedly asked of him: Why is the unequaled drama of the Holocaust offstage in most of your novels? “Historical explanations have been alien to me ever since I became aware of myself as an artist,” he said. “The Jewish experience in the Second World War was not ‘historical.’ We came into contact with archaic, mythical forces, a kind of dark subconscious the meaning of which we did not know, nor do we know it to this day.”
I knew not of Appelfeld — best known for his American breakthrough, “Badenheim 1939” — until he appeared (as himself) in “Operation Shylock: A Confession,” a 1993 Roth novel. The story of appropriated identity orbits the Jerusalem trial of the Ukrainian-born John Demjanjuk, an accused war criminal and death camp guard who for decades lived quietly as an auto worker in Cleveland.
Through the case of Demjanjuk, Roth takes aim at the Holocaust in a way that Appelfeld was not inclined. To find out why, I called up Appelfeld scholar Nili Scharf Gold, associate professor of modern Hebrew literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Appelfeld, said Gold, “was a gentle person, and maybe that’s what his [literary] distance is about — his gentle spirit and the idea that you don’t talk about horror.”
In Appelfeld’s stories, the inability to speak is both physical and metaphorical, for the fate that befell them is too enormous to discuss even if they had the tongue and the stomach for it. With Roth — about whom Gold made clear she did not know enough to discuss — his characters, particularly the recurring alter egos, are hyper-verbal Jews, largely American.
“Appelfeld always felt like a stutterer,” said Gold, noting that inarticulation in all its forms permeates the novelist’s work. “In the forest, he learned that the best protection was not to talk.”
After “Shylock” was released to wide notice and acclaim, Appelfeld — who insisted that he’d “never written about things as they happened” — liked to tell people that he was “a hero in one of Philip Roth’s novels.”
That’s a bit of playful modesty for which Appelfeld was known. In fact, he was a hero to many post-World War II Israelis because — unlike their parents and grandparents — he was willing to talk about the Holocaust, even if he did so in a mumble.
Rafael Alvarez can be reached via maconstreetbooks.com.