The Languages of Aharon Appelfeld

K. publishes this week an interview conducted by Antoine Nastasi with Aharon Appelfeld in 2010, which first appeared in the magazine Esquisse(s). We asked Valérie Zenatti – his French translator and the author of Dans le faisceau des vivants (2019, Éditions de l’Olivier), the book in which she evokes her work and friendship with him – to read and introduce it. She gave us this text on Appelfeld’s languages, or, in other words, about the tension that runs through the great writer between German, his mother tongue but also that of the executioners, and Hebrew, his adopted language in which he built a work that his mother could not have read…


Aharon Appelfeld


A writer of Aharon Appelfeld’s stature, whose life was largely devoted to writing, is more likely to be grasped through the content of his books rather than through biographical events about which he remained discreet, and which he judged to be of no interest to anyone other than himself and his family. This is how one should read the interview given to Antoine Nastasi — in 2010, published then in the journal Esquisse(s). He was speaking to him on the occasion of the publication in Hebrew of the novel The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping[1]. This book indeed illuminates, unbeknownst to the interviewer no doubt, the answers of Aharon Appelfeld. We feel Appelfeld is still very close to his double, Erwin, a few years older than Appelfeld himself after the war but sharing a common name.

>>> Read in K. Antoine Nastasi’s interview with Aharon Appelfeld, conducted in 2010, published in Esquisse(s).


This insight, gleaned between the lines, is only a hypothesis, of course, but the echoes between Aharon Appelfeld’s words here and the material of the book are innumerable, and a foundation of great importance for Aharon Appelfed emerges from this implicit dialogue: his relationship to Hebrew, his relationship with other languages, including German, his mother tongue.

Antoine Nastasi, one senses, is trying to open the writer to a reflection on a process of “translation” that would be at work in writing, a term that he clearly understands in a psychoanalytical way. Aharon Appelfeld’s gentle yet firm resistance to Nastasi’s entreaties is in line with Erwin’s own path, which was also his own. To understand Appelfeld, we must return to the only period of his life to which we have partial access, in a fragmentary, shifting manner, refracted through writing, is the beginning: his childhood in the thirties in Czernowitz and the Carpathian Mountains (then in Romania, now in Ukraine) through to the European peregrinations that followed the war, up to his arrival as an adolescent in the brand-new country of Israel (but can we call “adolescence” that moment when childhood is not so much left behind a slammed door, but rather blotted out of existence by the Nazis? )

The years of chaos, the death of the mother, the deportation, the disappearance of the father, the survival in the forest and the painful groping to find a path to writing already appear in The Story of a Life[2], but it is in The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping that the duel between the mother tongue (German) and the adoptive mother tongue (Hebrew) is played out most acutely, giving the reader a glimpse, in movements as fine as they are profound, of the birth of a writer.

“At the end of the war, I became immersed in constant slumber. Though I moved from train to train, from truck to truck, sometimes from wagon to wagon, it was all in a dense, dreamless sleep. When I opened my eyes, the people looked heavy and expressionless.”

These are the first sentences of The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping. Seventeen-year-old Erwin, a young survivor of the war, is transported by refugees fleeing post-war Eastern Europe to Italy, before embarking on a journey to Israel, which is still a territory under British mandate. This thick, dreamless sleep undoubtedly contains the formlessness mentioned in the interview. A formlessness that contains the childhood brutally shattered by the war, and the desire to connect with what has been lost, primarily the mother and father. Erwin is taken in, like so many other Jewish orphans, by an emissary of the Jewish Agency who teaches them Hebrew and subjects them to physical training intended to make them new men, pioneers.

This physical and linguistic upheaval gives Erwin the ability to dream, and this is how his mother appears to him, speaking to him in a language of which he knows “the notes, the intonations and the silences,” but in which he has difficulty answering her. He reveals to her that he is acquiring a new language. She is surprised by this before imploring him, “Please my son, do not reveal the secret of our conversation in a language I cannot understand.” This poignant request, in the midst of a dream in which the dead mother and her son are able to converse, is to be compared with the confidence that Aharon Appelfeld makes in this interview: “And in my dreams, when I speak to my mother, it is always in German, it is not in Hebrew.”

In the novel, as in Aharon Appelfeld’s life, the path to writing in Hebrew was blazed with great difficulty, at the cost of great discouragement in the face of the magnitude of the task, and at times with equally great despair: that of betraying his mother by betraying his mother tongue, by writing in a language she could not (or would not have been able) to understand. Yet he forged down the narrow path of writing in another language, sensing, as he says in this interview, that it was in this archaic, stripped-down Jewish language that he could “transform visions into words,” and not in one of those languages that are so often used to describe the world. Not in one of those European languages such as French or German which have an “infinite vocabulary,” where it is so seductive to accumulate details and play with words.

The sacrifice of the mother tongue – also that of the murderers – is made necessary by Aharon Appelfeld’s refusal to be connected to German culture, and it is made possible by what Hebrew offers him. Not the ideological Hebrew of Zionism, using and abusing imperatives, injunctions, slogans, but the biblical Hebrew that guides Erwin in The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping, step by step, letter by letter, verse by verse copied. It is by copying the story of Joseph and his brothers or the binding of Isaac that he absorbs the concise and allusive language of the biblical texts, before forging a language recognizable among all that one could call “modern biblical Hebrew.” It is in this Hebrew that, at the end of the novel, Erwin approaches a blank page and begins to write.

His first words will be: “Go home. Who hasn’t heard this whisper in his heart? Coming home is a cry from the heart that swells in each of us whenever a sharp pain assails us, or when a decision is required and we are plagued by overwhelming doubts, or, most of the time, in a dark hour, when we are bending over under the weight of our failures, then at that moment the wonderful portal opens that invites us to enter the first house, the eternal house that stands before us, intact.”

Only a language several thousand years old and full of echoes such as Hebrew could allow Aharon Appelfeld to approach this eternity. Eternity of vision, eternity of literature opening beyond intimate memory, beyond the secret and uninterrupted dialogue between a mother and her son, while preserving the compelling home.

Valérie Zenatti

Valérie Zenatti was born in Nice in 1970 and spent her entire adolescence in Israel, a powerful experience that has shaped her work. She has published a dozen books with L’Ecole des Loisirs, a French children’s book publishing house, several of which have won awards and been translated into 17 languages, including ‘Quand j’étais soldate’ (When I Was a Soldier) and ‘Une bouteille dans la mer de Gaza’ (A Bottle in the Gaza Sea), which was adapted into a film by Thierry Binisti in 2012 and for which she co-wrote the script. She has also published five books at the Olivier publishing house, including ‘Jacob, Jacob’ (L’Olivier 2014, Prix du livre Inter). Her latest book, ‘Dans le faisceau des vivants’ (L’Olivier 2019, Prix Essai France Télévisions) (In the Bundle of the Living) echoes her relationship with Aharon Appelfeld, for whom she has been the French-language translator since 2004.


1 Aharon Appelfeld. New York, Schocken Books, 2017.
2 Translated from Hebrew by Aloma Halter, New York, Schocken Books, 2004.

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