If you, like me, suffer from extreme book lust, you might not want to read this post. There’s fair warning.
I recently stumbled upon Godine, a Boston-based publisher. They have a fantastic world literature series entitled Verba Mundi. They got my attention when I saw that they were publishing a couple of J.M.G. Le Clézio books (he was last year’s Nobel Prize winner — I’ll be reviewing them soon!). They also are the principal publisher in English of the novels of Georges Perec. The other titles in the series look equally fascinating, and I spent a long time looking over their backlist. But what makes these books even more inviting is the beautiful aesthetic cohesion found in the cover and spine — and the spines are numbered, so watch out collectors!
For my first venture into Godine’s selection, I chose to read the short Badenheim 1939 (Badenhaim ‘ir nofesh, 1978; tr. from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu, 1980). This short book would allow me to show off Godine books sooner. I also chose this book because in 1988 Philip Roth interviewed Aharon Appelfeld, his friend, and published it in the New York Times. There he called Badenheim 1939 “vexing,” “almost impulsively antic and indifferent to matters of causality.” Appelfeld also plays a role in Roth’s 1993 book Operation Shylock, which might be the next Philip Roth book I read, if I get to it before The Humbling.
Badenheim in 1939 is a small resort town near Vienna that attracts many middle-class Jews. The date in the title effectively gives away their ultimate fate. Appelfeld uses our foreknowledge in his first paragraph, subverting our expectations along the way:
Spring returned to Badenheim. In the country church next to the town the bells rang. The shadows of the forest retreated to the trees. The sun scattered the remnants of the darkness and its light filled the main street from square to square. It was a moment of transition. The town was about to be invaded by the vacationers.
When Appelfeld was eight years old, his hometown was invaded by the Nazis, his mother was killed, and he and his father were sent to a concentration camp. With this background, his rhetoric is surprising, particularly in such sentences such as this one:
The town had grown used to them, as it had grown used to Dr. Pappenheim’s eccentricities and to the foreigners who had insinuated themselves like diseased roots.
The way the story sets itself up reminded me of a Victorian pastoral novel. The characters and their idiosyncrasies are introduced matter of factly until we get a slight sense of the community in Badenheim. It is a masterful structure. Just as matter of factly, the terror of 1939 invades the community. At first it seems simple: the Sanitation Department has been given more jurisdiction, including the authority to execute investigations. The characters eventually learn that they are going to be moved back to Poland.
“And if we have to emigrate?” asked Sally.
“Then we’ll emigrate,” said Pappenheim. “There are wonderful places in Poland.”
The characters both sense and don’t sense what’s about to happen (“. . . Will my pension be recognized there too?”), but we readers know exactly what’s going to happen, even if it doesn’t happen exactly as we think it did. In fact, the novel is more a fable than a historic work. The characters stand for something else, though they themselves are not one-dimensional props. Also, Roth is right (obviously) about the intentional lack of causality. Things happen. Appelfeld writes a number of times, surprises never stop occurring. This unsettling of the narratrive stream can be frustrating to anyone wanting to read this as a strcit narrative. Appelfeld leaves out a lot of the framework and relies on his readers to fill in the historical blanks as well as the motives directing the characters.
It’s always a pleasure when an author trusts his readers that much and then doesn’t let his readers down in the end.