The Subject of Holocaust Fiction

The Subject of Holocaust Fiction

The Subject of Holocaust Fiction

The Subject of Holocaust Fiction

Synopsis

Fictional representations of horrific events run the risk of undercutting efforts to verify historical knowledge and may heighten our ability to respond intellectually and ethically to human experiences of devastation. In this captivating study of the epistemological, psychological, and ethical issues underlying Holocaust fiction, Emily Miller Budick examines the subjective experiences of fantasy, projection, and repression manifested in Holocaust fiction and in the reader’s encounter with it. Considering works by Cynthia Ozick, Art Spiegelman, Aharon Appelfeld, Michael Chabon, and others, Budick investigates how the reading subject makes sense of these fictionalized presentations of memory and trauma, victims and victimizers.

Excerpt

It has been many years since Holocaust fiction has had to establish its legitimacy against the charge that a fictional text is either inadequate, inappropriate, or even endangering to the task of representing the Nazi genocide of the Second World War. Yet some of the issues raised in relation to what exactly an artistic representation may be understood to be representing, and at what cost, remain pertinent to our fullest appreciation of the best Holocaust literature. If this body of texts is to become an inseparable part of the literary canon and not just a set of special writings to which we grant a privileged status because of the gravity of the events they record (not to mention their relative historical proximity), then establishing the credentials of these texts on more purely aesthetic and literary grounds becomes imperative. This is not to say that preserving the texts’ relationship to the events that produced them in the first place is not an equally important goal. the preservation of historical knowledge is an essential objective for any culture. in the case of the Holocaust, as with other fraught historical catastrophes, casting doubt on whether events occurred and dismissing the gravity of their consequences for real human beings and communities are anathema both to the writers of the texts and to the participants in the events that the texts fictionalize. This is equally true, one hopes, for readers. Nonetheless, the preservation of historicity may not be the primary province of literary fictions. Indeed, it may be in the very nature of fiction to trouble the waters of historical validity and veracity. Literary texts, whatever their subjects and ethical goals, function in specifically literary ways. and that might well mean that their narrative procedures clash with their historical aspirations.

In the following pages I argue that Holocaust fiction, no less than great fiction generally, proceeds through the flawed, often faulty subjectivities of its characters. This prominence of the subjectivity of characters (even in dire circumstances, the historical accuracy of which is not up for dispute) produces in readers a heightened sense of their own subjectivity in relation to what they are reading, as well as to their perceptions of reality generally. Until now, most critics of Holocaust fiction, whatever their particular theoretical frameworks or selec-

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