A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction

A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction

A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction

A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction


What is the difference between writing a novel about the Holocaust and fabricating a memoir? Do narratives about the Holocaust have a special obligation to be 'truthful'--that is, faithful to the facts of history? Or is it okay to lie in such works? In her provocative study Persistence of Vision, Ruth Franklin investigates these questions as they arise in the most significant works of Holocaust fiction, from Tadeusz Borowski's Auschwitz stories to Jonathan Safran Foer's postmodernist family history. Franklin argues that the memory-obsessed culture of the last few decades has led us to mistakenly focus on testimony as the only valid form of Holocaust writing. As even the most canonical texts have come under scrutiny for their fidelity to the facts, we have lost sight of the essential role that imagination plays in the creation of any literary work, including the memoir. Taking a fresh look at memoirs by Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, and examining novels by writers such as Piotr Rawicz, Jerzy Kosinski, W.G. Sebald, and Wolfgang Koeppen, Franklin makes a persuasive case for literature as an equally vital vehicle for understanding the Holocaust (and for memoir as an equally ambiguous form). The result is a study of immense depth and range that offers a lucid view of an often cloudy field.


“How can one write music after Auschwitz?” inquired Adorno….

“And how can you eat lunch?” the American poet Mark Strand once

—Joseph Brodsky, Nobel Lecture, 1987

I believe that we can promise to tell the truth; I believe in the transparency
of language, and in the existence of a complete subject who expresses himself
through it; I believe that my proper name guarantees my autonomy and my
singularity… I believe that when I say “I,” it is I who am speaking: I believe
in the Holy Ghost of the first person. And who doesn’t believe in it ? But of
course it also happens that I believe the contrary, or at least claim to believe it.

—Philippe Lejeune, “The Autobiographical Pact (bis)”

In the late 1990s, more than fifty years after the end of the war, Holocaust memoirs were guaranteed an uncritical reception: responses to them tended to range anywhere on the spectrum from respectful attention to outright fawning. But one book was greeted with a level of excitement unusual even for those enthusiastic times. Its author was compared to Jean Améry, Paul Celan, and Primo Levi. The historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, who was among the first to testify to its importance, wrote that “even those conversant with the literature of the Holocaust will be educated by this arresting book.”

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