Interviews

Aharon Appelfeld, The Art of Fiction No. 224

Interviewed by Alain Elkann

Aharon Appelfeld says that in order to be a serious writer you need to have a routine. For years his routine has been to write with a Biro on sheets of ordinary white paper in the café at Ticho House, in Jerusalem, which was once the house of a wealthy doctor and where this interview took place.

Appelfeld’s manner, his gestures, and his soft voice recall the vanished provincial Romania of his childhood, where the bourgeoisie retained traces of cosmopolitan Austro-Hungarian culture. The son of a wealthy landowner, he spent his early years speaking German with his parents, Yiddish with his grandparents, Ukrainian with the maid, and Romanian at school.

In 1941, when Appelfeld was nine years old, the Romanian army invaded his home village of Jadova, near Czernowitz. His mother and grandmother were shot. Appelfeld and his father escaped but were soon rounded up and marched, over two months, to the Transnistria concentration camps, where they were separated. Once again Appelfeld escaped. He spent the next two years hiding in the forest, doing odd jobs for a group of prostitutes and thieves. When the Soviet army arrived, in 1944, he joined them as a kitchen boy and eventually made his way, via Italy and Yugoslavia, to Israel. In 1960, he discovered that his father had also survived and come to Israel, and the two were reunited.

The story of Appelfeld’s survival is told in his memoir, The Story of a Life (1999). The war years have also provided material for the majority of his novels, including The Age of Wonders (1978), Tzili (1983), and the book for which he is best known abroad, Badenheim 1939 (1975).

Alain Elkann

 

INTERVIEWER

So you come here to work at Ticho House twice a week?

APPELFELD

Yes. I come here somewhere around ten or eleven. I stay here for two or three hours and then I go home. It’s a routine. Generally, when we say routine, it sounds bad, but routine is important.

INTERVIEWER

You write longhand. How many pages per day?

APPELFELD

One page, sometimes half a page, sometimes one and a half pages. I stop when I am tired—when I do not see more, when I do not hear more.

INTERVIEWER

Then you go home and read what you’ve done?

APPELFELD

Yes, in the late afternoon, after I have had my lunch, I spend another two hours on the same pages, then I leave it. I used to type them. I liked to type them very much. Suddenly you see there is something you have done. It was a joy. But now a woman comes to my house and I dictate. My old typewriter doesn’t work anymore.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t use the computer?

APPELFELD

No, I like the paper. Writing, like every art, is a sensual art. You have to touch it, you have to feel it, to correct, again to correct, always to correct.

INTERVIEWER

You work every day?

APPELFELD

Every day, yes, except Saturday.

INTERVIEWER

Do you go to synagogue?

APPELFELD

Not often, no. When the children were small I used to go, because they liked the synagogue. I like to sit at home on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and read the prayer book and the mahzor of Yom Kippur.

INTERVIEWER

You are religious?

APPELFELD

Not religious—I am not a member of a community or a synagogue. Really, my devotion to writing is my religion. There are other aspects of my religion, but mainly it is to be with myself, for many hours. My parents were assimilated, nonpracticing Jews. My father was very antireligious when he was young. It was a kind of revolt against his father. His father was very religious, very tough and religious.

INTERVIEWER

In your books you write about your other grandfather, your mother’s father, who was also very religious and who lived in the country.

APPELFELD

Yes, he was a farmer. He was a different kind of religious Jew. He appreciated silence very much. His religion was silence. He didn’t speak much, but what he told me was always very, very meaningful to me, and remained with me. I learned Yiddish in his house. My parents both knew Yiddish, of course, but their orientation was toward the world, the universal. They spoke an Austro-Hungarian German, because every province had a dialect. Ours was a Jewish province. The Jews spoke a softer German than the normal German.

INTERVIEWER

The German spoken by your parents, you said later, was similar to the German of Franz Kafka.

APPELFELD

Yes, Franz Kafka—of all the writers, Franz Kafka. When I read him, he was immediately familiar to me.

INTERVIEWER

So you had a secular upbringing but with some knowledge of religion from your grandparents?

APPELFELD

Yes, I was very close to my maternal grandparents. My grandfather taught me a lot. To give you an example, he used to get up in the morning and pray, but before praying he would open the windows. He said to me, There should not be a barrier between us and God. If the windows are closed and the shutters are closed you cannot speak directly to God. This was something I will not forget. I’ll give you another example. He used to touch every object with great care. I am not just speaking about books. Hebrew books he used to kiss before opening and after closing the book, but he had care for everything— glasses and bottles, for instance.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

APPELFELD

Because they have something of the holy.

INTERVIEWER

Of the holy?

APPELFELD

Yes. You know, God is everywhere. He is in the human heart. He is in the plants. He is in the animals. Everywhere. You have to be very careful when you speak to human beings because the man who is standing in front of you has something divine in himself. Trees, they have something divine in them. Animals of course. And even objects, they have something of the divine.

INTERVIEWER

Your grandfather came to live with you at the end of his life. Did he and your father get along?

APPELFELD

My father highly appreciated him, because he appreciated his piety, but he could not follow his way. My mother loved her father very much indeed, and in his presence she became very religious. Not praying, but her love was a kind of devotion.

INTERVIEWER

Your life was a secure life when you were a child?

APPELFELD

A very secure life.

INTERVIEWER

Where were you when your mother was killed? I am sorry to make you go back to something very sad.

APPELFELD

We were with my grandmother at the farm. The Romanians and Germans came and they shot my mother and my grandmother. It was in the summer of ’41. I was nine and a half years old. She was thirty-one. I am now eighty-two. My mother will always remain young and I am going to be very old. She was a beautiful woman.

INTERVIEWER

Were you with your father when they killed your mother?

APPELFELD

I was ill with the mumps, and suddenly I heard shooting. My mother was in the courtyard. My father was with some people outside. When I heard shooting, I jumped out the window. There was a field of corn, and I jumped into the field of corn.

INTERVIEWER

You jumped? Without thinking of your mother?

APPELFELD

Yes, I was afraid of the shooting.

INTERVIEWER

And?

APPELFELD

And then I found my father. And both of us went to Czernowitz, on foot. We stayed in the ghetto. Then we were taken to the camp, and I was separated from my father. I was alone with women and children. Every day some of them died. I escaped the camp. When I escaped it was ’41, before the electric fences.

INTERVIEWER

You escaped by yourself?

APPELFELD

By myself, yes.

INTERVIEWER

But you were a little boy—elegant, not particularly courageous. What happened? How did you transform yourself into a child capable of escape?

APPELFELD

It was a kind of transformation—I became a small animal. It was the wish for life, the wish to survive.

INTERVIEWER

Primo Levi wrote that in the camp everybody was a thief because the only thing was to survive.

APPELFELD

I highly appreciate his writing, but this is not my conception. In such a situation, there are no morals. You should not judge people in such a situation. People became something that they did not wish to become.

INTERVIEWER

So in what sense don’t you agree with Levi?

APPELFELD

Because you cannot judge people in such a situation. Most of them, after a month or two weeks, died because they could not exist in such a way.

INTERVIEWER

And as a child you saw many people dying?

APPELFELD

Of course. But you become a bit indifferent. You see and you do not see. What can you do?

INTERVIEWER

After you met your father again, nineteen years later, in Israel, did you ever ask him why he didn’t go to Switzerland or to America or to England to escape the Nazi danger? He had been a rich man.

APPELFELD

Yes, this is a question I asked him. I do not know all the parts of his business, but most of it was in this one place. It was not as if he had investments in Switzerland. His investments were land, woods, mills. They were in Romania, and he could not sell them, so he could not move.

INTERVIEWER

In your books you describe the years you spent as a child in the woods. During those years, what language were you speaking?

APPELFELD

All kinds of languages.

INTERVIEWER

What kind of memories do you have? In which language?

APPELFELD

I had just finished first grade when it happened. When I was in first grade, my mother used to read a story to me every night, converse with me, and so on. When I lived in the woods, my conception of the world was totally existential. Food, a coat, shoes, shelter—these were the problems. Other thoughts were not in my mind. They came later, when I began to write. My life was blind, it could not have any words, but when I began to write about my childhood—and I have written a lot—it came up.

INTERVIEWER

How did you begin writing in Hebrew?

APPELFELD

I was fourteen years old when I came to Israel. I was alone, in a group of young people, and totally disoriented. Everyone was speaking a different language, but slowly. What can you say after seeing so many dead people, after seeing so much pain? After a big catastrophe, you lose words. Every word is a stupid word when you use it.

INTERVIEWER

And you didn’t feel like a German speaker?

APPELFELD

I felt myself as a beaten person, who had been beaten for many years. And I couldn’t explain it. I could not understand what had happened to me.

INTERVIEWER

But your mother’s language was German.

APPELFELD

Of course it was German. But mine was a kind of childish German—German that children use—with no connotations.

INTERVIEWER

You didn’t abandon German for ideological reasons? Because German was the language of the Nazis?

APPELFELD

Not at all. Even today sometimes, when I am writing and I am looking for a word, for a Hebrew word, suddenly there comes a German word, from nowhere! But I understood that German could not be my language anymore. Even though it’s my mother language and even though, in my dreams, I still sometimes speak German, Hebrew became my adopted mother tongue. And with it, I became very free, maybe because it’s not my language. In the army, I started reading Hebrew literature. It was difficult. It’s a very tough language. For example, in the Bible, sentences are very short, very factual, there are few adjectives, so it’s only facts or deeds. Also, I had acquired a day-to-day Hebrew but not a literary Hebrew. So I was reading but not understanding. Still, I had to prepare myself for the examinations at the university. My mother had wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer or an academician, and I wanted to follow her wishes.

Also, I wanted to become a Jew, a full Jew. To be a Jew, the first stage was to acquire Hebrew.

INTERVIEWER

But many Jews don’t speak Hebrew.

APPELFELD

Of course, but I wanted to acquire knowledge, the biblical Hebrew, the medieval Hebrew, the Hebrew of Kabbalah, the Hasidic Hebrew, the philosophical Hebrew, and so on. I wanted to know everything that is connected with Jewish belief, the Jewish way of life, law, the rabbinic law, the mystical law. I had a feeling that my generation—and me, also—we were naked. We did not belong to anything. Zionism wanted us to become “normal.” This was not my feeling. When I started at university, my teachers had come to Israel from Germany. They came not to be normal Jews but to become Jewish.

INTERVIEWER

How did you start writing?

APPELFELD

I was very alone. No parents, no friends. I asked myself, What do I need? Why am I working in the fields? What will happen to me? Where is my life going? I had nothing. So then one day I made a list. My father, his name, Michael—I wrote that. My mother, Bunia. My grandfather, Meir Joseph. I wrote, I was born in Czernowitz and my mother was killed. This list gave me a ground I understood. I was not alone. I still had my family. They exist in me. I made myself a family on paper. I wrote it down, and they became real.

INTERVIEWER

When was this, that you decided you were capable of writing?

APPELFELD

I was never capable of writing. Writing is a miracle. A meaningful sentence, a meaningful chapter is a miracle. It was so when I began, and it is so now.

INTERVIEWER

But how did it happen at the beginning?

APPELFELD

I was alone, and the paper became my first friend. I could speak, I could utter a word to the paper. I would sit alone in the coffeehouse. I began my writing in the coffeehouse.

INTERVIEWER

You were writing for yourself ?

APPELFELD

It was not exactly for myself, it was to give form to something, to give form to a thought, to have a sentence. This was a permanent struggle. Yes, it was. I used to drink a lot of cognac. I drank and I smoked, two packets a day. I started to do so when I was twelve. I was very much addicted. Vodka, cognac, half a bottle a day. There was no good food, you see.

INTERVIEWER

So you were always drunk?

APPELFELD

Not drunk, but you know, I felt free. And I drank a lot of coffee, eight or nine cups a day. Drinking coffee, drinking, smoking. My first book is called Smoke.

INTERVIEWER

But you quit.

APPELFELD

When I was fifty. And I stopped drinking when my first child was born, when I was thirty-three. There was a health danger. I suffered from drinking for so many years.

INTERVIEWER

Where did you live after the army, when you were writing in cafés and drinking ?

APPELFELD

I rented a cheap room in Jerusalem. I worked as a street paver. I worked to take roots out of Jerusalem. Work of all kinds—picking fruit, all kinds of things. The university fees were not so high. My main expenses were cognac and cigarettes.

INTERVIEWER

What was the first literature you read?

APPELFELD

In the midfifties I began to read Kafka and Chekhov. Those stories became very close to me. I felt a deep desire to follow their way.

INTERVIEWER

So you already knew you wanted to write?

APPELFELD

Yes, by the late fifties. I had a hunger for those writers. Later came Tolstoy.

INTERVIEWER

And you were also reading Israeli writers? You read Agnon?

APPELFELD

I began to read Israeli writers, but Agnon is not an Israeli writer. He spoke German. He was born very close to my town. When I met him, first he asked me where I was from. I told him. So we spoke German.

INTERVIEWER

How did you publish your first book?

APPELFELD

It was very difficult. The first question was, Appelfeld, why are you writing about people who have been in the Shoah? They should forget it. They should be in the kibbutz. They should become workers. What kind of Hebrew is this? Why are you bringing the camps, the survivors to our country? And if you bring them here, why do they not change themselves? They should become the new Jew, not the old Jew.

INTERVIEWER

Who published your first book?

APPELFELD

It was an avant-garde group here. It was not a real publishing house. There was a nice man who was a philanthropist. He was not very rich but he supported the group. They printed three hundred copies of Smoke.

INTERVIEWER

Your second book of stories had some success?

APPELFELD

Scholars like Scholem, Buber, Bergman said a good word about it. Also some writers, like Agnon.

INTERVIEWER

And none of these books were fully translated?

APPELFELD

No, because I feel that they are too concentrated. There is not enough air in them. I wanted to say everything in every sentence. They are too compressed.

INTERVIEWER

Did your critics come around?

APPELFELD

By the middle of the sixties, critics were saying, Appelfeld is a good writer, probably the best we have, but why is he writing all the time on the Holocaust stuff and why is he attached to the old Jews? Probably also, Why is Judaism more important to him than Zionism? They wanted me to be another writer, not what I am. But there was also a group of intellectuals that liked my work, not only liked it but appreciated it. They understood that my writing was beyond Holocaust writing, that it has a universal meaning.

INTERVIEWER

In your work, is the pre-Holocaust world like a fairy tale or a metaphor, the way money is for Balzac, snobbism for Proust, sex for Moravia? I mean, every writer describes the world with the particular obsession that is his metaphor, but then—

APPELFELD

I am not writing in metaphors. I am writing about catastrophes.

INTERVIEWER

Catastrophes?

APPELFELD

Yes. And what they do to the human soul. Because, generally, literature deals with civility, civilian life, homes, stability. With eating and sleeping, with loving.

INTERVIEWER

Not always. Dostoyevsky is not exactly a civilian writer.

APPELFELD

No. And in Chekhov, for instance, there are always personal tragedies, but I am dealing with catastrophes that change your way of feeling and thinking. In what way? There is no more security. Everything was under this catastrophe. You look at everything through the catastrophe. You are still eating your breakfast, but you don’t forget the catastrophe.

INTERVIEWER

But you built for yourself a very stable life. You have a house, a wife, children.

APPELFELD

Yes, it is true I have a stable life. But this is a questionable stability. In the day, there is an Appelfeld who has children and a wife, but in the night, there is a different Appelfeld. In the night, he is still in the ghetto, in the camps. So, it’s a double life, if you wish.

INTERVIEWER

But if you write about that obsessively, it doesn’t help you to forget.

APPELFELD

I don’t want to cure myself.

INTERVIEWER

Why not?

APPELFELD

Because I don’t want to become a petit bourgeois with a wife and children. I cannot. My life, I call it a nightmare. My nights are a nightmare, quite often, but the nightmares are rich—rich in human behavior, rich in feelings, rich in sensations. I nourish myself by those nights. They nourish me.

INTERVIEWER

You write about venerable figures like your grandfather, and there is the icon of your mother, but you also write about very misguided people. You seem to have an attraction to misguided lives.

APPELFELD

I am still a lost child. I am still with the thieves and the prostitutes. They are there. They are real.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have nostalgia for that?

APPELFELD

No, they are part of me. Nostalgia is for something that has been lost and you long for it. They are not lost. They are with me, all the time.

INTERVIEWER

Why were you never interested in the Israeli reality?

APPELFELD

I am not interested in reality. I am not interested in reality at all. I am interested in my inner life.

INTERVIEWER

Isn’t that a little egoistic?

APPELFELD

By “inner life,” I mean all I have absorbed during my life. I treasure all the realities I have absorbed during my life, and they are my food. I am not a man who doesn’t see the current reality, but this reality is not good material for writing.

INTERVIEWER

But think of all that has happened in Israel all these years.

APPELFELD

So this is for journalism.

INTERVIEWER

But there are also human stories here.

APPELFELD

I am not able to write about everything that is happening, that surrounds you. I can only see things I have absorbed deeply and that are very close to me. I am limited. I do not have a pretension to be more than what I am. I am a bit of an invalid. I cannot write about San Francisco—I have been there several times, but I cannot write about it. I have been to New York many times, but if I write about New York, I will take two survivors who are living in a house and I will speak about that. Through their eyes, maybe I will see something of New York.

INTERVIEWER

You do not write much about your wife and children.

APPELFELD

No, my writing is my fantasy, it’s not my real life. There is a border between real life and fantasy.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever work as a journalist?

APPELFELD

One week. I was young. The owner of a daily newspaper came to me and said, Aharon, I know you have a family and you need a monthly salary, so I have a suggestion. Write a column every week for us and you will have a modest salary. And he said I could write what I wished, so all the week I was preoccupied with what I was going to write! I could not decide, so I stopped.

INTERVIEWER

International success and translation came when you wrote Badenheim 1939. When did you write it?

APPELFELD

In the late sixties. It is my third novel. Actually, it is not a full novel, it is a novella. People in Israel were very critical about the book.

INTERVIEWER

It was not a success?

APPELFELD

Not in Israel. But in America it had great success.

INTERVIEWER

How did it get to America?

APPELFELD

Someone liked it and translated it, and then it was published in America by a small publisher called Godine. And Irving Howe wrote a brilliant review about it in the New York Times—the front page of the New York Times Book Review. This was 1980. I was almost fifty years old in 1980.

INTERVIEWER

And it changed your life?

APPELFELD

No, no. I still have my routine.

INTERVIEWER

You made new friends?

APPELFELD

Yes, but not many. Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Malamud, Bashevis Singer.

INTERVIEWER

They became your friends? What kind of writers are they?

APPELFELD

They are Jewish American, all of them with a good education and all of them sophisticated writers. They might not all admit that they are Jewish writers, but in my eyes they were very Jewish, and they were very American, too.

INTERVIEWER

Are they all the same quality of writers?

APPELFELD

Every one of them has different merits. Philip Roth has a lot of humor, Saul Bellow psychological depth. I love all of them, but I have never tried to learn from them. Their writing is not part of my writing. I am not saying this because I am better or worse. My experience of life was a different experience, and therefore my writing is different.

INTERVIEWER

Do you consider Singer a great writer?

APPELFELD

He was a very interesting writer. Greatness is difficult to measure. He was the first one in Yiddish literature who wrote in a very straightforward way about sex and all the perversions of sex. He liked perversions.

INTERVIEWER

Is he as good a writer as Saul Bellow?

APPELFELD

It’s a different type. Bashevis Singer was coming from a very rabbinic family. He knew Judaism by heart. He understood every nuance.

INTERVIEWER

You became close friends with Roth. He came to interview you in this same café, and then he made you a character in his novel Operation Shylock.

APPELFELD

Yes, and in Deception, too.

INTERVIEWER

How did you become such close friends when you’re so different?

APPELFELD

That’s like saying, Why does he live with his wife, when they are so different? What has he found with this woman? He is very Jewish—that’s what I like in him. His reactions are very Jewish. He has inherited Jewishness from his parents and grandparents—his grandparents were immigrants of course—not the learning, not the religion, but their being. For instance, Philip once said to me, You know, someone wanted to make a film of one of my books, so I asked my father—who is dead, of course—“What’s your advice?”

INTERVIEWER

Going back to Badenheim, it is very condensed but full of characters. How did you manage that?

APPELFELD

I have written many Badenheims in different ways. This is the first Badenheim. Through Badenheim, I became familiar with my characters.

INTERVIEWER

Your characters?

APPELFELD

My characters. My mother, my father, all my uncles, all my aunts, all the normal people in my family, all the crazy people in my family. Here they are, in Badenheim—but in another world.

INTERVIEWER

You let the reader take for granted that Badenheim is a metaphor for a concentration camp. Some critics asked why you didn’t explain.

APPELFELD

Why should I explain? Suppose Poland is a metaphor for Auschwitz. It is also a metaphor for Israel, for a Jewish life. Don’t forget that three million Jews were living in Poland before the war. It was almost a Jewish state.

INTERVIEWER

What were you doing when you wrote Badenheim?

APPELFELD

I was looking for work and teaching a bit. One day someone told me they needed a teacher for dancing.

INTERVIEWER

Dancing ?

APPELFELD

Dancing, yes. It was in Netanya. These were mainly survivors of the Holocaust, people in their forties and fifties. They had lost their families, and the worker organization arranged dancing for them so they could find someone. Everyone should find someone. A man should find a woman, a woman should find a man. And my fate was to teach them to dance.

INTERVIEWER

You are a good dancer?

APPELFELD

I am musical and I have a good ear, and at home I used to watch people dance.

INTERVIEWER

And you taught . . . the tango?

APPELFELD

Tango, waltz, paso doble. I was teaching the women, a young girl was teaching the men, and then we put them together. But they could not be happy people. Most had families they had lost, husbands and children. And now, suddenly, it was dance. And it was tragicomic, because the women came in makeup. After five minutes of trying to dance, the makeup was melting.

INTERVIEWER

Do you consider Badenheim to be your masterpiece?

APPELFELD

It is a beginning. It is a beginning of an area that I would discover slowly. It was one of the first times I went out from the short story. It’s a different form, a different discipline. It was like digging.

INTERVIEWER

And is your Hebrew good in Badenheim? Are you pleased with it?

APPELFELD

Yes, it more or less fits the situation.

INTERVIEWER

Which is a very extravagant situation.

APPELFELD

Yes, it paved the way for me to become more and more familiar with this world.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write for yourself or for the reader?

APPELFELD

I write books. They should have meaning.

INTERVIEWER

How do you start writing a book? Do you already have the plot in mind?

APPELFELD

I have the music. I have the rhythm of the book. The moment I have the rhythm of the book, I have the words. It is music that feeds me. And then, slowly, with the music, I have a notion of where I am going. I am always going somewhere. To my parents’ home, from my grandparents’ home . . .

INTERVIEWER

In many books, there is a child, sometimes named Erwin, and sometimes a girl, as in Tzili.

APPELFELD

All my books are me. All my characters are me. In Tzili, I wanted to objectivize my life in the forest. It helped me to make her a girl.

INTERVIEWER

Who is Erwin?

APPELFELD

They used to change your name when you came to Israel. They gave me the name Aharon. My real name is Erwin. It is very painful to give up your name.

INTERVIEWER

Do you like the name Aharon?

APPELFELD

No, but I became used to it.

INTERVIEWER

So the little child in your books is always Erwin?

APPELFELD

All the time.

INTERVIEWER

And the mothers are all your mother?

APPELFELD

They are, in different ways, my mother. For instance, there are a lot of Christian maids in my books, maids who were in our home. They are also, in some way, mother figures. I loved them. There was no hugging or kissing among the Jewish bourgeoisie, but with the maids it was hugging and kissing all the time, and I liked that. And not only this, they used to bite me, here and here. So in the evening when Mother made me a bath she asked, “What happened to you?” “Katerina bit me.” “Katerina come here, why have you bitten him?” “I like him, I love him, I cannot stand it.” This was also my first attachment to real religion. The maids were Christian Orthodox. At midday they took out a small icon and put it on the table, knelt, and prayed.

INTERVIEWER

Flaubert used to say, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.”

APPELFELD

Yes, but not everybody understands this. It’s only now that people understand that, psychologically, there are no characters, only an extension of your “I.” This little girl, she is not like me, but she is like me. What is written in my books never happened to me as it is. I am not copying my life.

INTERVIEWER

How do you transform your life into a novel? What is the technique you use?

APPELFELD

Technique? It is not a technique. But for instance, every year we used to go to a resort. I would go with my parents, I was five or six years old. My memory is the memory of a child, so I have to reconstruct the people, because I do not remember them. I reconstruct them in such a way that I can see the resort and give names to the people. The names help me.

INTERVIEWER

How many books have you written?

APPELFELD

Forty-two books.

INTERVIEWER

Forty-two books, and you have lived here almost seventy years, and yet I have heard you say you still don’t consider Jerusalem your city.

APPELFELD

My children were born here, of course it’s my city. Is this my intimate city? No. My intimate city is the farm of my grandparents in the Carpathians. The trees, the river. This is my rest house.

INTERVIEWER

But do you feel Israeli?

APPELFELD

I am very Israeli. I am the most Israeli.

INTERVIEWER

Are you interested in the life of Israel, in politics, in sports, in social matters?

APPELFELD

In sports, yes. But I am not a political creature.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever written a book on Jerusalem?

APPELFELD

Yes, it’s about all the coffeehouses that I have sat in. Not so many. I have not changed many women, and not many cafés.

INTERVIEWER

Why is that? You are a faithful man?

APPELFELD

Yes.

INTERVIEWER

And so?

APPELFELD

And so, I change from sitting in a coffeehouse after ten years, fifteen years, when the owner sells the coffeehouse. All my love adventures finished when I was thirty-two, when I got married.

INTERVIEWER

And you had a happy marriage?

APPELFELD

You learn about your partner, your partner is always learning about you. It can be a permanent love, even if you are married fifty years.

INTERVIEWER

Are you a good father?

APPELFELD

I don’t know. I like my children, and I think they like me, too. They are very attached to me.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that, over the years, your writing has improved?

APPELFELD

I am not the man who can judge it. Changes, they accrue very slowly. I have never changed the subject of my writing. It is still in the Carpathians, still with my parents.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you never change it?

APPELFELD

You could ask the same of Kafka in The Trial, The Castle, Amerika, the short stories—it’s the same material. Did Dostoyevsky change his subject? The same Russian aristocracy, they are in the prison, they are in the casino, they never change. They have different names, but they are the same.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think your mother would have liked your books?

APPELFELD

I never thought about it. My mind is not speculative.

INTERVIEWER

What sort of mind do you have?

APPELFELD

My mind is, first of all, what I see, what I feel, what I imagine, what I know. Nothing of the speculative.

INTERVIEWER

Are you interested in critics or in criticism?

APPELFELD

I always love when someone says a good word about my work. Every one of us loves it when someone says a good word about us.

INTERVIEWER

But you don’t like to read books of criticism.

APPELFELD

There are essays of T. S. Eliot’s I like to read.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

APPELFELD

Because they have insight. He has something to say about literature, he has something to say about religion, he has something to say about conservatism. He also has something to say about Jews that I do not like.

INTERVIEWER

Dostoyevsky is also anti-Semitic. But he didn’t know the Jews very well.

APPELFELD

He did know Jews. He had a lot of good friends who were Jewish. But when he portrays them, all of them have long noses and their pockets are full of money. With Tolstoy it is something similar. And it’s painful because Tolstoy writes beautifully about animals, about pigs, about horses. He feels them, he understands them, but when it comes to Jews …

INTERVIEWER

When you were reunited with your father, how old were you?

APPELFELD

I was twenty-eight.

INTERVIEWER

And how did you feel about him?

APPELFELD

I was a grown-up person. I had taken my first degree at university. He was a father I had not seen for almost twenty years. He was a bit of an alien to me. I had seen him as a young man, and now I saw him as an old man.

INTERVIEWER

But you loved him?

APPELFELD

Yes, yes, but not the way I used to love him, because the years separated us.

INTERVIEWER

It must have been very strange for him.

APPELFELD

After the camps, nothing is strange.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t speak much about the displaced Holocaust survivors in Israel. A little bit, but not much.

APPELFELD

That is not so. In many books, I speak about the people of the beach.

INTERVIEWER

Who are the people of the beach?

APPELFELD

These are people I describe in my first book and other books, too. They come to Israel, they do not go to a kibbutz, they do not establish their lives, they do not work—they are a kind of bohemian. They are living in tents, smuggling, dealing with foreign money, changing money all the time, doing all kinds of speculation. After the camps, they cannot be normal people anymore. They are living on the shore, on the beach.

INTERVIEWER

You love these people?

APPELFELD

Yes.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

APPELFELD

They drink a lot. They smoke. They have women. They are part of my soul. They taught me something about people who do not lead a normal life. Normality for them is ridiculous.

INTERVIEWER

And also for you?

APPELFELD

Of course. Ha! In some ways. So now I have told you all my secrets.