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A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, by Ruth Franklin. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 256 pp. $29.95.
In A Thousand Darknesses, Ruth Franklin challenges the nearly axiomatic principle proffered by Elie Wiesel and Theodor Adorno that neither fiction nor poetry can—or even should—represent the Holocaust accurately. Using terms like “documentary fiction,” “documentary novel,” “autobiographical fiction,” and “novelistic work,” Franklin justifies the de-sanctification of the survivor memoir. She sets out to prove that well-written novels and literary memoirs do treat the unimaginable both truthfully and informatively. She is courageous in her refusal to bow to “ownership” of the Holocaust as claimed by Elie Wiesel and some of his cohort of survivors and is downright contemptuous of the Second Generation’s co-optation of ownership, that is, “they identify so strongly with the sufferings of their parents as to assert themselves as witnesses to the Holocaust.” She pulls no punches in her attacks on “the most pernicious aspect of the second generation phenomenon: the virtual displacement of the survivors by their own descendants through the appropriation of Holocaust narratives.” For Franklin, Melvin Jules Bukiet is its most egregious culprit. A granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, she views her own generation of writers for whom the Holocaust is both central and backdrop as a literary critic, expecting neither fidelity nor indifference to the facts. Citing Nathan Englander’s as the “most brilliant treatment of the Holocaust in contemporary American fiction,” she goes on to find literary merit in novels and short stories of Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon.
The meat of her book, though, is her analyses of the major work of six survivors—Tadeusz Borowski, Primo Levi, Elie Weisel, Piotr Rawicz, Jerzy Kosinski, Imre Kertesz--and four writers who used survivor memoirs as the bases of their works—Thomas Keneally/Stephen Spielberg, Wolfgang Koeppen, W. G. Sebald, and Bernhard Schlink. Labeling Borowski as an “angry young man,” Franklin applauds his “utterly unforgiving way in which [his stories] portray the behavior of the prisoners toward each other,” thereby exploding myths of heroism and martyrdom and simultaneously ruining his career. Examining whether Borowski is actually the narrator of This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, Franklin praises both his lack of sentimentality and his detached voice. In the face of his recently published letters from Auschwitz recently published as well as interviews of his fellow prisoners, it is hard to merge these several characterizations with the book’s narrator. Is the book a memoir? Or an imaginative treatment of Borowski’s observations? Is its narrator a moral voice? Is Borowski’s voice a moral statement?
Her chapters on other survivor writers are no less gripping. Primo Levi’s books were “autobiographical, but they were not autobiography,” asserts Franklin. Extracting material from Levi’s works and life, Franklin finds that Levi’s writing reveals his interest in subjects other than the Holocaust, although certainly his experiences in Auschwitz color all his work. She refuses to accept his death as a suicide, pointing out that vertigo was a serious side effect of his medications. In fact, we might consider “that Auschwitz kept Levi alive for forty years as a writer. . . .” This trenchant chapter on Levi is followed by an equally insightful one on Wiesel in which Franklin points to Wiesel’s balance “between fidelity to the events it portrays and the making of literature.” Sparing no praise for Night, she explores Wiesel’s denial of his memoir as a narrative of his loss of faith, tracking the minor fracas of this denial even through the various translations of this influential memoir. There are no weak chapters in A Thousand Darknesses, but among those that stand out is her extended analysis of Schindler’s Ark/Schindler’s List. Franklin tracks the history of the book and the film, explaining how the changes that Keneally and Spielberg made were appropriate for their respective media; in doing so, she keeps her readers aware of both the power and cost of the application of imagination to historical fact. In this chapter, she raises the issue of the moral quandary inherent in Holocaust representation to a new level: imaginative treatments educate an otherwise unfamiliar audience to the subject and simultaneously risk oversimplifying and fictionalizing an extremely complex event to the point of making it fodder for Holocaust deniers, a risk Franklin dismisses as ridiculous.
Franklin’s meticulous research is reflected in the rest of the book as she shows how memoirs and other supposedly authentic works have benefitted from imaginative literary editing while, at the same time, she exposes survivor imposters. However, her brilliant, thoroughly accessible interpretations notwithstanding, A Thousand Darknesses frustrates serious students because it is not documented, nor is there even a rudimentary bibliography, most probably because most of the chapters began life as articles in The New Republic, where Franklin is a senior editor and literary critic. Moreover, Franklin’s readers would assume that only men wrote “significant” (Oxford University Press touts the book as an investigation of the “most significant” works) memoirs or novels; except for a brief discussion of the imposter survivor Carl Friedman—a non-Jewish Dutch writer whose real name is Carolina Klop—and a couple of passing references to Cynthia Ozick, we have no analyses of major women survivor authors, Ida Fink or Charlotte Delbo, for example. And my discomfort with Franklin’s use of the word perished where murdered is more accurate is a minor quibble. A Thousand Darknesses is a welcome addition to the growing but not crowded shelf of Holocaust literary criticism.
Montgomery College, Maryland