The Anvil and the Crucible
“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.”