To the Edge of Sorrow: A Review
To the Edge of Sorrow
By Aharon Appelfeld
Translated by Stuart Schoffman (Schocken)
Let us say this up front: If To the Edge of Sorrow, in Stuart Schoffman’s lively and masterful translation, is not Aharon Appelfeld’s best and most accessible novel, it is certainly among his top three. Appelfeld, the celebrated Israeli writer who died at the age of 86 in 2018, left an oeuvre of more than 40 literary works of art. Born in what was then Romania and a survivor of the Holocaust, Appelfeld—along with his memory and art—lived in the Europe of the Shoah. Yet he considered himself the most Israeli of writers, creating a modern approach to the art of the novel alongside a cohort of renowned Israeli novelists—A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, David Grossman and Meir Shalev.
Despite the many typical Appelfeldian digressions, the plot of the novel follows a straight chronological line. To the Edge of Sorrow, originally published in Hebrew in 2012, is a Holocaust story about some 40 Jews who, on the verge of being steered into cattle cars that would take them to the death camps, make a dangerous escape from a ghetto in a major Transylvanian city in the Carpathian Mountains. Dispersed into local forests, these escapees come together and coalesce as a partisanka, a group of freedom fighters in the Jewish resistance. Their goal: save Jewish lives, especially of those in the cattle cars, by bombing the railroad tracks and derailing the trains destined for the death camps.
As in most of his novels, Appelfeld sets out to explore a new world of communal Judaism, with all its complications, telling a story made up of chain-links that bring people of the same ilk together in human networks. He also sets up philosophical questions, axioms often voiced by a character and followed with an “and yet,” an alternative view that not so much negates the original principle but lets the two sides float alongside each other. To be sure, this is artfully done, a way of mirroring the complexities of real life.
In To the Edge of Sorrow, Appelfeld’s “and yet” comes in another form, that of creating doppelgängers of his characters. Appelfeld even includes his own double in the book’s narrator, Edmund, a young man destined to become a writer who carefully takes notes on all he sees. The rebellious son of assimilated Jews, in a digressive flashback Edmund describes his former life in the city, how he left academic study to become the sex-obsessed lover of the beautiful Anastasia, a non-Jew, and how, after he was forced into the ghetto, Anastasia abandons him. It is his parents who urged Edmund to escape without them, and his narration of life before the partisanka, a digression from the central story, reveals his guilt at abandoning his parents.
The commander of the group is Kamil, an unconventional religious believer. Moody and reclusive, he is devoted to nourishing the spirit of his acolytes—he recites a Psalm before every mission, to which he gives a Hebrew code word—almost as though he were a Hasidic rebbe. Kamil’s taciturn deputy, Felix, his doppelgänger, is of a contrasting opinion, believing that “one must not mix matters of the spirit with deeds.”
Not only are there two commanders, there are two of almost everything else: Two children are with the partisans, each of whom is adopted by two caretakers from among the fighters. There are two women who mirror each other as well as characters from outside the novel. One is Grandma Tsirl, who offers sage advice based on the Jewish value system. A venerable old woman who is devoted to the psychological welfare of the individual partisans, Grandma Tsirl presents echoes of S.Y. Agnon’s legendary heroine, Tehilla. Then there is Tsila—a name meaning shadow—who assumes Tsirl’s role later in the novel. Tsila is a link to an Appelfeld heroine presented in her own novel, Tsili. That story is something of Appelfeld’s autobiography, if in the female gender.
Then there are two characters woven as reappearing threads throughout the novel, with playful names repeated just as playfully throughout the novel. One of these is Karl, the Marxist hater of Judaism and especially rabbis, an anti-Jewish bully, the resident communist, so transparently named that he highlights the central communitarian message of the novel. The other is Hermann Cohen, another sagely presence, whose name is repeated like a musical leitmotif 55 times in the novel, (the double letter “n” deftly provided by Schoffman in the translation, is to remind us of the anti-Zionist Jewish philosopher of the 19th century). Cohen is the quartermaster of the group, who has nothing to do with philosophy but everything to do with simple niceness.
As To the Edge of Sorrow ends, there are two conclusions as well, neither of which will be revealed here, as a show of respect to readers who would like to wrestle with them—and their effectiveness—by themselves. For this reader, the question remains: Was Appelfeld constrained by the workings of this novel itself as well as by the drifts and currents of his entire oeuvre to choose the endings he did? Discuss it, dear reader, among the many selves you will discover in yourself as you read this important novel.
Joseph Lowin, longtime writer of the “About Hebrew” column for Hadassah Magazine, is the author of Art and the Artist in the Contemporary Israeli Novel (Lexington Books), which contains chapters on the works of Aharon Appelfeld, A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz and David Grossman