Remembering Elie Wiesel, Novelist
Elie Wiesel’s reputation as a storyteller is deserved; the activity, in various forms, occupied the bulk of his adult life. Yet it’s nonetheless somewhat misplaced. As far as the world is concerned, Wiesel was an activist, a kind of public historian of his own experience during the Holocaust. Sometimes those of others—but always of real occurrences.
Above all, Wiesel was a novelist. The bulk of his career, the overwhelming majority of his literary output—the stories he told—were not his own, but openly and explicitly fictional. Another way of putting this is to note that there is a difference in form (not merely style) between Wiesel and, say, Primo Levi. (Even Levi’s one novel was inspired by and tracks with specific historical facts.) And now, amid the obituaries and retrospectives, I suspect that we’ve misunderstood his career in some way. No one asks why Wiesel turned to fiction—to the novel—to tell not his own story, but those of others who, though like many who existed, did not themselves exist.
I read, now, that Wiesel’s prose is not good, veering between the pedestrian and purple with few grace notes between. This may be true; I haven’t read any of his works, except Night (and then only to teach it) since high school. My reading fixated on him between the ages of fourteen and sixteen: he was my introduction to surrealism and existentialism in fiction given to philosophizing tangents—to what we still sometimes call the “European” novel. But then I encountered Sartre and Dostoevsky and (save a few resonant passages in All Rivers Run to the Sea, a late-life memoir), I never looked back.
What I took from Wiesel’s novels was not prose style but an impulse that storytelling is governed by ethics, that oughts apply even to it, that it works to shape the moral imagination of its readers—and even of its writer. Among the risks of truly transgressive literature is that beyond merely violating strictures of form and content, it might work, even against itself, to subvert this moral imagination. And Wiesel’s novels, time and again, circle around the questions of whether telling the stories of abhorrent transgressions against morality can themselves be considered in some way transgressive—and whether that quality can be said, with any consistency, to operate for good or for ill.
This question isn’t hard to find in his works. The Accident, The Fifth Son, Twilight, The Forgotten, and A Beggar in Jerusalem (to quickly list a few) all take up, as an explicit theme, the ethics of storytelling. Wiesel did not simply tell stories about the Holocaust: he told stories about telling stories about the Holocaust. A comprehensive study of this is beyond me at the moment: it’s the subject of a piece for which one might be paid—or (God forbid) an academic monograph. Besides, I’d have to do far too much re-reading. Instead, I’m going to focus on the novel of his that first truly fixated me, The Oath. (There exists, somewhere in the bowels of my hard drive, a file of a few dozen pages of an adolescent novel that apes its style without conviction or convincing.)
For the first eighty-seven pages of The Oath, the primary narrator refuses to narrate. An old man by this point, Azriel is the sole survivor of the pogrom that destroyed the Jewish community of an Eastern European town named Kolvillag. Their story is easily abstracted from Jewish history: a Christian boy is murdered; the town’s Jews are accused of a ritual slaughter; Easter approaches; a pogrom ensues. Moshe, the town beggar-madman-mystic (a central and recurring type in Wiesel’s novels), decides to confess to the murder in an attempt to sacrifice himself and save the community. (It fails, of course.) But Moshe is also convinced that the only way to break the cycle of violence against Jews is to stop remembering through storytelling. “Words have been our weapon,” he rants, “our shield; the tale, our lifeboat. And we wanted those words strong, stronger than our foes, stronger than death. Since someone would be left to tell of the ordeal, it meant that we had won in advance.” This is not an anti-victimhood diatribe: Moshe in fact sees this role as a necessary, establishing the Jewish people as “mankind’s memory and heart” (238); silence represents an abdication this role as well as that of “other nations’ laughingstock” (239), through which they can change the repeated course of history.
History, for Moshe, is a story; so, one suspects, is the simple act of living. “Man has only one story to tell,” he says, “though he tells it in a thousand different ways: tortures, persecutions, manhunts, ritual murders, mass terror. It has been going on for centuries, for centuries players on both sides have played the same roles” (236-7). The only story they can tell is a transgressive one—and one that, Moshe feels, the cycles of history has borne out as subversive to the cultivation of morality.
The framing story is the inverse of this. Azriel, now an old man, presumably in the U.S. or Western Europe, draws the attention of a suicidal youth and, having become his primary fixation among the living, must decide whether to give in to repeated demands to tell the story that haunts him. Ultimately, after four score pages of protest, Azriel decides that this is enough: “To turn a single human being back toward life is to prevent the destruction of the world, says the Talmud. Do something good and God up there will imitate you; do something evil and suddenly the scale will tip the other way. Let me succeed in diverting death from this boy and we shall win” (80). In the face of the particular—the prevention of a certain single death—the abstract principle—the possibility that all future attacks on Jews might someday be prevented by this example—folds.
At this juncture, we can choose the degree to which the Holocaust and Wiesel’s status as survivor and advocate must affect the novel’s meaning. Leon Wieseltier, offering a harsh review in Commentary at the time of the novel’s 1973 publication, offers one path:
This is a book, then, about the predicament of its author. Azriel is Wiesel, who feels responsible for the perpetuation of the memory of the Holocaust, for whom that memory has become coterminous with existence itself. His story, he believes, can somehow reach the sources of other people’s pain—beyond the cathartic, the telling of the story has an almost redemptive power. He writes out of an allegiance to both the dead and the living. The author is very ambitious: he casts himself in a dramatic role which is for him of great significance and force. But it is a role which he cannot convincingly fill, which, sadly, very quickly becomes no more than a posture.
This is true enough—perhaps even the judgment on Wiesel’s craftsmanship as a novelist which, were I to sit down with The Oath for a leisurely read again, I might well find wanting. (But perhaps I wouldn’t: there’s certainly irony in reading the youthful Wieseltier condemn the “purple flourishes” of someone else’s prose.)
Wiesel’s reputation almost demands that the pogrom which destroys Kolvillag be read metaphorically: the story of the Holocaust must be told despite its pain in order to prevent civilization from murdering itself. But if this is all there is to it, why fiction for Wiesel? As he fashioned himself a novelist, Jean Amery, Primo Levi, Charlotte Delbo, Emmanuel Levinas, and Emil Fackenheim all found ways—through theory, memoir, theology, history—to address similar questions.
There’s another dynamic at play, beyond the oath Azriel has made to Moshe, which points beyond this reading. Azriel is afraid of betraying his former friend and teacher, as well as those who perished. But he is also afraid of the danger he will do to himself by telling the story: “Now do you understand what makes me so anxious?” he asks his interlocutor. “I am afraid to lose my mind by expressing the ineffable, by naming the unnameable. I am afraid to say that which ought to remain unsaid, that which cannot be said. I am afraid to die mad” (81).
Moshe is right in one regard: to tell the story, even to save a life, is to transgress. Azriel’s fear is that, in doing so, he will subvert his own moral imagination: he will go mad. From this perspective, The Oath isn’t simply a Holocaust story; the meta-textual debate about storytelling also refers to the telling of even the most repulsive stories—not that they must always be told, but that certain, precise situations may demand even those which otherwise would drive one mad. To say this is to remember that it was a chance encounter that requires Azriel to tell his story: this youth in particular needed the jolt to his moral imagination that this particular story would provide—precisely because, the final pages make clear, Azriel has made it clear that he sincerely believes he is not allowed to tell it.
Others have theorized the role of storytelling, and of the novel in particular, to ethics, to conduct, to manners and morals—and even that old-fashioned thing that it sometimes seems only novelists believe in anymore, the human soul. (Cynthia Ozick’s essay “Metaphor and Memory” is my usual touchstone for this, but she is not alone.) My point, moreover, isn’t to say that Wiesel was among the first, or only, or the best to articulate this belief in fiction during the postwar period. Mark Greif, the editor of n+1 and professor of literary studies at The New School, has published a very thick book—The Age of the Crisis of Man—devoted to this very phenomenon.
Elie Wiesel did not merely possess a vision of the role of Holocaust memory within civilization. He also possessed a vision of the role of Holocaust metaphor, of the role of the novel generally. And because his fiction was the place I first encountered this view of the novel and novelist’s duty and purpose, that which Ozick calls “nothing less than literary seriousness, which is unquestionably a branch of life-seriousness,” I’ll remember Wiesel equally for both.