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Jewish Journal

Daring to review Holocaust lit

by Jonathan Kirsch

November 29, 2010 | 5:51 pm

As book editor of The Jewish Journal, I could easily fill every column inch of our book coverage with titles about the Holocaust — histories, memoirs, novels, poetry, and even cartoon books.  God help me, I am now at work on a biography of an early and mostly overlooked figure of the Jewish resistance against Nazi Germany.

Of all these books, however, only one courageously addresses the fundamental question of what is permitted and what is not permitted — from a moral, historical and literary point of view — when we dare to write about the Holocaust.  That is exactly why “A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction” by Ruth Franklin (Oxford University Press: $29.95) is such a brilliant, challenging and surprising work.

“To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric,” observed Theodor Adorno in his single most quoted and debated line. For Ruth Franklin, a senior editor at The New Republic, Adorno’s words are the starting point for any serious reader of Holocaust literature: “There is something ethically dubious, so the usual argument goes, about using — literally or figuratively profiting from — atrocity as an inspiration for literature, or indeed any form of art,” she writes. “And so the testimonial memoir, rather than the novel, has become the dominant form of Holocaust writing — resulting in a slew of unintended interpretive consequences.”

Yet the novelist and the memoirist alike can be shown to be drawing on the imagination, and they attract readers who may not pay much attention to the difference.  Franklin declares herself to be unsurprised at “our voracious hunger for novels, films, plays that might somehow help us understand the Holocaust” even if she insists that “we cannot quite get over our suspicion that there is something shameful in this desire.”  To reconcile the conflicts — the tension between hunger and shame — she proceeds to apply her formidable skills as a literary critic to the rich, diverse and ever-growing body of literature that invokes the Holocaust in one way or another.

Of necessity, “A Thousand Darknesses” focuses on only a few examples of the Holocaust in arts and letters. She starts by deconstructing a couple of what she calls “canonical work[s],” including Primo Levi’s “Survival in Auschwitz” (which she refers to by its British title, “If This Is a Man”) and Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” and uses them to explore the “graying of the line between fiction and reality.”  She acknowledges Levi’s assertion that “none of the facts are invented” but she insists that “all of his works, without exception, are in their own ways works of the imagination.” Thus, for example, she points out that both Levi and Wiesel “removed several Jewish allusions to give the text a more universal appeal.”

To her credit, Franklin wields the critical scalpel, here and elsewhere in her book, with a compassionate heart.  “There can be no doubt that the act of trying to put ‘Night’ under the fact checker’s lens smacks of indecency,” she writes.  “One cannot seriously worry about whether babies were burned alive or dead at Auschwitz (one of the questions that has been raised periodically about the book) without losing something of one’s own humanity. Is it not enough to know that they were burned at all?  But if it feels barbaric to perform the critical dissection on a book such as ‘Night,’ the alternative is worse.”

She is no less exacting when it comes to “Schindler’s List,” both the book by Thomas Keneally and the movie by Steven Spielberg.  She credits Spielberg for being “excruciatingly concerned with questions of fidelity and authenticity,” but she also points out that “Spielberg’s film may well have been too effective in its evocation of verisimilitude —so effective that not only its viewers but also its director confused it with reality,” which nicely summarizes what I regard as the high crime of Holocaust fiction.  And she points out that Keneally’s book is labeled as “Fiction/Judaica” because if the book had been published as a work of non-fiction, “it would ‘get stuck in that section against the back wall of most American bookstores and would be unlikely to be bought by non-Jews,’” thus reminding us that publishers no less than movie-makers have an eye on the bottom line.

Elsewhere in “A Thousand Darknesses,” ponder the work of several other writers of various degrees of fame, ranging from Jerzy Kosinski, W. G. Sebald, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Safran Foer to Tadeusz Borowski, Piotr Rawicz, Imre Kertesz, Wolfgang Koeppen and Bernard Schlink. Through it all, she embraces the same openness toward literary and artistic invention, and — and the same time — the same exacting attitude toward success and failure of the inventors. 

Franklin argues that the impulse to write about the Holocaust — and our insatiable appetite for such writings — are the best way — and perhaps the only way — to preserve and honor our history.  Perhaps, she suggests, Adorno meant that “it would be horrific to write only one poem after Auschwitz,” but “to write a hundred poems, a thousand poems, a million — that might be better, because it would take an infinite number of works of literature to represent the vast multiplicity of voices and experiences that constitute the Holocaust.”

Thus does Franklin explain the haunting title of her book: “The thousand darknesses are the stories of the Holocaust,” she concludes, “endlessly echoing, ever terrifying, infinitely variable.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

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