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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Friday, December 26, 2014

Serious themes, promising premise, but a novel that never gets off the ground

OK so let's just leave it at that: Aharon Appelfeld by all accounts is or was or has been an excellent novelist but his novel from last year, Suddenly, Love, is not a great way to enter into his work. My misfortune. Reading through this short novel you can immediately and easily see that Appelfeld has a beautiful prose style, simple and clear and based on precisely observed details. You can also see that he takes on serious and significant themes, with a particular interest in the history of the Jews in the 20th century, and, though I know little about his life, it would appear that he draws on personal experience and memories as well as research to develop his fiction. In this novel, as noted in previous posts, a 70-year-old retired man pursues his lifelong passion, trying to write something that will endure and that meets his own extremely high critical expectations. He has spent many years writing and then obliterating what he's written; now, in his late life - -about half-way through the book he received a fatal diagnosis - his work at last begins to come alive, as he writes about his grandparents, devout Jewish peasants in the Ukraine at the turn of the century (Appelfeld is also from this community, and it may well be that thee passages are his own autobiographical or family-history sketches). In the latter half of the novel he reads these passages to his caretaker, Irena, who over time has come to live with him and share his bed - although Appelfeld is quaintly discrete on the issue of the sexual relations. The man, Ernst, says he will make Irena his heir and that he want her to publish his work but under a shared byline (in fact, giving her his surname, though they never marry). All that's very strange and shows up one of the serious weaknesses of the novel: Irena is just a sketch, opaque, unchanging - she is clearly devoted to Ernst, but what kind of life is this for a young woman? And is he really doing her any favors by making her his heir? - seems he's setting her up for a lifetime of litigation. The book really loses is way in the 2nd half, as we get more and more passages of Ernst's writing and less of Appelfeld's narration; essentially, once he starts writing, nothing else happens in the novel: Irena listens, she expresses her devotion, Ernst kisses her hand, then we move on to the next passage. The sudden love proffered in the title never emerges, just a slavish adoration and the gratitude of an old, dying man. If Ernst's writing contained a startling revelation or realization that changes his, and her, life, that would be something, but they don't - they're just well-written sketches of a life and time gone by, and yes I get it that it's taken him a lifetime to realize their beauty and importance, to find his "theme," but Appelfeld fails to give this novel the shape and dimension that it seemed to promise and that we rightfully expect.

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