Aharon Appelfeld: Badenheim 1939

Badenheim 1939
by Aharon Appelfeld (Badenhaim 'ir nofesh, 1978)
translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu (1980)
David R. Godine Publisher (2009)
144 pp

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. 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 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.

19 thoughts on “Aharon Appelfeld: Badenheim 1939

  1. Those look tempting indeed. I’ve a copy of The Prospector but didn’t know it was a series. Is the other Le Clézio available in paperback as well?

  2. You were not kidding about the book lust warning. These books are certainly envy inducing, both aesthetically and, as your review ably shows, in substance. I suffer from a problem similar to Lisa’s, but maybe just one Le Clezio…just one…I promise…

    But I will wait to read more of your reviews before I settle on just one. Maybe two.

  3. Trevor, please don’t do this again: those books look delicious enough to eat and I really need to put myself on a book-buying diet! ;)

    I have a Penguin edition of this book, one of those lovely silver ones, so I must dig it out of the pile at some point. I like the sound of Appelfeld’s style — ie. his reluctance to fill in the gaps — as it generally makes for a better read when you’re not been patronised. I shall look forward to reading this one in due course. Thanks for the review.

  4. I’m glad these books are striking a nerve — as they did for me! I am sorry but not responsible for any financial problems incurred due to this review :)

  5. Claire, sorry to have ignored your comment earlier. I read it and intended to answer it, but until now it slipped my mind!

    Desert was just released as hardback in June. Though I don’t know, I assume it will be released in paperback in due time. While it still fits in the set, having some paper and some hard covers does mess up the continuity. You’ll notice I had to place it at the bottom of the pile despite its numbered spine placing somewhere in the middle. Both types of books are well made, though, truly.

  6. I must admit that those spines are lovely, though I’m relieved that I don’t like the cover design at all so fortunately I’ll be sparing the world the carbon require to fly a phalanx of Godines across the Atlantic.

    As kimbofo indicates, this book is available in the UK as a Penguin Modern Classic, with an introduction by Gabriel Josipovici. I read it a few years ago and thought it was just sublime.

  7. I am surprised you don’t like the cover design, John. I always figured you and I had similar tastes, or something close to it. I think they are nicely understated :) . Perhaps it helps to see several of them together. I’ll be posting more, just to see if it becomes worth the carbon points to you.

  8. I thought Badenheim 1939 was one of the weaker Appelfeld novels because the encroaching horror is telegraphed very directly at times, making the whole thing a bit heavy-handed. In contrast, his novels set post-war are beautiful in avoiding the issues headon.

    For my money, the absolute best entry in the Godine series is Donoso’s brilliant, surreal The Obscene Bird of Night.

  9. Thanks for bringing Godine to my attention. I have wanted to dip into Appelfeld. Personally, how dramatic tension is handled by an author is not on my list of criteria I am mindful of. But then again, I acknowledge I am odd that way…

  10. My usual Waterstone’s a few Godine titles. The one that interests me most is Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person, although the others seem just as interesting.

  11. Myself, I’m hoping to get the whole collection someday, but there are certain ones that I hope to acquire sooner than later — and Modiano’s looks great.

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