It was worth waiting. Oz's autobiography is one of his finest works, and so now is Appelfeld's. This small book is as moving as the children in it: Appelfeld himself, aged 10, on a forced march through the Ukrainian mud; the "joyful child" Helga, saved from a pit; Chico, whose prayer restored the past to everyone who heard it.
It's an extraordinary story, as Appelfeld's readers will know. He was born in Czernowitz to secular, German-speaking parents. His first seven years were a dream of love and protection. Then came 1939 - his mother's murder, the ghetto, the march; a concentration camp, where he is separated from his father, and escapes. Two years of hiding in fields and forests followed, sometimes working for peasants, then alone again. When the war ended he was 13. A brief rebirth in Italy; then new life in Israel: lost years, without a native language, until he finds his way to university, memory, and to writing.
Appelfeld's writing is a perfectly tuned instrument for the evocation of memory. He recreates people in a few vivid lines - his beloved mother and rationalist father, his strong grandparents, the angels and demons met on his way. When her father dies, all he says of his mother is that "in the way she sat there was something of Grandfather"; and this preservation of the lost parent in her body tells more than words. His own grief is similarly inscribed in his body, so that 50 years later damp shoes, or a birdcall, take him instantly back to the war, "and then it seems to me that it has never really ended".
"It seems to me", "as if", "I feel" - these phrases, constantly repeated, are the lines on which the scenes of this book are strung, so that the narrative is almost entirely interior. This interiority is Appelfeld's ideal of literature, and at the same time all he can do, since what he needs to tell he only dimly remembers. Thus he makes a virtue of necessity, and literature of himself - which is, he says, what all true writers do.
After memory, his greatest theme is forgetting, and the enormous pressure after the war to forget, especially in Israel. The kibbutzim were "veritable greenhouses for the cultivation of oblivion"; the past was weakness and shame, the future would be strength and soldiers. Appelfeld made a hopeless soldier (a tragic but funny episode), and in his quiet way he stubbornly resisted the slogans.
But he too felt the need to forget, and doesn't judge those who chose forgetting. In fact, he doesn't judge anyone. During the war he saw terrible selfishness, but also immense generosity; and though the good was rarer than the evil, he remembers it more.
It is worth reading The Story of a Life for its portraits of helpers alone, like the teacher Gustav Gotesman, or the poet Y.S., or the three Rauchwerger brothers; or the family's Ukrainian maid, who stole their jewellery and cash at the end, but whom Appelfeld still remembers with love. He did not become a "moralist", like his father, but remained an observer, like his mother, respecting human weakness and even loving it, "for weakness is our essence and our humanity". Primo Levi read him "with awe and admiration". So will you.
Carole Angier's 'Primo Levi: the double bond' is published by PenguinReuse content