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

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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Which Appelfeld novel should one read first?

Aharon Appelfeld's novel Suddenly, Love edges ever closer toward its inevitable conclusion: the 70ish retiree struggling with  his memories and his maladies and trying to write a memoir and his caretaker, a 30-something relatively uneducated woman completely devoted to him, will at last discover tht they are in love - only too late, as the man (Ernst) has now been diagnosed cancer. But maybe I'm wrong? I was wrong about one thing: I thought that Ernst was probably not a very good writer - he spends hours a day in his retirement struggling to perfect a manuscript, has submitted work to publishers and agents and found nothing but rejection other than from a publisher who is no doubt a vanity press. But finally he has some passages he's proud of and he shares them with Irena (and us), and they're actually quite good - in fact, for better or worse, written in a clean and direct style based on observational detail that is very much like Appelfeld's. For better in that Appelfeld is a fine writer and he may be creating Ernst as an alter ago; for worse in that the interpolated passages do not stand out against the prose in the rest of the novel - one would think they should be of a different order or style. In any event, as Ernst opens up more to Irena we learn that in his youth he was in the REd Army, fighting both the Nazi aggression and also fighting against the Jews (often, as w/ Ernst against their fellow Jews), whom they saw as exploiters of the poor. So now, settled in retirement in Israel, he bears a great burden of guilt - and yet, his memoir itself does not touch on this guilt; it's memories of his grandparents and their devout rural household. Is his attempt to re-create and memorialize this past, which he spurned as a young adult, his method of atonement? This novel is surprisingly and disturbingly static, and that's because so little is made of the relationship between Ernst and Irena; it does not change or evolve over the course of the novel (so far), and she's pretty much a glass of water: She's recently orphaned and, in contrast w/ Ernst, was devoted to her parents, Holocaust survivors (although she knows little about their history) and has visions of speaking with theirs spirits. She also has many dreams about Ernst, in some of which he takes her in his arms. Dreams are a really flimsy narrative device - fewer is better, and they should be poignant and revealing. There's nothing exactly wrong with this novel, but it feels a little undernourished, touching on important themes but not probing them. Appelfeld is already in his 80s, so I'm not sure how many more novels he has yet to come, but I suspect this was not the best way to enter into Appelfeld's work. I'm open to suggestions on another one to try.

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