The Man Who Nev­er Stopped Sleeping

  • Review
By – December 1, 2016

There are some nov­el­ists whose each nov­el explores new themes and set­tings, and oth­ers who mine the same area, each time extend­ing their vision but keep­ing to a cen­tral focus. In the land­scape of Israeli fic­tion, A. B. Yehoshua is an exem­plum of the first type — mov­ing from the Mid­dle Ages to India to con­tem­po­rary Israel — while fel­low Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld rep­re­sents the nov­el­ist that mines a sin­gle vein. When you are a sur­vivor of the Shoah as Appelfeld is, that is not a sur­prise, but a moral necessity.

Appelfeld is con­sis­tent­ly remark­able in his approach to the unap­proach­able at an oblique angle. His most recent of many bril­liant nov­els, Appelfeld now deliv­ers The Man Who Nev­er Stopped Sleep­ing, a lyri­cal nov­el with a deep under­ly­ing metaphor. The pro­tag­o­nist, Erwin, who sur­vived the Holo­caust hid­den and exploit­ed in a gen­tile neighbor’s hid­ing place, is trans­port­ed through Europe to a DP camp in south­ern Italy. Through­out his jour­ney he sleeps.

Being asleep to things is usu­al­ly tak­en to mean unaware of or inat­ten­tive to nor­mal con­scious life; in Erwin’s case, it is his mode of stay­ing in con­tact with the life he has lost in East­ern Europe. He dreams large­ly of his nur­tur­ing moth­er and his father, a nov­el­ist man­qué. At the DP camp Erwin joins with oth­er young Shoah sur­vivors to hone their bod­ies through rig­or­ous exer­cise so they can work the soil in Israel. The change in the young men are beau­ti­ful­ly and mov­ing por­trayed as they make their way to the Promised Land.

En route to his first mil­i­tary deploy­ment, Erwin, now Aharon, is dev­as­tat­ing wound­ed and under­goes numer­ous oper­a­tions to save his legs. Through­out the ordeal he con­tin­ues to spend a great deal of time sleep­ing once again, and con­nect­ing to his past. The dialec­tic between the Israeli present and the Euro­pean past takes place in short, haunt­ing para­graphs. The wound­ed young man decides to become a writer, a pro­fes­sion at which his father nev­er suc­ceed­ed. Erwin’s method of becom­ing a writer in Hebrew devel­ops through copy­ing Bib­li­cal texts word for word. His beloved sur­geon, Dr. Win­ters, saves Erwin’s legs and sup­ports his lit­er­ary ambi­tion: The Hebrew lan­guage has many secrets, and we must approach it mod­est­ly, as we approach the Holy Scrip­tures. Do you feel the secrets?” Not sur­pris­ing­ly, the writer that seeps into Erwin’s prose is none oth­er than S. Y. Agnon, whose own writ­ing is so infused with Bib­li­cal language.

The Man Who Nev­er Stopped Sleep­ing is kind of Kün­stler­ro­man, a nov­el about the devel­op­ment of an artist, con­tain­ing Erwin’s first piece of long prose. The sto­ry con­cludes with a dream about Erwin’s moth­er. Mas­ter­ing the lan­guage of a writer, Erwin tells her, I broke through the bar­ri­er and I intend to return home.”

Noth­ing is there,” she replies. But as this haunt­ing­ly bril­liant nov­el demon­strates on vir­tu­al­ly every page, the past is nev­er real­ly gone; the dark­ness and the light, the bit­ter and the sweet, are tan­gi­bly close when we close our eyes.

Relat­ed Content:

Josh Han­ft holds Advanced Degrees in Eng­lish and Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and curat­ed the renowned read­ing series, Scrib­blers on the Roof, for over twen­ty years.

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