From dark deprecation to ‘Suddenly, Love’

Back in 1988, no less august an observer than Philip Roth described the authorial voice of esteemed Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld as one “that originates in a wounded consciousness pitched somewhere between amnesia and memory, and that situates the fiction it narrates midway between parable and history.” Anglophone readers — whether new to Appelfeld or among his longtime fans — may now experience this singular voice in “Suddenly, Love” (Schocken Books, $25), Jeffrey M. Green’s translation of the novel published in 2003 as “Pitom Ahavah.”

“Suddenly, Love” essentially traces the (re)awakening of memory and spirit of its protagonist, Ernst, a native of Czernowitz, Appelfeld’s own birthplace (then a Romanian city, Czernowitz is now part of western Ukraine). But whereas Appelfeld, born in 1932, encountered the Holocaust as a child, the somewhat older Ernst was already a married young father when his wife, daughter and parents were murdered. Ernst likely owes his survival at least in part to the fact that, as an adolescent, he became a communist and was serving in the Red Army when his family members were deported.

When the novel opens, Ernst is a divorced septuagenarian living alone in Jerusalem, retired from an investment company, spending his hours writing. He shares portions of what he writes with his caregiver, Irena, who finds it mystifying that he never mentions his parents or grandparents. Irena, who was born to Holocaust survivors in a German displaced persons camp, is an only child whose deceased parents remain “always with [her].” Indeed, the quiet, solitary Irena seems to exist in a world of her making, a world constructed around the family history and Jewish traditions transmitted by her parents.

For Ernst, heretofore prone to depression, not even serious physical injury or illness can compete with “Irena’s presence, her closeness,” which “opens corridors for him to worlds he never knew. Or if he knew of them, he was blind to them. He had never imagined such love.” Under this influence, Ernst becomes able to immerse himself in what he had resisted remembering, including childhood summers spent with his religious grandparents in the Carpathians — and the ugly anti-Semitism that was part and parcel of his communist past.

The latter strand makes it difficult to resist quoting again from Roth’s 1988 exchange with Appelfeld, in which the Israeli author revealed: “What has preoccupied me, and continues to perturb me, is this anti-Semitism directed at oneself, an ancient Jewish ailment which, in modern times, has taken on various guises. … It took me years to draw close to the Jew within me. I had to get rid of many prejudices within me and to meet many Jews in order to find myself in them.”

In general, one must be cautious, to say the least, when inferring that a fictional character mirrors his creator. But Appelfeld himself has remarked more than once on his practice of weaving his tales from life experience. To Roth, for example, he described his own return, in the emotional sense, “to the region where I was born and where my parents’ home stood. That is my spiritual history, and it is from there that I spin the threads. Artistically speaking, settling back there has given me an anchorage and a perspective.” As it does for Ernst.

It is equally tempting to attribute to Appelfeld the ideas about writing embedded within this novel. At one point, for instance, Irena notices: “Ernst doesn’t tell a story all at once. First, he prepares the heart, traces the framework, and gradually brings the images into it.” Later, as he finds his true subjects and rhythm, Ernst realizes “that extended descriptions were no longer necessary. He mercilessly uprooted words that didn’t further the action of the story. The details emerged selectively, without superfluousness, only what was most needed.” Such characterizations apply not only to Ernst’s writing, but also to his creator’s.

At the end of this spare, slender novel, both Ernst’s and Irena’s lives have been transformed. It isn’t far-fetched to suggest that, in some subtle way, the reader has been changed, too.

Erika Dreifus is the author of “Quiet Americans: Stories” (Last Light Studio). Visit her online and find her on Twitter @ErikaDreifus, where she tweets “about things bookish and/or Jewish.”

Edgar Keret: All grown up

Yesterday at the ophthalmologist I realized my eye doctor was looking deep into my eyes but couldn’t see me; not at all. My husband compulsively takes the same photograph over and over again unaware that no picture looks different from any other. My son has mastered the subtle art of walking through the world invisible, the result of years of school torment for speech that occasionally faltered. It is this sort of horrifying flash of recognition that occasionally bursts forth into our consciousness that Etgar Keret mines into short story gold in “Suddenly, a Knock on the Door” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: $14.00, translated from the Hebrew by Nathan Englander, Miriam Shlesinger, and Sondra Silverston). He has been doing this for several years in Israel to great acclaim. Keret has authored six very successful short story collections; some of which are now required reading in literature for Israeli high school seniors.

Keret lives in an alternative universe where one’s subjective reality reigns supreme. His brief short stories, most no more than a few brief pages, send you tumbling into a maze that seems to have no center—which seems to be Keret’s main point. How do we find meaning in a world so arbitrary and precarious? Where can one still find a shred of hope? What is the point of all this madness? Yet his absurdist narratives are laced with a morality and emotional compassion that is often unsettling. If you are brave enough, he offers up nothing less than a religious conversion of sorts. You are simply not the same person after reading him.

Keret is the youngest son of Holocaust survivors. His mother survived the Warsaw Ghetto, but lost her entire family. His father managed to survive by hiding in a hole in the ground for 600 days. His two older siblings have taken widely divergent paths—his sister turned Orthodox and is the mother of 11 children. His brother is a peace activist and proponent for the legalization of marijuana. Keret speaks with palpable emotion about his father in interviews. He credits his father for inspiring him to do something special with his life and for teaching him not to succumb to fear. And Keret does that over and over again in his stories; he confronts hopelessness and finds the faintest flicker of hope, just as his father did.

In “The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God,” a magnificent story from an earlier collection, Keret tells us about a bus driver who refused to open the door for any passenger who arrived at his bus stop late. It did not matter if he was at a red light. Or if the lady was pregnant or sick or carrying a stroller filled with screaming kids. He simply refused to open the door and believed himself to be following some sort of moral code that dictated he treat all of his passengers equally, regardless of the their circumstances. There was a guy named Eddie who rode his bus every day—a pathetic young man who already seemed to have given up on most of what life has to offer. One day, Eddie was walking to the bus stop with a certain skip in his step, since he was about to meet a girl at the mall who would never show up, but Eddie did not know that yet. Still, he was running late. The bus driver saw him in his rear view mirror struggling to make the bus and decided to wait for him. The other passengers shouted for the bus driver to keep moving, since they were accustomed to his rigid rule, but the bus driver refused to move. Something about Eddie touched the driver in a way nothing had in a long time. Eddie “reminded the driver of something-something from the past, from a time even before he wanted to become a bus driver, when he still wanted to become God. It was a sad memory because the bus driver didn’t become God in the end, but it was a happy one too, because he was a bus driver, which was his second choice. “ Eddie stepped onto the bus, and the bus driver gave him a sad wink. Eddie would remember that small gesture the entire day, even when the girl didn’t show up and even when the next one didn’t either.

In “Alternative,” from “The Girl on the Fridge” collection, Keret’s narrator writes about wondering what his girlfriend is thinking about while she performs fellatio on him. He asks her and she tells him “Nothing.” Keret writes, “I’ve always asked myself what girls think about when they’re doing it. Not suicide, the sex thing. It bothers me. I always used to think that they thought it was supposed to bum them out, to humiliate them. I hoped that, if I could get inside her head, everything would be different. I’d get some kind of insight. Different my ass. This isn’t why I became a writer.”

In “One Kiss on the Mouth in Mombasa,” from “Nimrod Flipout,” Keret’s storyteller is haunted by a story his fiancée tells him. It was about a guy she once met on a trip to Mombasa, where she was hanging out and doing drugs after completing her army service. The guy would look at her a lot but say little, and when he did approach her and she told him she was unavailable, he moved away gently, asking only for a kiss. He said he had been watching her for weeks imagining this kiss, and she consented and then returned to Israel. What bothered him wasn’t that she kissed him; it wasn’t that at all. It was thinking about the other man’s relentless desire for her; his ability to spend hours thinking about her and longing for her and then begging her politely for just one soft kiss. He was jealous at what this man was able to feel for someone else, feelings he himself could never conjure for anyone, not even himself.

Keret’s new collection, “Suddenly, A Knock On The Door,” is edgy and slightly different in tone. Keret is now 46, married and the father of one young son. The new stories seem to echo with the escalating tensions of modern family life. Many of them focus on the vulnerability of young children caught between warring parents. Yet, Keret’s writing process is primarily the same; it is the subject matter that has shifted. Keret explains he generally begins all of his stories with a shocking visual image that gets stuck in his mind and then allows the narrative to flow from there. The stories here are filled with husbands and fathers attempting to understand the emotional minefields that exist in every family, rather than the young and alienated slacker males that populate his early work.

The title story is especially memorable. It is about a writer named Keret who hears frantic banging at the front door and is assaulted by a Swede who has just immigrated to Israel and who demands to be told a story since he is convinced that in Israel you can only get what you want by force. Two other strangers come by issuing the same odd request. They want to hear something original, and they want to hear it right now. For once, Keret is speechless. In another wonderful story, “Lieland,” a man grapples with the horrifying actuality of having every lie he has ever told since childhood become a reality.

Even with the grown-up Keret, you can always feel the faint rumblings of a man with desires to flee everything that engulfs him. You can still feel the raw scars that resulted from being thrust into the Israel Army at the tender age of 18. Keret himself has spoken in interviews about his horrific experiences in the army, where his closest friend took his own life, leaving Keret with an inconsolable sense of loss that prompted him soon after to begin writing. Keret doesn’t hold back from his negative feelings about army service, and the corrosive effect he felt it had on his being. He once said “You don’t always know it, but lines that you don’t pass, you pass them all the time in Israel…When you’re 18, you’re taken into the army, you kick doors down, you beat people, shoot people. Then you go home, and people say you are going to lead a normal life. But the moment your girlfriend doesn’t want to open the door, well, it’s not like you’ve never been in that situation before.” Keret brings all of this baggage to his new work and combines it with the confusions of adult life. The results are extraordinary.

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Journal and other publications.