Sept. 22, 2006
Writers put forth ideas on life
New releases contain messages pertinent to the High Holy Days.
Existence. Memory. Atonement. Three common themes of three diverse
new releases. How appropriate as we enter a new year.
Importance of words
Fans of Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld will gain insight into
his writings and to the purpose of literature itself
in The Story of a Life (Schocken Books).
Appelfeld, a Holocaust survivor, describes this personal work as
"an attempt (and perhaps a desperate attempt) to integrate
the different parts of my life and to reconnect them to the wellsprings
of their being." His life is indeed comprised of disparate
influences: the horrors of the war, during which he hid a
child, alone in the Ukrainian forests; the pressure to forget
his heritage and assimilate into Israeli culture once he managed
to reach what would become the Jewish state; and the finding of
his voice, to eventually write more than 20 works of fiction and
nonfiction that have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Rather than being an emotional memoir, The Story of a Life
is more analytical. Understandably, perhaps, Appelfeld writes with
a certain level of detachment and he acknowledges this: "I
don't like to talk about emotions, " he writes. "Too much
talk about emotions will always lead us into a thicket of sentimentality
to trampling on and flattening true emotions. But emotion
that emerges from action is the absolute essence of feeling."
In this respect, Appelfeld seems to have led a fulfilling life
through the action of writing.
The written word is of immense importance to him: "literature,
if it is genuine, is the religious melody that has been lost to
us. Literature gathers within it all the elements of faith: the
seriousness, the internality, the melody and the connection with
the hidden aspects of the soul."
The reflections on literature and language, as well as Appelfeld's
candidness, are intriguing and refreshing. While there are less
interesting sections of The Story of a Life, there is an
overall forward momentum and there are many intellectually stimulating
and/or poignant parts. For example, during the Yom Kippur War in
1973, Appelfeld, a lecturer in the army's education corps at the
time, was stationed with a unit alongside the Suez Canal. The conflict
finally came to a cease-fire and, writes Appelfeld, "I found
it hard to part from this unit of young people on whose soldiers
rested the fate of a people welcome neither in Europe nor in this
part of the world. As different as the struggle was here, it was,
nevertheless, the same ancient curse pursuing us."
Despite his experiences in the Second World War, or maybe because
of them, Appelfeld accepts human beings for what they are, with
all their imperfections. He's open about his own failings and he
doesn't require resolution in The Story of a Life he
captures life's incomplete moments and humanity's inherently contradictory
nature. May we all so ably come to terms with our own existence.
Local poet Renee Norman offers introspection of a different sort.
The poems in True Confessions (Inanna Publications &
Education Inc.) depict women's roles in Western society, as daughter,
mother, grandmother, wife and lover. Norman uses language adeptly
and most of her writings resonate.
"Chop" is a subtly tender poem about the difficult role
reversal that occurs between mother and child as old age approaches.
"The Truth Is" is a bitingly witty reprisal of how the
intellectual establishment has viewed women, using "Truth is
a woman" a comment attributed to Nietzsche as
its starting point. "After reading Sharon Butala's Perfection
of the Morning" is a dark portrayal of living with an illness.
Norman's range is broad and, while she misses the mark occasionally
the title poem, for instance, lacks coherence, even though
individual lines are appealing she more often takes you to
a feeling or thought with such ease and grace that you wonder how
you got there. A respect of memory and past generations and a calm
optimism about her own children and the future permeate this collection.
True Confessions illustrates the realities of life, which
are sometimes harsh, but communicates the importance of appreciating
the mere fact of life and the moments we do manage to have with
the people we hold dear.
A personal journey
Though he may believe that, to be a good Jew, one must live in
Israel, A.B. Yehoshua is not uncritical of the Jewish homeland in
his latest novel, A Woman in Jerusalem (Harcourt Inc.).
This powerful and moving book centres around a woman who is killed
in a suicide bombing at a Jerusalem market. Her body lies in a hospital
morgue unidentified - until a local newspaper discovers that she
worked in a bakery and accuses the business of "inhumanity
and callous greed" because its staff never noticed her absence
from work. The bakery's owner assigns the task of restoring his
humanity to his reluctant human resources manager and A Woman
in Jerusalem follows the manager's quest to do so. In the process,
not only does the manager find out more about the woman a
non-Jew from the former Soviet Union who came to Jerusalem at great
personal sacrifice but he learns about himself and comes
to accept who he is and to atone for the mistakes he has made in
life, one of which is to have lost track of his fellow employee.
Yehoshua uses an interesting literary device in A Woman in Jerusalem:
writing in italics, he introduces some sections with a first-person
account of someone who is encountering the human resources manager
or someone who is witnessing his actions. The device adds depth
to the story.
Also adding to the authenticity of the novel is a frankness about
the current situation in Israel and the antipathy that some people
have toward the country and its people. Nonetheless, Jerusalem was
where the woman chose to live: "It was her city. It was everyone's."
In the end, while Yehoshua despairs of Jerusalem's future, he retains
hope. And, in his view, hope comes from those who make aliyah. As
Diaspora Jews, we pray, "Next year in Jerusalem."