The violence in the fiction of Aharon Appelfeld—often anti-Semitic, frequently represented by the Holocaust itself—usually occurs after, or prior to, his novels’ main action. Thus the novels typically occupy one of two psychic spaces: the period of rising tension in the months or years before Hitler’s advent and the Final Solution, or the lawless aftermath of World War II, in which concentration-camp survivors wander devastated landscapes in search of a new life. Rarely, then, do the events presented in an Appelfeld novel contain as much raw brutality as we encounter in Until the Dawn’s Light, and rarely is it presented in as private a context: the violence inflicted upon a Jewish wife by her gentile husband.
When we first meet Blanca Guttmann in about 1912, she is twenty-three and fleeing across Austria by train with her four-year-old son Otto. They stop and rent a small house by a river, where Blanca begins writing an account of her life for Otto to read when he is old enough. Most of Until the Dawn’s Light is taken up with Appelfeld’s (not always chronological) summary of what Blanca writes, beginning with her upbringing as the cherished daughter of a moderately successful if unhappy businessman and his sickly wife. Blanca is talented at mathematics and has an opportunity to study in Vienna on a scholarship once she finishes high school. But, seemingly on a whim, she abandons this path in favor of a blossoming friendship with a dull-witted classmate, Adolf, who is threatened with expulsion by the very same teachers who dote on Blanca. Adolf, a gentile, blames the teachers’ animosity on their Jewishness, an opinion that meek Blanca, in sympathy with Adolf’s academic struggles, does little to counter, considering that she is Jewish herself. After high school, she marries Adolf, converts to Christianity, and her life of torment begins.
Appelfeld presents Adolf’s episodes of domestic abuse in a manner that is quietly matter-of-fact yet also unrelenting. Here, for example, is how Adolf treats Blanca during the mourning period following the death of her mother, after Blanca has come back home one evening from a day spent sitting with her bereaved father:
Adolf would return late at night and whip her with his belt. Now he didn’t hit her in anger, but with the intention of hurting her. “We have to uproot all your weaknesses from you and all the bad qualities you inherited from your parents. A woman has to be a woman and not a weakling.” . . .
She would cry, and her weeping drove him crazy. He would throw a tantrum and curse her and her ancestors, who didn’t know how to live right, bound up with money and flawed in character.
On Sundays his brothers and friends would fill the house, guzzle and gobble and finally sing and dance in the yard until late at night. The next day she would get up early to make Adolf his morning coffee. After he left the house dizziness would assail her, and she would sink to the floor, ravaged.
When Otto is born and Adolf decides (to Blanca’s secret satisfaction) that Blanca now needs to work outside the home to help support the family, she takes a job at an old age home where, just as matter-of-factly as Adolf abuses her, she discreetly begins to steal and resell the residents’ valuables, telling herself that she is doing so in order to save up money to live on when she eventually works up the courage to take Otto away from Adolf. Her vague plan is to flee east, to the Carpathian Mountains where her ancestors, observant Jews, were born, and for whose simple, loving piety she longs while reading the romantic Hasidic tales of Martin Buber.
Because we feel deeply for Blanca—and continue to do so even after she commits a gruesome act of violence herself and, later, turns to still other forms of crime to prevent herself from being captured by the authorities—a disturbing moral quandary arises. Appelfeld seems to acknowledge ruefully that violence such as Adolf’s only begets more violence (the psychological damage done to Blanca as well as the violence she herself is driven to commit). But he also seems to believe that Blanca’s crimes are defensible because they are committed in reaction to these prior acts of violence. Further, by framing this scenario explicitly in an anti-Semitic context, Appelfeld risks suggesting that crimes committed in defense of the survival of Jewish culture are justified for that additional reason as well.
That Appelfeld never makes clear whether he in fact believes this adds depth and resonance to the dilemmas he depicts and is a tribute to his skill as a novelist. The questions he raises haunt the reader even though both Adolf’s and Blanca’s crimes are eventually punished in one way or another, in purely worldly terms if not moral or theological ones. For this reason, the darker undercurrents of Blanca’s already sad story linger in the mind no less vividly than the relentlessly inhumane acts Appelfeld describes.
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“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
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