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the Complete Review
the complete review - memoir

The Story of a Life

Aharon Appelfeld

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Story of a Life

Title: The Story of a Life
Author: Aharon Appelfeld
Genre: Memoir
Written: 1999 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 201 pages
Original in: Hebrew
Availability: The Story of a Life - US
The Story of a Life - UK
The Story of a Life - Canada
Histoire d'une vie - France
Geschichte eines Lebens - Deutschland
  • Translated by Aloma Halter

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Our Assessment:

A- : loose but effective memory-collection

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A+ 24/9/2005 Lisa Appignanesi
Independent on Sunday . 11/9/2005 Matthew J Reisz
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 22/1/2005 Andreas Breitenstein
The NY Times Book Rev. . 31/10/2004 Sarah Boxer
Sunday Times . 11/9/2005 Theo Richmond
TLS A+ 11/11/2005 Andrew Taylor
Die Zeit . 20/1/2005 Verena Auffermann

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "Like a series of luminous paintings discovered in the darkness of a vaulted church after the bombs have fallen, this memoir evokes a wonder which is on the other side of language. Its scenes need to be contemplated, tasted, savoured. There is so little "aboutness" about it, so little of the explanation with which others might surround these shards of memory distilled from terror." - Lisa Appignanesi, The Guardian

  • "Appelfeld's memoir, The Story of a Life, is as subtle and oblique as his novels." - Matthew J Reisz, Independent on Sunday

  • "Man wird fortan versucht sein, dieses Buch als Blaupause zu benutzen -- wohl nur um festzustellen, dass es ein vergebliches Bemühen ist, die dichterische Imagination auf die nackten Tatsachen des Lebens reduzieren zu wollen. Details aus dem "sprudelnden Reservoir" der Erinnerung finden sich in allen. (...) Appelfelds Memoiren, und das macht vor dem Hintergrund der mythisch überhöhten Romane ihren Reiz aus, kommen gänzlich unverschattet daher." - Andreas Breitenstein, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Appelfeld appears to have written his memoir as a duty. It is vague and general where his novels are not.. (...) He is particularly good at telling stories of how a story was not told." - Sarah Boxer, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Is this slim book of 198 pages the story of a life ? In essence, yes, but there are some curious gaps. (...) Of the writer’s marriage, wife and family, not a word. This is a humane and moving memoir, but has the author taken reticence too far ?" - Theo Richmond, Sunday Times

  • "The Story of a Life breaks all the rules of structure and storytelling. There are gaps, puzzles, and leaps in the narrative that make it more like a nightmare than a story -- but perhaps that is the point." - Andrew Taylor, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Die Geschichte eines Lebens ist keine Abrechung, schon gar keine schonungslose. Aharon Appelfeld ist ein schüchterner Erzähler, der auch noch nach zwanzig Büchern die versteckten Erinnerungen in sich selbst sucht." - Verena Auffermann, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Aharon Appelfeld warns in his preface that:

     This book is not a summary, but an attempt (and perhaps a desperate attempt) to integrate the different parts of my life and reconnect them to the wellsprings of their being. The reader should not expect a sequential and precise account in this story of a life.
       The chapters include many clear and precise pictures and descriptions, but just as often Appelfeld acknowledges gaps and memories that are lost, confused, or still suppressed. Part of the fascination of the text is how he treats his memories, carefully bringing them to the fore, examining them, often reluctant to draw any conclusions as if that might alter this bit from the past, be it pleasant or ugly.
       The Story of a Life does broadly cover all of Appelfeld's life. There are scenes from before the war, of his happy childhood in Galicia, bits from the war -- the march to the camps, his escape and trying to get by in the Ukraine on his won, the people who took him in. The end of the war doesn't bring safety, instead there's the long odyssey to Italy, the unsafe camps there, until eventually he gets to Israel, with its strange language and very different conditions. The final chapters centre on the small community where he found himself a sort of home, the New Life Club, "established in 1950 by Holocaust survivors from Galicia and Bukovina" (but now closed).
       This is a book of memory, more than of memories, of how the mind -- this mind, subject to so many awful experiences -- is affected and how it preserves and recollects. The scenes are vital, and powerful in their relatively simple presentation, but it's the connexions, the memory-tapestry that defines identity, that is of greatest interest.
       Language itself poses a problem. Though raised in a multi-lingual environment, all these languages proved inadequate after the war:
There were no words; the ones left over from home sounded hollow. Sometimes a man would appear and words would flow from his mouth. But the words he used were from before the war, and they sounded like coarse scraps, devoid of all taste.
       Coming to Israel he learned Hebrew, but it was a struggle, the language not coming easily to him. Eventually he would write his books in Hebrew; part of their power certainly lies in that awareness of it not being his natural tongue, but one acquired relatively late in life, a necessary replacement for the languages of his childhood.
       There are a variety of episodes in the memoir, Appelfeld describing some horrors in great detail and skimming over others, lingering over what might seem a small memory but is convincingly presented as a prominent (often for reasons Appelfeld himself does not understand) one. It is a short book, with much detail that might be of more obvious interest going unmentioned, and yet one gets a good sense of the man. And it is an interesting experiment in recollection: as Appelfeld writes:
     I've already written more than twenty books about those years, but sometimes it seems as though I haven't yet begun to describe them. Sometimes it seems to me that a fully detailed memory is still concealed within me, and when it emerges from its bunker, it will flow fiercely and strongly for days on end.
       Certainly recommended.

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The Story of a Life: Reviews: Aharon Appelfeld: Other books by Aharon Appelfeld under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Aharon Appelfeld was born in 1932. He lives in Israel.

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