Page 62 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 27

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SUFFERING AND FERVOR IN WIESEL ’ S
THE GATES OF THE FOREST
B
y
I
r v in g
H
a l p er in
E
l ie
W
iesel
is widely acclaimed as the greatest of the novelists
in holocaust literature and yet, despite such recognition, his
work has been sharply criticized on the grounds that it suffers
from overstatement and a lack of literary inventiveness. Such
evaluation underscores the complicated question of how one is to
judge works of fiction in holocaust literature; given the nature
of their content, it is very difficult to look at them simply as
products of the literary imagination. Even if it were possible to do
so, what literary criteria would one invoke in evaluating them?
Should a book like, say,
Night
be subjected to the same kinds of
critical standards one would refer to in considering a Hemingway
or a Scott F. Fitzgerald novel? Is one to argue that precisely
because a work of holocaust literature is boiling with the author’s
compulsion to bear witness, he ought to impose an astringently
formal structure upon it?
The eminent critic, David Daiches, has suggested one kind
of response to these questions. In a review (
Commentary,
Decem­
ber 1965) of
The Gates of the Forest
he writes:
It is impossible to discuss Wiesel’s novels in the terms which
one would normally employ in reviewing fiction. All his works
are clearly autobiographical, directly or indirectly, and they
represent a genuine and sometimes painful endeavor to come
to terms with post-Auschwitz life. The problem they deal with
is central in modern experience, so that we are continually
led as we read to go beyond the novels, to reflect on how we
ourselves should think or feel on this issue. They are thus
important documents of modern consciousness and as such
they ought to command the widest possible audience. As for
myself, I would go further and confess that I cannot tell
and I do not care whether these are great novels. But they
are certainly important evidence, great documents, dealing
with something which must perpetually haunt everyone old
enough to have lived through World War II.
Not so much as literary works, then, but rather as important docu­
ments of modern consciousness—that is how Daiches would reply
to critics who raise the question of Wiesel’s works—“ But are they
art?”
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