In the early 1980s, with novels like "Age of Wonders," "Badenheim 1939" and "Tzili," Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld became known to the American reading public as a writer of lean, understated parables of his own childhood as a homeless waif in the forests of Ukraine during World War II.
His stories were like nothing else: haunted and terrifying but also cool, contained, surreal, as if Franz Kafka had dreamed them.
Philip Roth, in an interview with Appelfeld, noted the stark originality of a voice "that originates in a wounded consciousness pitched somewhere between amnesia and memory and that situates the fiction it narrates midway between parable and history."
Unlike many other survivors, Appelfeld found himself unable to bear witness.
"I could not remember the names of people or places -- only gloom, rustlings, and movements. Only much later did I understand that this raw material is the very marrow of literature, and that, from it, it's possible to create an interior narrative."
This memoir, "The Story of a Life," while rendering some of Appelfeld's life concrete and vivid, is really just such an interior narrative: a portrait of the artist as a hunted and disoriented young man.
Born into a comfortable, non-religious family in the city of Czernowitz in Bukovina, a border region of largely Slavic-speaking peoples, Appelfeld grew up in a world that still comes back to him in charged and vivid images: the slow drift of snowfall, a wicker basket of strawberries, quiet cobbled streets at night, cows returning from pasture, his uncle's library of Hebrew books, his mother's gaze.
His recollection is sensuous and pictorial: "Nothing spoken -- no phrases -- remain in my memory from those distant days, only Mother's gaze. It was filled with so much softness and tender solicitude that I feel it to this very day."
The broad details of Appelfeld's life are already known: that his idyllic childhood was crushed by the Nazi invasion and that Appelfeld himself, at the age of 9, escaped from a labor camp to the forest and wound up eventually in Tel Aviv in 1946. But he has been diffident about the details, and he confesses in this memoir that "speech does not come easily to me, and it's no wonder: we didn't speak during the war."
"The Story of a Life" is the book of memory, though the memories are called up in chaotic fragments, between which remain vast silences, as though some things may still not be told.
Appelfeld recalls that "my mother was murdered at the beginning of the war. I didn't see her die, but I did hear her one and only scream." The Jews of Czernowitz and nearby towns in Bukovina are rounded up and put in a ghetto, and those that are not put immediately on trains are sent on a long, brutal march to a labor camp.
This death march is recalled in a few burning images, like his father dragging him out of deep mud. "I'm still drowsy from sleep, and my fear is dulled. 'It hurts me!' I call out. Father hears my cry and responds instantly, 'Make it easier for me, make it easier.' "
The journal, the "mosaic of words," from which much of this memoir is drawn, was begun only after Appelfeld washed up in Tel Aviv, and it was, as he says, initially just words, in German, Yiddish, Hebrew and even Ruthenian. "The diary became a hiding place where (the 14-year-old youth) could pile up the remnants of his mother tongue and the words that he had just acquired. A 'pile of stuff' is not just a figure of speech; it described my soul."
In the pile of stuff we find his struggles with language -- Hebrew in particular, a tongue that resists him, so that in the environment of the kibbutz that is designed to turn the flotsam of diaspora into Israelis, he reverts to the watchful silence of the forest.
Later he endures years of loneliness in the army, where he takes up reading Hebrew literature -- "it was like a sheer mountain wall" -- and discovers that what he needs to become a writer is an "internal connection to Hebrew, not an external one."
And he learns something also about the literature of the Jews, whether in diaspora or in Israel: that "literature, if it is genuine, is the religious melody that has been lost to us. Literature gathers within it all the elements of faith: the seriousness, the internality, the melody and the connection with the hidden aspects of the soul."
"The Story of a Life" can certainly be read as a Holocaust survival drama and a personal miracle story, but I think Appelfeld is telling a story of a different sort, about how, out of a life so utterly broken, he managed to forge a literary identity that would pay homage to all sides of his experience: the memory of his parents and of the lost civilization of Bukovina, the lapses and surprises of memory, the cunning and tenacity of his existence, the national experience of Israel, and the literature of dislocation he discovered in Kafka that had given him his voice. It is a book about the making of a writer, an achievement that, long after the forest, needed a cunning and tenacity all its own.
The Story of a Life
By Aharon Appelfeld, translated by Aloma Halter
Schocken, 198 pages, $23
Mark Shechner is a frequent News book reviewer.