The Writing Life

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By Elie Wiesel
Sunday, August 14, 2005

The first book I ever wrote no longer exists. It never existed, in fact. Yet I wrote it. Of that I am sure. I was young. I had just come from celebrating my bar mitzvah. I still lived in my parents' house, in a little Jewish village tucked into the Carpathian Mountains. Assiduous student of sacred texts, I had decided to write my commentaries on the Bible.

In retrospect, I know all too well that this was more than a little foolish on my part: Weren't there enough works on the subject? There were hundreds if not thousands, written by the most illustrious minds in history. What good was one more by a naive, if brash adolescent? But at the time, I felt the need to express myself. And so, one evening I took out a pen and notebook and began writing page after page, chapter after chapter of Hebrew: the mysteries of Genesis, the story of Adam and Eve, the mortal quarrel between Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, the patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai. I stupidly believed that I could explain the inexplicable, level the insurmountable. Finishing the first of the five books of the Old Testament, I was pleased. I prepared myself for the second. And then the third. There I stopped. The Germans had arrived. And they were against the books.

Weeks later, I was among the last Jews to leave our village. We carried away all our possessions, accumulated through the centuries, in sacks on our backs. Among the things I had in my bag were a bible, a prayer book, and a tractate on the Talmud. Among the things left behind -- the clothes, scrolls, pencils and pens -- was the notebook of which I was naturally so proud.

And . . . despite all worries to the contrary, I found it. As it happened, everything else disappeared except that very first manuscript. In truth, I hadn't looked for it. I hadn't even thought to.

I returned to my village 20 years after the day I left it. Strangers lived in my house. Of the 20 or 30 synagogues of my childhood, only one was open. In the half-light of a distant room were piles of dusty books, torn to shreds, gathered from abandoned Jewish homes. I spent several hours rifling through, hoping to stumble on some of mine. No luck. I laid my hands on books belonging to neighbors, to schoolmates, but none bore my name. Suddenly, my heart began to pound with unnatural vehemence.

Mired on the floor, jutting from a cluster of soiled volumes, a corner of a denuded notebook caught my attention. It was a thing of 30 or so pages, badly stained, badly stitched: this writer's first manuscript. In its mutilated, humiliated condition, it seemed to me the very incarnation of the tragedy that had struck my town and my people. Back in the hotel room, I vowed to guard it as a treasure.

And so, ever since, it has accompanied me on my peregrinations from country to country, town to town, from one apartment to another. I haven't reread it, but for me it has become a living link to a vanished world and to those devoured in a tempest of fire and ash. Sometimes in a train station or a hotel room, when I am feeling particularly sentimental or nostalgic, I find myself caressing it, daydreaming about it as if it were a living thing, trying to recall its youth. If it responds, it is only with an air of reproach. Perhaps it is waiting for me to judge it mute and unworthy.

Frankly, I am afraid to read it. In the very heart of me I know that it has no literary weight, no analytical value. I didn't possess a sufficiently rich or profound mind -- not to mention the requisite maturity -- to offer an intelligent reader a serious, well-written contribution to that vast interpretation of ancient texts so amply provided by others.

Also, with some sadness I must confess: I've mislaid parts of it; I no longer know where or when. What do you want? -- I travel a lot. I've left too many memories in too many places.

Since then, of course, I've written a great deal, on a great deal of subjects. Is it because I fear the loss of this or that document that I've written three versions of each of my books?

Sometimes I think it's to atone for all my losses that I write so much. ยท

Translated from the French by Marie Arana.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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