Sud­den­ly, Love: A Novel

  • Review
By – March 20, 2014

The title of Aharon Appelfeld’s 2003 nov­el (Pit­om Ahavah in Hebrew) is some­what mis­lead­ing or delib­er­ate­ly iron­ic. No great moment of pas­sion sweeps through its pages nor sweeps up its two prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters. Rather, this slen­der nov­el, ably trans­lat­ed by Jef­frey Green, depicts the slow­ly unfold­ing rela­tion­ship between Ernst, a 70-year-old vet­er­an of the Red Army in World War II, and Ire­na, his 36-year-old housekeeper-caregiver.

In ear­ly 1980s Jerusalem, Ernst, now retired from work as a finan­cial ana­lyst and twice mar­ried, is suf­fer­ing from var­i­ous ail­ments of aging and is try­ing to write. Ire­na is a woman of lim­it­ed edu­ca­tion who has lived most of her life with her par­ents, Holo­caust sur­vivors, who have recent­ly died. Both char­ac­ters are with­drawn, tac­i­turn, and strug­gling for some kind of con­nec­tion. Ernst is unhap­py with his writ­ing, spend­ing hours com­pos­ing and then tear­ing up his drafts. Ire­na lives with­in her own lit­tle world, bound­ed by her par­ents’ home, which she keeps as if they were still alive, and Ernst’s house, where she pro­vides meals, and an audi­ence for Ernst’s recita­tions of his writ­ing. Even­tu­al­ly, the qui­et­ly blos­soming rela­tion­ship between the some­times-impe­ri­ous Ernst and the shy and inar­tic­u­late Ire­na leads to Ernst’s break­through as a writer.

In addi­tion to defin­ing the rela­tion­ship between Ernst and Ire­na, the only char­ac­ters in the present time of the nov­el aside from one of Ernst’s doc­tors, the novel’s title also refers to the rela­tion­ship between Ernst and his long-lost past. Through flash­backs and, lat­er, through the text Ernst final­ly suc­ceeds in writ­ing and shar­ing with Ire­na, we gain access to Ernst’s long-sup­pressed feel­ings about his fam­i­ly. Hav­ing as a young man aban­doned his par­ents — in his mem­o­ry non-enti­ties who passed their life in emp­ty silence — and tra­di­tion in favor of mil­i­tant com­mu­nism, and hav­ing spent the war years in the Sovi­et Army as it swept through East­ern Europe, Ernst finds him­self dredg­ing up his child­hood when he spent idyl­lic sum­mer vaca­tions in the rur­al Carpathi­ans with his dig­ni­fied peas­ant grandparents.

This sweet and qui­et nov­el evokes themes that Appelfeld has explored else­where in his fic­tion as well as in his mem­oir, Sto­ry of A Life (Sip­pur Hay­im, 2004): mem­o­ry; the mean­ing of the past; the lost world of inter-war Europe; the effect of the Holo­caust on the sur­vivors; the rela­tion­ship between lan­guage and silence. Mem­o­ry has deep roots in the body,” Appelfeld writes in Sto­ry of a Life, and in this nov­el the details of the past have an almost phys­i­cal real­i­ty. Ire­na, lis­ten­ing to Ernst’s mov­ing recon­struc­tion of his past, com­ments, So the pur­pose of writ­ing is to res­cue things from oblivion?”

So it appears,” Ernst responds. The evo­ca­tion of Ernst’s child­hood expe­ri­ences cast a warm glow of nos­tal­gia on the inter-war peri­od of East­ern Europe and one only wish­es that the nov­el had revealed more of Ernst’s expe­ri­ences, and Irena’s.

Relat­ed content:

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

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