An incomplete story

Aharon Appelfeld’s recently translated memoir, “The Story of a Life,” is a small literary wonder but an autobiographical disappointment.

As an Israeli novelist, Appelfeld has developed one of the most laconic voices to bear witness to the Holocaust. His meticulous writing is a haunting window into the effect of World War II on his mind.

In “The Story of a Life,” he indulges in that trademark style, providing a very incomplete version of an improbable story of survival.

Memory is selective, and Appelfeld admits to forgetting much of what happened in Europe during the war. In this memoir, he glosses over some of the most significant experiences of his childhood while lingering on lesser anecdotes. He recounts in great detail the time a stranger sucked his toes on a train; he devotes incredible energy to describing the anguish and guilt of stealing a boy’s watch.

Yet, Appelfeld gives us little more than this about his mother’s death: “I didn’t see her die but I did hear her one and only scream.” There’s no direct mention of his father dying. He manages to escape the Transnistria concentration camp. Clearly no small matter, but he refuses to elaborate.

“Profound experience, I’ve already learned, is easily distorted,” he writes. “I won’t attempt to put my hand in that fire. It’s not what happened in the camp that I’ll be recounting, but what happened to those who escaped from it.”

He spent three years afterwards hiding in forests from the Nazis, banding with other runaways at times, working for peasants when the winters became too harsh and living in wretched temporary quarters.

Upon arriving in Israel as a teenager, his misery persisted. The war had ripped Appelfeld from his childhood and left in its place a detached and muted orphan. He wore his silence like a battle scar.

He couldn’t speak Hebrew. Mastering it became his deepest desire. In the army, he burned with jealousy for the more masculine and confident soldiers, and at college, he had similar envy for the better-educated students.

“Someone who finds it difficult to talk needs a diary,” he writes. “When I look through my diary, I discover that it’s full of unfinished sentences and an obsession with precision. More than the words themselves, the gaps between them are eloquent.”

More than anything else, Appelfeld wants to be a writer who happens to be a survivor, not a survivor who happens to be a writer. Hard work pays off. The writer inside of him emerges, and his novels stir Israelis, and subsequently an international readership.

“A Table for One” — a collaborative project with his son, painter Meir Appelfeld — serves as the better memoir.

In “The Story of a Life,” the writer fails to mention having a wife and children; he chooses instead to belabor what a pleasure it was to play chess with his grocer in Jerusalem.

Appelfeld remains a true student of language. But he has locked a trove of memories inside his head, at depths he’s not even willing to plumb. Because of this, the story of his life — which his mentor called “enough for three writers” — likely will never be written the way it should.

“The Story of a Life” by Aharon Appelfeld (198 pages, Schoken Books, $23).

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