Commentary Magazine

Graying the Line

A Thousand Darknesses:
Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction
By Ruth Franklin
Oxford, 256 pages

Despite our enduring national fascination with the Holocaust, there has been little serious American study of its effects on literature. In fact, the mere mention of “Holocaust literature” is usually enough to induce a numb piety in the mind of almost any reader. It’s not hard to place blame for this—we have been inundated for decades by exploitative and emotionally manipulative treatments of the subject. They run the thunderous gamut from William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, from Judgment at Nuremberg to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (the master text of Holocaust kitsch in any medium). These ubiquitous works have the pernicious secondary effect of obscuring some of the genuine art and literature produced on the subject. Consider, for example, how less well known the novelist and camp survivor Imre Kertesz is in America than Foer, even though Kertesz has won the Nobel Prize.

There would be almost no reason to expect, then, that an American literary critic would or could produce a careful, coherent, introductory work on the subject of European fiction and the Holocaust, a book written specifically with non-academic readers in mind, a book in the spirit of Edmund Wilson’s pioneering literary study of 1931, Axel’s Castle. And yet here is Ruth Franklin, an alert and wide-ranging essayist and senior editor at the New Republic. She has produced just such a study, A Thousand Darknesses.

Franklin begins with a very provocative argument, using the example of the fraudulent Holocaust memoirist Binjamin Wilkomirski, whose bestselling Fragments was exposed as a fake in the late 1990s. Franklin argues that, notwithstanding the felonious aspect of manufacturing memories and peddling them as fact, such an effort is not entirely different from the novelist’s or poet’s art as such. Novels and poems always blur reality, compress or truncate it, illuminate it unnaturally. Indeed, she goes so far as to state bluntly (and, on the evidence presented, correctly): “Every canonical work of Holocaust literature involves some graying of the line between fiction and reality.” (The italics are in the original.) Such distortions may cut sharply against our sense of the Holocaust as a unique event so monstrous as to be almost beyond words, but they are—if books about the Holocaust are to be written at all—unavoidable; Franklin takes a strong stand against the argument that literary treatment of the Holocaust necessarily trivializes the horror. The 12 essays of A Thousand Darknesses comprise a serious attempt to examine all the implications of that stand.

She begins with the writers, like Kertesz, she calls “Witnesses.” They include Elie Wiesel and the Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski, a kapo at Auschwitz who wrote one of the first distinguished stories about the Holocaust, “This Way to the Gas,” before killing himself in 1952. Primo Levi and Jerzy Kosinski, two other witnesses, followed Borowski into suicide, though not before they had both achieved great fame (and, in Kosinski’s case, had become profoundly controversial). Franklin also discusses the work of Piotr Rawicz, another Polish writer almost wholly unknown in America.

It would be hard to imagine a more open-minded and generous critical approach than Franklin’s. She is careful to remind us that Levi rejected the public label of concentration-camp writer—and that long before Wilkomirski appeared on the scene, Kosinski had been busily and free-handedly mingling fact and fiction. She reminds us that even if much of Kosinski’s The Painted Bird was invented out of whole cloth, such invention does not detract from its value as a work of art; only in the case of Holocaust literature is the demand for biographical accuracy treated as an iron law, even when it comes to a work its own author calls a novel, like The Painted Bird.

The book’s second half is devoted to “Those Who Came After,” a category that includes figures as superficially dissimilar as Thomas Keneally (who wrote the books on which Schindler’s List was based), the bestselling Bernhard Schlink (author of The Reader), and the internationally known W.G. Sebald. Again, questions of identity and authenticity dominate: Franklin delves into Sebald’s use of Jewish characters and the minor “falsifications” (Sebald’s word) he made to many of the real-life narratives and persons filling his work with the same serious attention she pays to Keneally, a writer in no way artistically comparable with the others in the book, and his collaboration with Spielberg. (Sebald found obscene the idea of a Holocaust film “where you know the extras who get mown down will be drinking Coca-Cola after the filming.”)

Remarkably for a collection of essays, A Thousand Darknesses succeeds in forming a coherent whole that makes a powerful argument for the propriety of treating the Holocaust as a wellspring of literary art. Critical studies of this kind can often bear traces of monomania—as is the case with even so excellent an example as Patriotic Gore, Wilson’s study of Civil War writings, which becomes stultifyingly monotonous and forced at points—but A Thousand Darknesses is quite free from that. Franklin refrains from proselytizing. In her introduction, she perhaps comes the closest to open advocacy (and it’s not very close): “We do no favors to writers such as Borowski, Levi, or Wiesel when we continue to insist that their books are strictly, purely factual.” But her sympathies are nonetheless clear. (She finds even in Wiesel’s Night, commonly held up as the be-all and end-all of unadorned written testimony, a powerful artist at work under the guise of a witness.)

She gets tougher in her penultimate chapter, scathingly entitled “Identity Theft: The Second Generation.” Here she considers a number of contemporary writers who can claim only an abstract and distant relation to the Holocaust yet use it in their work to inform stories that take place decades later. Franklin does not condemn these writers—particularly the novelists Melvin Jules Bukiet and Thane Rosenbaum—out of hand. But she is nonetheless deservedly harsh in criticizing what she sees as their presumption and emotional excesses: “No reader can overlook how frequently and stridently these stories assert one overriding theme: that the Holocaust was not simply an event that happened to the previous generation, but something, as one second-generation character puts it, ‘that we went through.’ ” And she does not restrict her criticism solely to the moral side of this question. These “2-Gs” (Bukiet’s cringe-inducing epithet) come in for severe literary judgment as well. A novel by Rosenbaum has, she writes, “the tone of a manifesto”; the stories anthologized by Bukiet in his volume Nothing Makes You Free read like “rough drafts from an undergraduate fiction-writing workshop.” This, for good or ill, is as pejorative as Franklin gets; her cool-eyed study of these highly problematic works does not, in the end, lead to a definitive denunciation.

Which may be more of a problem than it seems initially. Franklin closes A Thousand Darknesses with an essay on what she calls the third generation—a group of writers that includes Foer, Nathan Englander, and Michael Chabon, who occupy a position more indeterminate than Bukiet and company in regard to the Holocaust yet are just as strongly influenced by its history. These writers, as Franklin portrays them, are still in the midst of their various attempts to come to terms with the destruction of the European Jews by bringing a purely aesthetic and highly self-aware method to this field of writing. This is connected, as Franklin sees it, to a desire to see the Holocaust not just as a Jewish event but also as a human one.

Her acceptance of this problematic interpretation makes for an oddly pious conclusion to a book so committed to an assiduous scrutiny of literary piety, and it invites the reader to ask why, after all the excellent critical work Franklin has done, she has chosen to conclude in this way. Such an ambitious book seems to require a more daring completion than Franklin’s statement that a “novel about Auschwitz . . . is a novel also about Armenia, about Siberia, about Cambodia, about Bosnia, about Darfur.” The poet Paul Celan—in a speech from which Franklin draws her book’s title—once remarked that the German language had to “pass through its own answerlessness” to come to terms with the Holocaust. Franklin’s concession to sentimental universalism gives one reason to worry that the same may be true of our own tongue as well.

About the Author

Sam Munson’s novel, The November Criminals, was published by Doubleday in the spring.

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