Suddenly, Love is the story of an older man, Ernst, and his young, simple, devoted caretaker, Irena, who helps him reconnect and make peace with his past. In all honesty, I hated–HATED–this book when I first started it. Both characters are incredibly extreme–Ernst in his ridiculously rigid way of viewing the world, and Irena in her total and complete submission to the task of caring for Ernst. Seriously, I almost put the book down after reading the nth description of Ernst expressing vehement disapproval over some pointless nothing and then Irena responding with awe and unquestioning devotion: “She wants to kneel at his feet, cover his hand with both of hers, and say, ‘I’m so pleased that you allow me to serve you.'” Really?
On the one hand, I found these characters incredibly unlikable–inflexible and uncompromising (each in their own way) to the point of irritation. I just couldn’t buy it. These people were totally unbelievable to me.
But something happened in the last third of the novel; as both characters began to heal and open themselves up to new life possibilities, I started to wonder if Suddenly, Love was really “just” a short little story about two discontent people falling in love, or if it was a parable of sorts, possibly a story to teach us about the importance of staying connected to our pasts and our people.
In the beginning, the reader knows that there is a part of Ernst’s past that he doesn’t want to deal with. We know that his relationship with his parents was an odd one, full of gloomy silence, distance, and despair, but there is clearly more to it. It isn’t until Ernst realizes he is dying and then is forced to interact with the somewhat dense but very spiritually-connected Irena, that Ernst is able to call up those past memories. I fully expected those memories to be even more painful than his memories of his parents and his cold childhood, tragic stories about war or death or some other loss. But the memories that Ernst begins to remember are actually very positive ones, which surprised me. They are memories about time spent with his grandparents as a child. Like Ernst’s parents, his grandparents didn’t mince words; they were often quiet and used silence to demonstrate respect for God and the earth. But unlike Ernst’s parents, his grandparents were still warm and full of life. Ernst felt they were accessible; they would talk to him, teach him, answer his questions. And though the word is never used, it is clear that they loved Ernst and that Ernst felt loved by them.
Appelfeld’s message seems to be two-fold: first, that it is important to be connected to your past, to come to terms with it in order to live your present life as fully as possible; and second, that it is important to be connected to a LOVING past. This second part is obviously not something we have control over. In Ernst’s case, his parents were wounded and unable to process their own pain. Because of this (and despite the fact that Ernst did have a loving relationship with his grandparents) they passed their coldness–their despair and self-loathing–down to their son…sins of the father and all that.
It wasn’t until Ernst begins his relationship with Irena, that he is able to come to terms with his relationship with his parents and reconnect to the happiness he felt when he was with his grandparents. Irena isn’t very intelligent, and though I still find her unquestioning submission to Ernst incredibly irritating in the story, I think maybe Appelfeld’s point is that cold hard facts and uncompromising objectivity aren’t necessarily the culmination of human consciousness and achievement. There is a very crucial place for love, admiration, acceptance, and connection–especially connection with the past–and these are the qualities that make a life feel whole and complete.
Whether this was the message that Appelfeld intended to convey or not, I can definitely say that this story is a lot less simple than it appears to be at first. There are layers here, and while this book still isn’t a favorite of mine, I did ultimately end up enjoying it for what it is.