Sunday, January 18, 2009

Appelfeld On Writing

Aharon Appelfeld, one of Israel’s most talented and respected novelists, is often admired for fearlessly exploring the challenging terrain where fiction intersects with memory and personal history.

In his memoir, A Table for One (originally published in Hebrew as Od Hayom Gadol), he shares his thoughts on the challenges of writing fiction:
My accuracy focuses on the micro and not the macro. To me, it’s important to describe the parquet floor, the muslin curtains, the spacious living room, the quiet and the pleasant softness of a petit-bourgeois house.
The descriptions of the floor and curtains may seem superficial, even irrelevant, as details but they’re essential to Appelfeld’s (and the reader’s) emotional understanding of a scene.

In this particular example, he’s speaking of a child who happens to live at a time in history that will prove catastrophic for him and his family, and the child’s fears assume the shape of lions, even though he lives in the city and his mother tells him there are no lions to fear in the city.

From a realistic point of view, there are no lions in the city. And yet, emotionally, he sees lions everywhere waiting to devour him and his family. It's what the child feels, and the image--the nightmare--of the lions is the only way that he can communicate his feelings.

“The child suddenly feels that very soon he’ll lose everything good and pleasant," Appelfeld explains. "In my own home, in 1939, there was talk of financial problems, political problems, about emigration and fleeing the trap, but all these complex matters were too lofty for me to understand. For me, fear took the form of lions. That was within the scope of my imagination.”

Appelfeld also says:
With an artist, what’s very private paradoxically becomes universal. A child’s fear, to go back to the example that I’ve given , is fear that’s linked to 1939, but at the same time it’s the eternal fear in the face of the unknown, which we all carry within us.
And also this:
Since the publication of my first story, I’ve been treated as if I were the chronicler of the Holocaust. I’m not someone writing a chronicle, nor am I a historian. I try to be a novelist. What is important for the historian does not concern me. The historian makes a distinction between one place and another, between past and present. I do not distinguish between them. In this respect, and not only in this respect, the artist continues to be a child. For him, what was “then” and what is “now” are intertwined. There was a right-wing critic who claimed that I refuse to relinquish the trauma of childhood and insist on bringing it here. Another critic, this time a left-winger, claimed that my writing on the Holocaust inflames nationalistic sentiments...

There were years when I suffered from this. But as I grow older, it becomes increasingly clear to me: You simply have to be yourself. Just that.
To learn more about Appelfeld's memoir on writing and living in Jerusalem, visit:

And for more on Appelfeld and his work, visit:

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