Book Review: 'A Mad Desire to Dance' by Elie Wiesel

  Enlarge Photo    
By Donna Rifkind
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 24, 2009


By Elie Wiesel

Translated from the French by Catherine Temerson

Knopf. 274 pp. $25

When writers become statesmen -- Günter Grass, say, or Nadine Gordimer -- it's easy to forget that they first connected to audiences in one-on-one encounters between author and reader. These days, we're more apt to regard the large-scale public face of Elie Wiesel: his Nobel Prize, his "Oprah" appearances, his condemnations of the Armenian and Darfur genocides, the news that his life savings were pillaged by Bernard Madoff. We're less likely to remember that "Night," Wiesel's internationally best-selling Holocaust-survival memoir, was rejected in the late 1950s by major American publishers before it finally found a home, for a $100 advance, at a courageous then-independent house called Hill & Wang. The first print run of "Night" was 3,000 copies and took three years to sell.

The publication of Wiesel's latest novel provides a good opportunity to return to that intimate connection that he first established with those few early readers of "Night." The book's style and themes will be familiar to those acquainted with his previous fiction (now 80, he has written more than 50 books), yet "A Mad Desire to Dance" shows the sensibility of a literary wanderer who has not finished searching for answers to his original anguished questions.

The new novel's narrator is 60ish Doriel Waldman, himself a certain kind of spiritual wanderer. What Doriel asks, again and again, is how he, a Holocaust survivor, can hope for faith, equanimity or even sanity during a life "amputated" by overwhelming personal suffering and loss. Like other Wiesel protagonists, he's preoccupied with madness -- his own and the world's -- and he seeks treatment in the office of Thérèse Goldschmidt, a Jewish psychotherapist who also managed to survive the war.

If nothing else, Doriel's sessions with his therapist prove how thoroughly unsatisfactory is the shorthand description "survivor." It's true that Doriel survived the war as a young child in Poland, hiding in a barn with his father while his mother, blond and passing as a gentile, traveled as a secret liaison for the Jewish Resistance. Yet for Doriel, survival has meant not triumph but a life painfully truncated. Most of his family died by the time he was 11: his two siblings as victims of the Nazis, and his parents in a car crash in France shortly after the war, preparing to make their way to Palestine.

Since childhood Doriel has drifted, staying with an uncle in Brooklyn, wandering among yeshivas in New York and Jerusalem, spending time near his parents' graves in France, alighting in Manhattan. He never managed to maintain a strong connection to another person or to lay his ghosts to rest. For what purpose has he survived? For this empty pilgrimage?

It's this mystery, and more, that Doriel dances fitfully around during his therapy sessions. There is also the question of where he acquired his considerable wealth, and the nagging suspicion, whose clues he has attempted to bury, that his mother may have had an affair during her Resistance missions. On the whole, his visits to Goldschmidt are mutually frustrating experiences. The doctor despairs of curing his bottomless despair, while the patient dodges unbearable truths in a filibuster of philosophizing and storytelling.

Some of Doriel's stories are glancingly personal, touching on several of his doomed romantic relationships, or on his spectral reconnections with other survivors. Others are woven from classical Jewish texts, for Doriel is a serious and sometimes too-fervent scholar, giving lessons to adolescents on medieval Jewish history. He's been taught that memory is the cornerstone of his religion -- over and over again in their liturgy, faithful Jews exhort themselves never to forget -- but how can one live within that faith if forgetting is the only way to endure?

This is a ruthless book, with little of the redemptive spirit that American readers have grown attached to in tales of the Holocaust. It's a difficult story, moreover, told in a difficult way, deliberately discursive and without regard for chronology. Its purpose is to disorient the reader, echoing Doriel's psychological dislocation, wandering as he wanders. The translation provides additional obstacles, distancing readers from the story with distracting word choices ("fecundated"?) and calcified dialogue.

Surprisingly, though, despite these impediments, a reader willing to navigate the thickets will find rewards. The novel's grim satisfactions lie in a sense of shared responsibility between teller and listener, a confidential yet far-reaching partnership that began four decades ago with "Night." "I tell my students and my readers," Wiesel has said, "that whoever reads or listens to a witness becomes a witness."

Rifkind is a book reviewer based in Los Angeles.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company