An Israeli author focused intently on the past.
Appelfeld focuses his writing intently on the past. In this regard he stands apart from other Israeli literary luminaries--Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman--whose novels are largely focused on contemporary Israeli life. Though Appelfeld writes in Hebrew, his stories are all centered on European Jewry, both before and during the Holocaust. But Appelfeld does not think this makes him any less an Israeli writer. "I write about rootless people," he has said, and Israel is a "society of immigrants."
After completing his army service, Appelfeld enrolled at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It was his first formal education since first grade, when his schooling was cut short by the outbreak of World War II. At university, Appelfeld first began to write. However, "not being rooted in the language, not being rooted in the culture," as he's recalled, his early efforts amounted to "more a kind of stuttering than writing." And yet, out of those stutterings emerged one of Israel's finest writers. Indeed, Appelfeld's bare style and Hemingway-esque prose still retain the innocent quality of uncertain stutterings.
To date, Appelfeld has authored more than 30 books including novels, short story collections, and a memoir. His works have been translated into more than 20 languages, and he is the recipient of several major awards, including the coveted Israel Prize and France's Prix Médicis.
Communicating the Unimaginable
As critics have pointed out, Appelfeld's works often focus on the outer margins of the Holocaust. Rather than the collective trauma of European Jewry, Appelfeld has said that he is interested in "the individual victim and his spiritual struggle."
Tzili (1983), one of the author's most acclaimed novels, tells the story of a dim-witted, young girl, Tzili, who spends the war years much like Appelfeld himself did, wandering from village to village, searching for food and finding shelter by passing herself off as a gentile. Tzili's limited intelligence makes it difficult for her to articulate complex thoughts and emotions, but the sense of loneliness and dread that pervade her very being is palpable. The irony, of course, is that the war left even the most intelligent people at a loss, unable to communicate the unimaginable.