Page 36 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 35

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
works of fiction written since then, Wiesel made his first book,
which is also his most direct and immediate encounter with the
phantasmagoric world of the death factories, a “non-fictional”
novel. As Robert A lter has remarked, “Wiesel’s relation both to
his subject and to his craft required that, before he could invent
fiction, he should starkly record fact.”2 Wiesel’s short book ex­
presses more forcefully than any other Holocaust novel, includ­
ing the most defiantly anti-realistic ones, the extent to which
what we complacently call “reality” has now become more in­
credible than anything previously dreamt of by the most imag­
inative writer of fiction. The book merits a place in literary
history if only for rendering a final verdict on the ancient de­
bate over the nature of “rea lity” in literary characters and ac­
tions. It has taught a generation o f teachers of literature that
the actual world is so fantastic, especially in its capacity for evil,
that no literary work can be so resistant to reason and “common
sense” as the actuality it purports to describe, and that in the
post-Holocaust world books by even the most w ildly fantasizing
writers w ill fall short of breath in the effort to keep pace w ith
the fantastic quality of reality. When the narrator of the novel
sees babies thrown alive into a burning ditch, he nearly denies
his own experience as “a nightmare. . . . Soon I should wake
with a start, my heart pounding, and find myself back in the
bedroom of my childhood, among my books.” Tha t is to say,
back in the comforting realm of credible fiction rather than the
horrific one of incredible reality.
The resistance of the Holocaust to realistic treatment has led
many o f the best novelists who have dealt with it to approach
their subject symbolically and indirectly, or else to abandon the
realistic mode altogether. I shall describe briefly some major
examples of each mode of approach to the Holocaust.
ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER: THE HISTORICAL MODE
It has been said that the Holocaust casts its black shadow not
only over everything which has followed it in Jewish history but
also over much that preceded it. Some novelists have used their
knowledge of the Holocaust as the key to their imaginative re­
2
After the Tradition: Essays on Modern Jewish Writing (New York: E. P.
Dutton and Company, 1969), p. 152.