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Reviewed by:
  • Langages du désastre: Robert Antelme, Anna Langfus, André Schwarz-Bart, Jorge Semprun, Elie Wiesel
  • Ferzina Banaji
Langages du désastre: Robert Antelme, Anna Langfus, André Schwarz-Bart, Jorge Semprun, Elie Wiesel. By Joë Friedemann. Saint-Genouph: Nizet, 2007. 174 pp. Pb €19.00.

Joë Friedemann’s Langages du désastre seeks to identify the shape of the language used by the survivors of Nazi deportations. This is an ambitious task, given the (over-)use of the sense of the ineffable that haunts such texts and the notion that literary representation inevitably falls short when attempting to depict that which beggars description. The book offers a critical examination of concentrationnaire writing, which Friedemann is at pains to distinguish from Holocaust texts (those limited to the experiences of Jewish deportees) and which is why he uses the term ‘désastre’ rather than ‘Shoah’ or ‘Holocaust’ to determine the scope of his book. While a useful distinction, it is less than perfectly fleshed out, and is more than somewhat problematic in the context of his discussion of the œuvres of Elie Wiesel (mitigated only partially on pp. 152–54), André Schwarz-Bart, and Anna Langfus, given that these are texts inescapably imbued with their authors’ awareness of what it meant to be Jewish in Nazi Europe. This criticism aside, Friedemann’s book offers a rich and compelling study of a writing beyond words. His starting point is the examination of the paradoxical task facing the author-witness of speaking about what happened while simultaneously being limited or controlled by an obligation to silence. He offers Robert Antelme and Jorge Semprun as prime examples of working through this paradox, citing passages where the authors, having confronted the unknowing world with their store of terrible knowledge, find their efforts frustrated by indifferent reactions. Antelme’s response in his L’Espèce humaine, published just after the war (1947), was to push language to its limits by using the literary word to strike out against forgetting, thereby deeming language a signifier of biblical proportions: in the beginning there was Auschwitz. Semprun’s trajectory differed slightly in that he waited a number of years before publishing Le Grand Voyage (1963) and still longer before the now canonical L’Écriture ou la vie (1994). His initial response, Friedemann shows, was to choose silence as his only means of survival. Silence allowed for the later contemplative reflection on the nature of the witness, the exigencies of memory, and the self-conscious [End Page 366] assertion of testimony within literature. Friedemann’s analysis of Wiesel’s La Nuit trilogy asserts that after the word there is silence, and after silence, the gaze: from Moshe the Beadle, whose Cassandra-like visions haunt the text, to Elisha, who in the aftermath of Auschwitz faces down his fears. The weight of the past literally obliterates the present and shapes the future in Wiesel’s world. References to laughter are four times more common than tears in Schwarz-Bart’s Le Dernier des justes. Friedemann’s analysis thus also affirms the poignancy of the tragicomic within désastre writing in its examination of instances of laughter, irony, sarcasm, and humour. The analysis of Langfus’s œuvre returns to the theme of silence, events are once again untranslatable, and words struggle to provide meaning. Friedemann’s success arises from the fact that he provides an analytical alternative to the idea of the indescribable, suggesting that, within the varied pathways for author-witnesses of désastre, even silence can speak.

Ferzina Banaji
Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge


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pp. 366-367
Launched on MUSE
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