A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction

By Reitter, Paul | Shofar, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction


Reitter, Paul, Shofar


A THOUSAND DARKNESSES: LIES AND TRUTH IN HOLOCAUST FICTION By Ruth Franklin. Oxford University Press, 2011. 272 pp.

The scholar James E. Young once observed, in speaking about representations of the Holocaust: "if there is a line between fiction and fact, it may by necessity be a winding border that tends to bind these categories as much as it separates them, allowing each side to dissolve occasionally into the other." If a critic accepts Young's claim, as many would, where is she left? How is she to read the work of, say, Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel simultaneously as fiction and memoir? Is it her task to distinguish falsifications of the historical record born of intellectual or aesthetic exigency from self-serving omissions and embellishments? What, moreover, about Holocaust literature that comes from authors who aren't witnesses? Those authors often see themselves as having special obligations to their material; do we agree? Does the Holocaust somehow complicate the relationship between historical fact and historical fiction?

Ruth Franklin doesn't ask her readers to take Young's words to heart until the half-way-point of her important, if very uneven new book, but they would have been an apt opening; for the questions that Young raised make up the thematic core of A Thousand Darknesses. Instead, Franklin opts for a somewhat less direct approach to introducing the challenges we face when we write about Holocaust writing: she begins by maintaining that we haven't put ourselves in a position to meet them. This move turns out not to serve her audience well. With its mix of sweeping judgments and weak argumentation, Franklin's introductory essay invites resistance, to the point of being hard to get past.

Take the essay's invocation of the Fragments affair, which comes on its first pages. After winning praise and awards in the mid-1990s, Fragments, Binjamin Wilkomirski's memoir of surviving the Holocaust as a child, was exposed as a fabrication. The success of this fake was no fluke, according to Franklin. What it shows, she insists, is that we have brought to Holocaust memoirs a surfeit of credulity, one that stands out even amidst our general readiness to embrace memoirs of woe. Never mind that Wilkomirski displayed a talent for prevarication; that we're all capable of falling for the work of gifted liars; or that it's often easy to find their stories preposterous the minute they're revealed to be untrue (we tend, after all, to want the facts of memoirs to sound like the stuff of fiction). Leaving such issues unmentioned, Franklin intones: "For the pathetic fraud perpetrated by Wilkomirski was the inevitable consequence of the way Holocaust literature has been read, discussed, and understood-in America especially, but also in Europe-over the last sixty years."

As she tries to back up her big point about how Holocaust literature has been received, Franklin gives us more of the same. For instance, she takes for granted the canonical status of Theodor Adorno's claim, "to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric," while abruptly asserting that how we use the phrase illustrates the flipside of our attitude toward Holocaust memoirs: our sloppy suspicion of Holocaust art. Sloppy, Franklin tells us, because the "original context" of Adorno's "dictum" (of 1949) is a "brand of highly ideological Marxist literary criticism, which very few of those who approvingly cite it would be likely to accept." In other words, most of the critics who go around quoting Adorno's epigram don't know what he was-and by extension, what they are-talking about. The very fact that they lean on Adorno's line proves this, since its true nature would appall them. Franklin, as intimated, doesn't provide examples of the critics she has in mind. Apparently, there's no need to. Yet later in the book, Franklin herself puts forth a very different view of Adorno's standing-without saying how we might square it with her earlier one. Indeed, she does nothing less than describe Adorno's statement about writing a poem after Auschwitz as "the straw man of Holocaust studies," who is, these days, "invoked in order to be knocked down. …

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