This book is by Ruth Franklin, a senior editor and literary critic at The New Republic. It was published in November, 2010 by Oxford University Press. It is on 272 pages long, but it is packed with thoughtful writing on what Ms. Franklin terms "Holocaust fiction." It confronts the issues squarely and spares the feelings of no one who thinks they are the gatekeepers of the Holocaust, whether they are survivors or are from subsequent generations. These issues are important, not only for the history of the Holocaust, but, also, for dealing with more recent massacres, such as the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
The first section of the book contains chapters on many of the best-known writers of fiction about the era or set in its time. The chapter titles resonate with their names: Tadeusz Borowski, Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Piotr Rawicz, Jerzy Kosinski, and Imre Kertész. One of the important points the author makes is that there is no single viewpoint of this event which took place across thousands of square kilometers of the European continent, extending even beyond Europe. Using the famous Theodor Adorno quotation about poetry and Auschwitz as a point of departure she explores the resonance and the chilling effect that this quotation has had on creative approaches to fiction of the Holocaust.† She confronts the various arguments for controlling the message, such as the use that Holocaust deniers might make of disagreements or discrepancies between writers. She even confronts the suggestion that only survivors may write of these events, a viewpoint which is especially evident in Elie Wiesel's writing and in his public statements.
Each chapter is a considered exploration of the writers and the various controversies which have swirled around them. In all cases Ms. Franklin seems to argue for an open-minded, liberal approach to the aesthetic that we bring to such writing. No Holocaust fiction can be entirely "true"; each piece of writing is a work of art, that is, it is honed and polished with a literary eye. She is generous, too, to Jerzy Kosinski, whose responses to criticisms and questions was decidedly mixed. She considers him in this section with other survivors, even though some would place him squarely in the fake class with Benjamin Wilkomirski and Carl Friedman.
The second section is entitled "Those Who Came After" and covers the best-known of the artists who are not survivors themselves: Thomas Keneally and Steven Spielberg, Wolfgang Koeppen, W. G. Sebald, and Bernhard Schlink. Her analysis of both the novel Schindler's Ark and the film Schindler's List is intriguing and explores the reality of Oskar Schindler's character, less attractive in some ways than in the screenplay, and the liberties that Spielberg took with it. She takes an open-minded view of the controversy involving Wolfgang Koeppen and his creation of a novel from the memoir of Jakob Littner. This is one of the most intriguing sections of the book and draws us deep into the ethical and aesthetic dilemmas that confront the reader in this most contentious of fields. Ms. Franklin is a proponent of the late W.G. Sebald's work and is not fond of the work of Bernhard Schlink. Her analysis of the latter's work, especially The Reader points up the questionable nature of the conclusions that she believes Schlink would like us to draw from his work.
The last chapter in this section, entitled "Identity Theft: The Second Generation", explores two areas. First is the topic of authors who misrepresent their past, such as Benjamin Wilkomirski, author of Fragments, and Carl Friedman, author of Nightfather. Second is the topic of children of survivors, some of whom claim the name "survivor" for themselves, because of the psychic damage done to them in growing up in their parents' households. Ms. Franklin has little patience with this derivative survivorship.
Her conclusion, a chapter entitled "The Third Generation," among whose number Ms. Franklin counts herself, covers writers such as Nathan Englander, especially his story "The Tumblers," Jonathan Safran Foer and his novel Everything is Illuminated
, as well as Michael Chabon, whose work ranges from the possible, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
, to the wildly imaginative, The Yiddish Policeman's Union
. One of the most powerful and moving sentences in the book is found in this chapter. She believes that, in order to create "images and words with lasting power...we have to overcome our fear that 'the telling of beautiful untrue things'—Wilde's classic definition of fiction—is the same as desecration, trespass, lying: a means, even of Holocaust denial." (p. 237)
This is an important book. It forces us to confront our relationship with history, the persons who have lived through that history, and with the artists who would interpret that history. It is a complex and engrossing question, admirably served by Ms. Franklin's elegant, informative work.
†Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch ("To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.") The quote should be understood in the context of a "highly ideological Marxist literary criticism in which the Holocaust serves as the ultimate paradigm of the intersection between culture and barbarism." (p. 2) It is understood instead, as Ms. Franklin points out, as an injunction against any creative writing about the Holocaust, which would be seen as "aestheticizing horror."