Ruth Franklin's A Thousand Darknesses,' on Holocaust fiction

By Susie Linfield
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; 4:11 PM

A THOUSAND DARKNESSES: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, By Ruth Franklin, Oxford Univ. 256 pp. $29.95

Addressing the Holocaust - in literature, in films, in music, in paintings - presents writers and readers, artists and audiences, with an irresolvable paradox. Any attempt to describe the suffering of the victims will fail, yet we must not forget the suffering of the victims. Any attempt to make the event linear and coherent is false, yet the event must be understood. There is something creepy about turning mass murder into art. "To write about atrocity is impossible," Ruth Franklin admits in "A Thousand Darknesses," an illuminating meditation on the special obligations and thorny contradictions of Holocaust novels. "Yet not to write about it - though to do so is absurd, obscene, repugnant, insect-like - is equally impossible." The moral nobility of Franklin's book lies in its willingness to confront this impossibility head-on - and blissfully free of dogma, guilt and sanctimony - without offering comforting, false or easy solutions.

Franklin considers a range of narrative approaches to the Holocaust, including the alienating realism of Polish journalist Tadeusz Borowski, the understated irony of Hungarian novelist Imre Kertesz, and the humane rationalism of Primo Levi (though the Levi memoir on which she focuses is not fiction). She looks at each work with fresh eyes rather than imposing predetermined theories on them. Franklin is especially adept at analyzing how a book works - how it creates trust, or sorrow, or disquiet in the reader. Of Elie Wiesel's "Night," she observes: "By refusing to add the rationality of explanation or the cynicism of hindsight, Night takes us back to its terrible story with something resembling innocence." This is an innocence, of course, that Wiesel's readers must and will lose.

But Franklin's aim is larger than literary criticism. She wants to rescue us - writers and readers - from a tangle of related, pernicious ideas: that it is wrong to make art out of the Holocaust; that survivor testimony is the only authentic - and non-exploitative - way to approach it; that the survivors and their children - or, perhaps, all Jews - "own" the experience; and that the event is essentially untouchable. In literature, the major proponent of these ideas is, in fact, Wiesel (in film, it is Claude Lanzmann), and Franklin is sober but gutsy in her critique of him.

Wiesel, she charges, has removed the Holocaust from history - which is to say, from the human - and transformed it into metaphysics. "The result has been the casting of a kind of mystic spell upon the Holocaust. . . . There is something priestly about Wiesel's insistence in guarding the Temple against those who would desecrate it, but there is also something totalitarian about it." It is time, Franklin writes, to stop regarding imagination as a form of sin, analysis as a form of blasphemy, criticism as a form of denial.

Franklin argues, too, against the equation of suffering with insight or goodness. In this light, she is repelled by some of the writings by children of Holocaust survivors, who, she charges, cannibalize the torment of their parents and have created a literature of didactic kitsch. She is almost apoplectic in her discussion of the writer Melvin Jules Bukiet, who is guilty, in her view, not just of bad writing but of taking an "outrageous . . . deranged pride" in his parents' trauma.

There are a few places where Franklin falters. She makes the odd, easily refuted claim that "no memoir can be at once an unerring representation of reality and a genuine artistic achievement." She writes that Hannah Arendt was "incredulous" that the seemingly prosaic Adolf Eichmann "could have been responsible for such extraordinary crimes" - when it is precisely this incredulity that Arendt scorned and upon which, she believed, the Eichmann trial faltered. (Nor did Eichmann mount a Nuremberg-style defense, at least in Arendt's telling.) And Franklin's observation that literature can restore the victims "to life - although in somewhat different form" is strangely evasive, for no matter how many books are written, the murdered remain murdered, forever unredeemed.

But Franklin explicates her central ideas with a piercing, graceful lucidity. Fiction, she insists, contains its own kind of truth, one that connects us - or at least begins to connect us - to each other's histories and each other's pain; to write novels after Auschwitz is therefore anything but barbaric. Great literature is always specific, yet it negates the concept of the unique, for "literature . . . ultimately makes a case for universality. Art makes comparisons; it encourages empathy."

"A Thousand Darknesses" demands that we remove the artistic and critical do-not-enter signs that have been erected around the Holocaust. Ruth Franklin has written a beautiful book that addresses the ugliest of subjects, proving, once more, that it can be done.

Susie Linfield is the author of "The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence." She directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program in the journalism department at New York University.

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