Around the time I first read Aharon Appelfeld's Unto the Soul (1994), I was just barely starting to write about Jews. My first published short story starred an old Yankee in Maine whose very name, Mr. Seed, invoked the sort of rootedness I'd always longed for. I'd grown up in New England, too, but my parents were outsiders. They hadn't been raised to fish or sail or ski, and our attempts to do such things often met with disaster, a pattern I couldn't help but associate with our being Jewish.
I was from Gloucester, Massachusetts, a fishing port north of Boston. I had my own dinghy. I knew the rocks and seaweed down below our house as well as I knew my own skin. Yet it seemed I could never be of the place--not really. My Jewishness kept me apart.
This sense of displacement and unease, and the desire it created in me to belong somewhere, was expressed (or rather repressed) through my early characters and stories, which rarely included Jews. I wrote about fourth-generation apple farmers, fifth-generation lobstermen; when outsiders were needed, I usually made them Italian.
If anyone had asked me about this--and no one did--I probably would have pointed out to them that I was writing fiction, that in fiction one could write whatever one wanted, and that I didn't want to write about myself. Little did I know that I was writing about nothing but myself--I was just doing it in the white space.
Then I picked up Unto the Soul, which tells the story of Gad and Amalia, a brother and sister charged with guarding an ancient cemetery of Jewish martyrs on an isolated mountaintop. Here, they're protected from the pogroms and diseases ravaging the plains below, but they're also cut off from community and tradition. One winter, enveloped by darkness and snow, their desolation and heavy drinking spirals and they're forced to confront the desire they feel for one another.
Unto the Soul, like most of Appelfeld's work, is a dark book that resists intellectual explanation in favor of a deeply sensual, psychological probing of dislocation and despair. It's not darkly funny, like Bernard Malamud or Philip Roth, nor is it darkly pedantic. Applefeld isn't making a point about Judaism, or cracking jokes about Jews. In fact, the characters'Jewishness is barely mentioned in the book--they wresde with faith, yes; their entire purpose on the mountain is a religious one, true; yet it often feels as if theirs could be any religion. Even the first reference to their Judaism is...