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.