Philip Roth has called the Israeli novelist and memoirist Aharon Appelfeld “a displaced writer of displaced fiction, who has made of displacement and disorientation a subject uniquely his own.”
The author of more than 40 volumes of fiction and nonfiction in his adopted language of Hebrew, Appelfeld was born in Czernowitz, now part of Ukraine, in 1932. With his mother murdered and his father gone, Appelfeld survived the Holocaust by escaping from a Nazi labor camp and hiding in Ukrainian villages and forests. He immigrated to Israel after the war.
Not surprisingly, a desperate longing for family and dreams of a lost past figure prominently in Appelfeld’s work. They recur in his latest novel in English translation, “Suddenly, Love,” whose portrait of an aging writer suggests a more frustrated, less successful version of Appelfeld himself.
The novel’s obvious virtues include Appelfeld’s characteristically spare, stripped-down prose, rendered in Jeffrey M. Green’s elegant translation, and the narrative’s seamless interweaving of past and present. Its challenge lies in its premise: the depiction of a dance of intimacy between two characters who couldn’t be more different in age, outlook, and intellectual sophistication.
The writer, Ernst, whose 70th birthday is being celebrated in the novel’s opening pages, is stiff, dour, and frequently depressed. His decades of losses and missteps diminish him until he learns to draw on them as source materials.
Irena, his housekeeper and caretaker, cuts a more sympathetic figure. Unmarried and about half Ernst’s age, she is a woman of “solid innocence,” selectively observant of Jewish rituals, largely uneducated, and congenitally cheery. “Abstract matters are far from Irena’s mental grasp,” Appelfeld writes.
With her parents, both Auschwitz survivors, now dead, Irena happily dedicates herself to serving Ernst. At times, “she wants to kneel at his feet, cover his hand with both of hers, and say, I’m so pleased that you allow me to serve you.”
The book’s plot could not be simpler: These two lonely characters circle each other warily, move closer, fall in love, and change each other for the better.
The novel is enriched and complicated by Appelfeld’s insistence on the seemingly permeable boundaries between past and present, life and death — and his take on how that permeability feeds creativity. The dead in “Suddenly, Love” both haunt and comfort the living, and dreams connect Ernst and Irena to more youthful days — and eventually to each other.
When she is not with Ernst, Irena lives in the home she once shared with her parents. More than memories to her, they appear periodically and hold warm conversations with her. And while her grandparents were murdered during the war, to Irena “the feeling that they live on is stronger than the reality of their deaths.”
By contrast, Ernst is initially cut off from his painful past. As a Jewish teenager in Czernowitz, he joined a band of communists and participated in anti-Semitic violence. He ended up estranged from his parents and his roots. Nevertheless, he married happily, had a daughter, and served honorably as a Red Army officer during World War II. While he was gone, his entire family was killed by the Nazis.
Like Appelfeld, Ernst came to Israel with nothing. But instead of writing, he made money as an investment adviser and married again, badly. His second wife, Sylvia, is depicted as harsh and critical. They divorced, leaving Ernst alone. Now retired from finance, he is attempting to reclaim his vocation as a writer.
Ernst at first despises most of his own work. Irena can see that writing for him is “a harsh arena of struggle.” With her encouragement, he gradually finds himself able to draw on healing memories of his parents, grandparents, and childhood visits to the Carpathian Mountains. He writes better, or so he believes, and reads his writing to Irena.
In thrall to Ernst, Irena’s latent creativity also sparks, and her dreams begin to encompass him. In a fantasy evocative of the paintings of Chagall, she imagines “that soon he will lift her up again, and she will soar with him to other worlds.” As for Ernst, fighting off illness, he “mines his memory for visions and fragments of visions.”
In this borderland between life and death, memory and imagination, the two fashion a love story that, however unlikely, will move all but the most skeptical of readers.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.