A Table for One by Aharon Appelfeld
Aharon Appelfeld’s novels – at least those I’ve read - do not seem to vary a great deal. From the tone and subject matter, you know it’s a novel by Aharon Appelfeld. There’s an uncanny calm to the prose, like the glassy sheen on a flooded river. What runs deep is the Holocaust. It is rarely seen above the surface, but you know it’s there.
Yet while novels like The Age of Wonders and The Healer draw one back to read again, searching like the books’ characters for clear answers to unclear questions, others do not. I’ve often wondered why, since they’re all very similar. A Table for One has helped me to work out why, perhaps because it is non-fiction, though in many ways it is like the novels too.
On first glance, the book gives consists of banal, coffee-table memories and reflections, perhaps off-cuts from his recent memoir The Story of a Life (which I have yet to read, but which is reviewed at the Yiddish Book Center). And that glance would be almost exactly right, because the book is about coffee-table memories and reflections.
Real cafés are inviting, they tempt you with fresh coffee and a cake straight out of the oven, and offer the chance to spend a precious hour or two alone with yourself.
Further on they become less banal. Each chapter is accompanied by large reproductions of paintings by the author’s son, Meir Appelfeld. They are figureless cityscapes - reminding me of Frank Auerbach’s of London. Overall they complement the text only by effacement – “what he paints, I write”, says the proud father, but they leave me non-plussed. Still, the paintings do confirm the sub-title’s claim to come from “under the light of Jerusalem”, the brilliant light of the Holy Land. The text, on the other hand, comes from under the dim light of a corner in a Jerusalem café. It is from here that Appelfeld Snr prefers to write.
In cafés you can sometimes hear words cold as ice, or words full of longing and a fierce loyalty. Usually there’s silence in a café, but sometimes a wave of speech will surge up, flooding the listener with painful things that have been mostly kept down, things buried deep in the soul for many years that have at last found an opening and emerged in words.
What’s buried deep, and how it moves beneath the surface of the present, is Appelfeld’s subject. Curiously this is also Proust’s, and it was Proust, I think, who said that the best places to write are hotel rooms and railway waiting rooms. Appelfeld sketches how his writing developed over the years in various cafés. Whenever he could spare time, he would visit them, working for a way forward. Appelfeld tells of those who helped him: Kafka and SY Agnon in particular. Then a refugee from old Europe, met playing chess in Café Rehavia, introduced him to Kleist’s stories.
As soon as I started to read them I understood: this was a writer from whom I could learn. Throughout the 1950s, I had written short stories, but wasn’t happy with them. It was clear to me that I knew neither the secret of plot development nor the power of simply stated facts. Instead of searching for a correct fact, I reach for metaphors. An excess of metaphors produces an unpleasant mist and a false sense of the poetic. The right facts, one following the next, are the driving force, the engine that moves a story along. A story, like a river, cannot stand still in one place.
One thing that can be said of Appelfeld’s novels is that they never stand still. They move forward with what Waggish calls “a styleless immediacy”. This was learned from Kafka and Kleist. Sometimes, also like Kafka and Kleist, it seems indulgent, daydreamy, free of relevance to the real world. Appelfeld recalls people who criticised his work for this reason.
Rachel Yanait had been quarried out of touch material: the Russian revolution and the Zionist revolution. Low-key literature, writing that did not bite into the meat of life, was not to her liking. She made no effort to hide her view that … literature should have a definitive message. I listened to what she said, but in my heart I was far away.
What comes through more than anything in A Table for One is Appelfeld’s relentless loyalty to what his heart tells him about his art. Sometimes it borders on self-absorption, sometimes self-sacrifice. Sometimes it’s difficult to know which it is. Despite offers and requests, he declines to write daily columns in the newspapers, or to write explicitly about Israel’s fraught existence – though he willingly serves in its army, taking delight in using an automatic gun. But when he briefly recalls the siege of Jerusalem (which also features powerfully in Amos Oz’s recent memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness), Appelfeld’s true relevance is suggested: “Since then some fifty years have passed. Sometimes it seems to me that I’m still standing there, stirred by the immense light”.
Appelfeld’s novels exist in such an uncertain present, in its weird tranquillity and constant threat of violent change. By discussing where and how he works, we learn how he brings it to the fore in fiction. That is, it depends on more than him. It depends on the atmosphere of the café. This might explain why some novels don’t work so well as others despite close similarities. When they do work, we’re able to appreciate Appelfeld’s claim that his work reflects “a religious attitude to life”, an attitude that is really only a “seriousness and sense of obligation to art”.
On the radio and in the press people talked of miracles, of Redemption and the coming of the Messiah. These terms were beyond me. I love the mysticism of daily life, the colors and the shadows that surround me, particular spots in Jerusalem toward evening, the light that glints out from parched earth.
I have to end by reporting that one “particular spot” is not brought to light. Appelfeld mentions the Palestinians not once. He does refer to a “huge incited mob” during the siege and a nightmare of a “horde of Arabs” when he served in the army. Otherwise, nothing. This is not necessarily a criticism. What lies between the words, unsaid, is, as Appelfeld insists, central to his artistic expression. But in the light of Meron Benvenisti’s book Sacred Landscape: the buried history of the Holy Land since 1948 that highlights the ways in which the Israelis have to tried to erase the memory of centuries of Arab occupation – bulldozing villages, changing place-names, destroying ancient orchards of citrus and pomegranates - the irony of this absence is unsettling. Perhaps there’s a Palestinian Appelfeld sitting in a café somewhere, also writing, if not also in his homeland.