- All Whom I Have Loved
- Schocken Books, 256 pp.
Aharon Appelfeld’s new novel, All Whom I Have Loved is indeed a riveting, if ominous tale, a story we learn from the near-desperate utterances of a child facing not only his own developmental and family struggles, but the turmoil of an unwelcoming world, that of the East Europe of a prospering Nazi party in the late 1930s! Yet in it, the unmistakable voice of a master is recognizable from its opening phrase!
Appelfeld’s earlier works, as we know, have dealt mainly with the Holocaust, in his spare novelistic renditions, Badenheim 1939, The Immortal Bartfuss, The Conversion among others, and in his recent autobiography — the extraordinary, The Story of My Life, cataloguing the ghastly experiences he suffered as a Jewish orphan wandering alone in forests and back alleys while fleeing capture during the monstrous years of Europe in those times.
But here, in his latest, we see merely a foreshadowing of such coming disasters, through the narrowing of options, the lost opportunities, the doors slamming shut upon the lives of his principals. We gaze at their destruction as the skies continue to lower and darken above.
When we first encounter Paul Rosenfeld, he is a sheltered nine-year old, the single offspring of loving parents. Despite his immaturity, he has alerted himself early to the unhappiness of their union, recognizing in their daily silence a growing disdain of each for the other. And that realization disciplines his every move. A conscious creature from the moment we listen in on him, he guards each move, retreating into his own quiet amid the tension.
Soon enough, his father leaves the family household, and we watch the boy’s devotion to his mother growing excessive. He lives and breathes for her love; the pair become inseparable, day and night. It is his own fantasy come true when they are able to go off together that summer to rent a cabin in a lovely little village beside the River Prut in the Ukraine. It is a lark as magical as any child could wish:
“Every few days they walked out farther, as far as the lake. The lake was in the heart of a forest, and its waters were black. Mother would dive and dive again and at last she would take me in her arms and swim along with me. I would feel a fear full of pleasure, and we stayed in the heavy shadows for hours, bundled up in large towels, and only as the sun set would we pack up the knapsack and return home.”
Clearly, this idyll is not to last. Upon their return, without any warning, Paul is faced by his next crisis: It arrives in the form of his mother’s announcement that she too must leave him. If they are to maintain themselves, she must take daily employment. With this, his sense of betrayal, along with his certainty of coming desertion, is intensified.
Paul is an asthma victim who had earlier been exempted from school by a worried father, and had to stay at home for self-schooling. So he had become dependent upon his mother. Now, during her absence, he is put in the charge of an employee, an ignorant peasant girl, the young and beautiful Halina. For a while, he rejects every attempt of Halina’s to engage him, to keep him occupied, and amuse him. Yet, child that he is, necessity soon triumphs and he joins forces with the lively caretaker in her fervor to bring him to good cheer.
So once more, the boy manages to maintain himself, as he gradually shifts his ardor and focuses upon the affectionate Halina. Still, when his mother arrives home late each evening, exhausted by her arduous teaching schedule, he tries his hardest to please her, to show his fondness and loyalty, for he eagerly wishes to hold her regard. He even takes sides in his parents’ dispute to support her sense of betrayal and rage, expressing his sympathy with her anger towards his father.
In the meanwhile, Paul’s father makes occasional appearances to visit his son. He walks the child through their town, talking of his childhood, of his own lonely life in an orphanage, of his encounter there with the boy’s mother and of their hopes together for a better life. And during each visit they settle themselves in the local tavern for the essential, the true initiation of his day, his drink.
An ambitious, talented artist, Arthur Rosenfeld’s prospects had once looked bright; yet of late, he has become almost distraught — a disillusioned, even defeated man. His steps falter, like a person who no longer believes in his abilities. He lives as one who sees little hope of success at his art. We learn of his having already been identified, dismissed and vilified, of his being damned as “a Jew decadent” by prevailing critical opinion. Given this situation, he has discovered how little chance of support he has from any reputable gallery for his work.
Thus, has drink overtaken his life and though we are not specifically informed of his neglect of support for his family, we can surmise it from the complete detachment for life he displays, his total disregard of his wife’s persistent desperation, or, his son’s hysteria. More pertinent here, perhaps, is that this may well be Applefeld’s own novelistic intimation of the hopelessness of those wretched times, together with a foreshadowing of the fate of an entire population soon to be categorically reviled for who they are and from whence they came.
Paul’s misfortunes multiply. By now he is as enslaved to his beautiful, sweet-natured, Halina, as he had been to his parents. But his latest devotion is violently challenged too when her lover, maddened with jealousy by her flirtatious nature, comes calling upon them to gain his ultimate revenge, killing the young woman before the boy’s own eyes.
Once again bereft and without resource, Paul abandons his studies and starts to wander in the town unattended, aimless, day after day, while waiting his mother’s return from work at the school. And, so his life goes, proceeding without change and without any expectations.
The decisive blow falls when he learns that his lady mother has become enchanted by another — a teacher at her school. The child is thrown into an abyss, losing all faith in her and those about him. Confirmed is his greatest fear: she too is capable of deserting him much as his father had done before. Indeed, he sees her now only as a woman “in love.” A creature who has eyes for no one but her lover, despite her pretences. She may continue to attend her young son, but soon enough, after putting him to bed and seeing him asleep, she disappears into the night, leaving him for her lover. The child often awakes during the night in fear, lamenting her absence:
“Mother returned late. Her face was covered with weariness and indifference, as if her secret had been snatched from her. I wanted to feel pity for her, but my heart wouldn’t let me. I remembered the black night and how I had called out, ‘Mother, Mother!’ and I immediately felt estranged from her.”
The boy’s discovery of his mother’s treachery seems that final straw, the sign he had awaited of her ultimate abandonment! And, when she goes on to marry her new love, the boy turns altogether away, in contempt.
He is more than willing to leave his mother behind to welcome rescue by his father. He will go forward with him into another country, to a bigger city, to a better place where they can even yet make a life of their own!
But this is Applefeld’s world. No solution is to be found. Disappointments come apace when the child follows his father to live and work in Romania in the great city of Bucharest, as the result of a miraculous offer from a friend and admirer, a man who has newly inherited a fortune. The two go off to that cosmopolitan city.
Here they find comparative luxury; most of all, peace. Their hopes run high; for a while it seems that Rosenfeld’s energy and talent has once more emerged as he forgoes alcohol to work feverishly towards his current goal: a show at the most solicited gallery in Bucharest. With the faith of one man, his old friend and mentor, Victor, provisions and arrangements having been lovingly managed. There can be no stop to what he can achieve.
Yet, no greater world is there to find, nor a halt to the undoing of their lives! Arthur Rosenfeld’s art is rejected as galleries prove fearful, critics hostile, and audiences show themselves unwilling to appear for him.
Disaster descends. We hear the boy’s desperation as he is ushered into the very institution in Czernowitz of his parents upbringing:
“The wagon stopped outside the orphanage. The storekeeper lifted me up in his arms, and his wife knocked at the gate. The gatekeeper asked something, and the woman pointed to her husband and me. Here, too, I tried to run away, but the storekeeper was strong and grasped my ankle and arm. The man in the office asked me my name, and I told him. When he heard it, he asked if I was the son of Arthur Rosenfeld.”