Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Appelfeld Pattern

There is a pattern to Aharon Appelfeld’s fiction that is apparent after reading at least three of his works.   Of course, the Holocaust looms large in his books, but even when the theme of the book is not explicitly about the Holocaust, ideas of dislocation and uncertainty hang in the air.

This is certainly the case with his novel Laish.  The main character, Laish, wanders with a band of pilgrims on their way from Eastern Europe to Jerusalem.  Their trip is anything but completely sacred, and Appelfeld takes us through various episodes where human beings expose the very worst of their behavior and motives.

Movement to an uncertain end is part of the Appelfeld pattern.  His experiences on the run from the Nazis as a boy, and afterward as  DP, have set this pattern for him, and he relives it in each of his works of fiction.  The little boy is still not comfortable staying in one place.   

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The God of Loneliness

There is a broad range of poems in Philip Schultz’s The God of Loneliness.  These are selections from various works, as well as some poems printed in journals.  Schultz’s very best poems have an emotional immediacy.  He is not a poet to run around with words, flaunting his ability.  Rather, he uses words simply to tell a story with an emotional punch.  This element does not come out as strongly here as it does in his full collections, such as the Pulitzer Prize winning Failure.  In that collection, we can see how he allows several plot elements  to intertwine, interact, and then separate, only to come back later, from a different angle, with renewed vigor.  

Still, The God of Loneliness is an excellent way to survey Schultz’s poems, and to get a glimpse of his considerable gifts.

Friday, May 25, 2012

MWA Notable Story of 2011

My story “Grow, Grow” published by Superstition Review, was named a Notable Story for 2011 by the judges of The Million Writers Award.

Thanks to Patricia Murphy, the extremely capable and dedicated editor at Superstition Review, for taking this story.

Last year I was the runner up for the award with my story, "The Incorrupt Body of Carlo Busso", published by Eclectica, the fine magazine run by the tireless and committed Tom Dooley.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Wandering Jew

Appelfeld has written a strange, off-kilter novel with The Immortal Bartfuss.  We are treated to the odd life of Bartfuss himself, a “dealer” of unknown merchandise, some sort of legend with other dealers, a father to a grown daughter and a younger, mentally retarded daughter.  He hardly speaks to his wife and lives in a separate room from her.  Bartfuss has money and gold stashed in a secret location, which he reveals to no one.

Bartfuss can’t let his guard down.  He still lives the cagey life of the displaced person, running schemes, trusting no one, living a nomadic, bizarre life.  This rootless world is Bartfuss’ only legacy.  He can no longer settle down as he can die.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Divine Fool, But not Quite

In Tzili: The Story of a Life, Aharon Appelfeld takes a time honored literary trope: that of the retarded, or  mentally backward character, and throws him or her into the maelstrom of history.   

Tzili is such a character, the youngest of a large family of Jews living somewhere in Eastern Europe or Russia at the beginning of the Second World War.  She is unable to study like her brothers and sisters, and is taught a little Torah and prayers from a teacher, even though the family is secular.  A sense of religion comes to her; in her simplicity, she appears to get a glimpse of God.

But her world is utterly destroyed, and Tzili is forced into the forests, living among Gentile peasants, and finally in DP camps and among refuges.  Appelfeld’s novel is a kind of looking glass on Jewish suffering in the twentieth century, and by extension, to the destruction of a sense of humanity in our times.  Through Tzili, we see the impossibility of fulfilling even the most basic human emotional needs in dehumanizing times. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Rabbi Leo Trepp

Rabbi Leo Trepp z”1 was an accomplished rabbi and writer.  He was born in Germany in 1913, and was forced to flee the country after the rise of the Nazis.   He died at the age of 97 in 2010.

In his The Complete Book of Jewish Observance, Rabbi Trepp introduces readers to Judaism, with an emphasis on halakah (although not to a rigorous degree) and keen attention drawn to the cycle of the seasons and Jewish holidays.  Rabbi Trepp is quick to point out that Jewish holidays are always related to certain seasons.  In this, he finds “pagan” antecedents to Jewish practice.  But Judaism gives such holidays an added historical dimension.  So, Passover has many images of Spring and the blooming of new life.  At the same time, it is about the ‘historical’ flight of the Jews from Egypt.

This book might be hard to find, but it is worth reading.  Rabbi Trepp provides a substantial overview of Judaism that adds depth and understanding for the curious reader.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Chambers of the Palace

In The Chambers of the Palace, Y. David Shulman has done a difficult thing: collected the sayings of Rebbe Nachman from various sources, divided them into different topics, and then presented them to us.

Like most early Hasidic masters, Rebbe  Nachman did not write his teachings.  His students took notes; there were no definitive collections.  So the sources often vary in authenticity and quality.  But Shulman has picked the best, and arranged them for us.

He also provides an interesting commentary, trying to explain some of Rebbe Nachman’s  statements that are difficult for many to digest, like his attitude toward science and sex.  Shulman makes an excellent effort to explain some of these difficult and at often times embarrassing passages.