On January 4, the acclaimed Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld died at the age of eighty-five. Jeffrey M. Green, who translated several of Appelfeld’s works into English, reflects on the man and his work.
Many of Aharon’s characters are assimilated Jews of his parents’ generation who are unable to draw upon their Jewish roots but also unable to live comfortably in the Gentile world. Ironically (and Aharon was a master of irony), these people are often linked to their Judaism by Gentile women, servants in Jewish homes who have imbibed Jewish values. For Aharon, Jewish values are synonymous with human values. The only thoroughly Jewish characters in his fictional world are those of his grandparents’ generation, the pious parents of the confused assimilated Jews, observant old people living in villages high in the Carpathians, surrounded by forests, close to God and to nature, at peace with their Gentile neighbors, and silent. These mountain Jews no longer exist, and only through Aharon’s visions of them can we know them. . . .
His style is deceptively simple, and one must read him very closely to avoid overlooking its special flavor. He wrote short sentences and avoided unusual words. His Hebrew almost never resonates with biblical or rabbinical overtones. The only way in which his style might be called biblical is in its sparseness. He scrupulously avoided writing superfluous words. . . .
He was [also] a devoted husband and father, a man who lived in contemporary Israel, who traveled to Europe and the United States, and who had political opinions, none of which appear directly in his work. Shallow critics reproached him for that. He dismissed such criticism with impatient annoyance and continued to write exactly the way he wanted to write. As he said to me more than once, people who want literature to be journalism simply don’t understand what literature is.