Saturday, March 03, 2007

Applying restraint

I've just read All Whom I Have Loved, the latest Aharon Appelfeld novel to be translated. Like all his books, the simple rhythm of the prose makes it easy to continue reading. Aloma Halter's translation - despite the awkward title - has the quality of invisibility achieved by Dalya Bilu, the best of Appelfeld's various collaborators. It is also easy to regard him as "an interesting minor novelist". The limits of his novels, their silences, suggest a lack "more important" or "ambitious" novelists have the ability to fill. The latest novel is no different. It is narrated by Paul Rosenfeld, a nine-year-old boy, living in the aftermath of his assimilated parents' divorce and the shadow of growing anti-Semitism in 1930s Europe. We've been here before in his two best novels, The Age of Wonders and The Healer. And, as in both of those novels, there is an idyllic holiday with the mother while an artistic father flails about in a culture increasingly hostile to Jews. For these reasons, All Whom I Have Loved seems contrived. Yet I still find it exhilarating to read a novel with such restraint. Nothing is psychologised. The boy reports what happened without a controlling knowingness, without any sentences reporting the thoughts and feelings of anyone except himself. In reading novels by Appelfeld, the world becomes mysterious, frightening and wonderful all at the same time. Imagine what contemporary fiction would be like if this constraint was applied universally.

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