Truth above Facts

Ruth Franklin presents nuanced and intelligent readings of Holocaust literature

H.G. Adler (photo credit: Courtesy)
H.G. Adler
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“A THOUSAND DARKNESSES” is a series of essays, most of which originally appeared in “The New Republic,” where the author Ruth Franklin is a senior editor. The essays focus on the legitimacy and value of imaginative writing arising out of the Holocaust. The first part of the book deals with works produced by Holocaust survivors, the second part with writing (and film) produced by children of survivors and others.
The inquiry that Franklin undertakes does not seem a matter of any particular urgency. But Franklin is about as rare a literary analyst as one could wish for. She’s an astute and close reader; she’s sensible and patently very smart. She expresses her opinions forcefully and backs them up convincingly. She obviously has researched her field exceedingly well. Just to top things off, Franklin has a graceful and often sprightly prose style.
Franklin deals with several of the hoary questions that have percolated over the years regarding Holocaust literature, questions that occasionally do nag at readers. Is it indeed “barbaric,” as German philosopher Theodor Adorno once asserted, to create poetry in the post-Auschwitz era? (Might it be more barbaric not to?) Isn’t Holocaust fiction by its nature deficient in veracity? (Memoirs and even histories have no monopoly on truth.) Must one have actually been in a concentration camp to write truthfully about that experience? (One of the greatest of all war novels, “The Red Badge of Courage,” was written by a man who never bore arms.) Doesn’t fictionalizing the Holocaust assist Holocaust deniers? (Holocaust deniers are concerned with neither fact nor fiction.) Doesn’t exploiting the Holocaust for artistic purposes trivialize the Shoah? (Bad art does, good art does not.)
These and similar questions constitute the themes of “A Thousand Darknesses,” but be assured that Franklin does not deal with them in the glib manner above. Instead, following on the work of such outstanding commentators as Lawrence Langer (“Holocaust and the Literary Imagination”) and Inga Clendinnen (“Reading the Holocaust”), Franklin gives her chosen works highly nuanced and intelligent readings.
I especially appreciated her considered judgments: Elie Wiesel is a fine writer and a muddled thinker; Jerzy Kosinski was an extraordinary writer and an extraordinary fraud; sons of Holocaust survivors like Melvin Jules Bukiet and Thane Rosenbaum produce shabby works through which the authors revel in an appropriated victimhood. (The insufferable Bukiet proudly uses his father’s tattoo number as his ATM passcode.) She also skewers Bernhard Schlink (“The Reader” and “Homecoming”) for what she suggests is his almost perniciously garbled Holocaust philosophizing. And she presents a fascinating report on the tortured publishing history of Jakob Littner’s “Notes from a Hole in the Ground,” a book that was initially perceived as wonderful fiction but was later revealed, to the dismay of many, to be a mere memoir, and thereby constituting a sort of reversal of Kosinski’s “Painted Bird” controversy.
“A Thousand Darknesses” (the phrase comes from Paul Celan) is the kind of study that sends the reader hurrying back to familiar writers (Levi, Wiesel, Kosinski, Tadeusz Borowski, Imre Kertesz) and makes readers eager to discover lesser known figures. In this regard the volume would have benefited from a bibliography. The collection of previously published material also admits some repetitions and an occasional lapse. As an example of both slips, Franklin refers no fewer than three times to A. Alvarez’s “famous” remark on Elie Wiesel’s “Night.” Franklin evidently believes the remark so famous that she needn’t tell us where it appeared until the third time round. (It was in “Commentary.”) Nor does Franklin bother to tell us when the “famous” remark was published. (Happily, I found the essay collected in Alvarez’s collection, “Beyond All This Fiddle.” The answer is 1964, and the statement was that “Night” was “beyond criticism.”
But these are quibbles. “A Thousand Darknesses” remains a superbly intelligent discussion of Holocaust literature, and not incidentally a passionate argument for the application of the literary imagination to historical events. It’s in the hands of the literary artist, Franklin insists, that truth rises above mere facts.
SHORTLY AFTER THE RELEASE OF “A Thousand Darknesses,” Ruth Franklin published an article in “The New Yorker” in which, among other things, she waxed ecstatic about H.G. Adler’s “Panorama,” a Holocaust novel unmentioned in her book. I immediately acquired “Panorama.” After reading it I immediately parted company with Franklin.
If Franklin’s thesis is that literary art is as good if not better than history or memoir when it comes to evoking the reality of the Holocaust, “Panorama” will certainly not serve as Exhibit A. “Panorama” is crafted with literary artistry all right; the novel is drenched in it. Symbols, motifs and high-style language crowd every page. The title refers to a magic lantern slideshow that the protagonist, Josef Kramer, views as a child in an unnamed city very much like Adler’s native Prague. (Josef K. from Prague, get it?) Each of the book’s 10 chapters is accordingly fashioned as a succeeding slide of Josef’s life: his school days, his year as a farm worker, his times with a scouting troop, his job as a tutor and on through to his nightmare existence as a slave laborer and his ultimate survival of the Nazi horror.
All of these autobiographical moments are evoked with detail that attests to a man endowed with prodigious powers of recall (although Adler is studiously vague on places, dates, etc.). Problem is, little of the material is of much interest, that is, until Josef finds himself in a labor camp near Buchenwald – and there the graphic detail threatens to rattle even the most hardened of Holocaust scholars. Yet recollection overload isn’t this novel’s primary failing. That judgment is reserved for the prose. For some ungodly reason, Adler chose to tell his story in the original German (reflected in this English translation) in a nearly unbroken procession of artificially stylized, clotted and run-on sentences. Here’s a snippet from the concentration camp:
“The gallows music dies away and again there is silence, no, not complete silence, there is heavy breathing, a whistling throaty gurgle, forty bodies stretched out dead to the world, neither asleep nor awake, simply lying there, time having abandoned them, neither living nor dead, though one can also say that many are alive and some are indeed dead, it being hard to make out in the darkness who is dead and who is alive. Nothing else is here, only bodies, and the room is made of wood, above, below, all four walls are made out of wood, the wood is planed bare, it looks reddish brown in the light, clearly new wood that not long ago was still in the forest, there where the trees had been felled, soft, thin boards cut from their trunks…”
OK, sure, the prose might reflect the disorientation of the camp inmate. But as noted, such language permeates every chapter, from the protagonist’s childhood onward. And by the last section, where Josef sits in repose and reflection in a placid corner of England, the sentences teeter on gibberish:
“Josef feels that his thinking is approaching the limits of what is permissible, but he also believes that he is alive only because of an act of grace, and to him it seems that the grace experienced by an individual cannot exist without limitations. Since man is an individual, he cannot experience the grace of another. Therefore the freedom of the individual is always more limited than the grace afforded a community of people, whereby the freedom that courses through all of its members in unknowable measures is made manifest, while the grace experienced by the individual can indeed have an effect on the world, though it remains undefined. The individual is created in the same way as all of his fellow beings, which is why each person and all people and presumably the entire world are accountable, he being an accessory to everything that happens in the world, in much the same way that he wants to be part of any of the benefits accrued in the world…”
Four hundred and fifty pages of such writing make for a wearying slog indeed. Hans Gunther Adler (1910-1988) was raised in an assimilated German-Jewish family in Prague. (Jewishness is barely touched upon in “Panorama” until the concentration camp scenes.) Adler is chiefly remembered for “Theresina 1941-1945,” a meticulously researched history of that prison camp that he published shortly after the war. He wrote “Panorama,” the first of a half-dozen novels, in 1948, but couldn’t find a publisher for it until 1968. It was translated into English only just recently. The book certainly has some striking scenes. But, pace Ruth Franklin, I can’t believe it will be regarded the “modernist masterpiece” she declares it to be. Although it would not be the first modernist masterpiece that also happens to be an exhausting effort to read.