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Aharon Appelfeld’s "Secret" Languages

Sun, December 16, 10:00 to 11:30am, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Beacon Hill 2 & 3

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


“You appear to be using a secret language.” Thus Erwin-Aharon, first-person narrator of Aharon Appelfeld’s novel THE MAN WHO NEVER STOPPED SLEEPING, dreams his mother’s complaint that she no longer understands him. Secret languages pervade Appelfeld’s stories and novels. These are not akin to Wittgensteins’s “private” language, but comprise an imaginative idiom in which “old and new” are always already mixed, as Erwin himself observes.
Appelfeld’s simple, lean prose style is at the same time astonishingly subtle, multifaceted, multilayered. His narrative voice blends Israeli Hebrew with “tribal” Hebrew, Yiddish, and the languages of Central Europe. There are echoes of liturgy and the Bible and the ideological speech of Communists and Zionists. One hears voices of the mute, the damaged, and the dead; of victims, survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators. In the same simple words, myriad characters learn how to speak, how to write, how to remember and how to forget.
This panel—which we dedicate to the memory of this great writer who died on January 4, 2018--reconsiders Appelfeld’s style, and his broader conceptions of Hebrew style and nusaḥ. The panelists have contributed to reinterpretations of Hebrew, Yiddish, and German-Jewish literature. Nili Gold, Professor of Modern Hebrew Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, reexamines the author’s early style. In these short stories, characters who are mute, amnesiac, and capable of only simple tasks, begin to reach for language. Ken Frieden, the B. G. Rudolph Professor of Judaic Studies at Syracuse University, provides a new perspective on Appelfeld’s distinctive style, which was often out of step with contemporary colloquial Hebrew. Drawing on his recent research into origins of Hebrew prose in Hasidic tales of the nineteenth century, Frieden’s paper demonstrates that what was sometimes viewed as stylistically problematic was in fact characteristic of a counter-tradition of Hebrew writing that may be called the “counter-nusaḥ.” Abigail Gillman, Associate Professor of German and Hebrew at Boston University, examines how Kafka's prose and biblical Hebrew shaped one of Appelfeld’s last novels, THE MAN WHO NEVER STOPPED SLEEPING, in which the main character Erwin-Aharon documents in minute detail his coming of age as a Hebrew author.

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