restricted access Mapping the Lines of Fact and Fiction in Holocaust Testimonial Novels
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53 Mapping the Lines of Fact and Fiction in Holocaust Testimonial Novels Anna Richardson In the case of an event as extreme as the Holocaust, one could be forgiven for presupposing that the boundary between factual and fictional modes of representation is sacred in its rigidity. However, it is often the case with survivor narratives that this expectation is far too proscriptive in its division of the realms of fact and fiction; as James E. Young comments, "If there is a line between fact and fiction, it may by necessity be a winding border that tends to bind these two categories as much as it separates them, allowing each side to dissolve occasionally into the other" (52). Here, I examine the nature of the apparent "no-man's land" between fact and fiction that arises in the literary writing of several Central and Eastern European Holocaust survivors in comparison with texts written by authors of Western Europe in an attempt to define the relationship between testimony and literature that is constructed within such narratives. Identifying the Holocaust narratives of authors such as Wiesel , Perec, Levi, and Delbo as forming a sub-genre of "testimonial fiction," I analyze the interplay between fact and fiction within these texts, in addition to viewing them in relation to texts that would be better defined as "fictional testimonies," such as Kosinski's The Painted Bird. What place (if any) do texts such as these hold within the canon of Holocaust representation? And how can we position ourselves as readers of Holocaust narratives that may, or may not, be based in fact? Indeed, for some scholars, "factual" historical representation provides the only appropriate means of commemoration, as Sue Vice comments: "Holocaust fictions . . . invariably provoke controversy by inspiring repulsion and acclaim in equal measure . To judge by what many critics have to say, to write Holocaust fictions is tantamount to making a fiction of the Holocaust" (1). The problem identified by Vice lies in the potentiality of the imagination: once it becomes possible to imagine the Holocaust within a fictional narrative, it becomes equally as possible to un-imagine the Holocaust, and this creates, understandably, a sense of moral unease: "To think 54 Anna Richardson about the ways in which the literary imagination might 'use' the Holocaust is to entangle ourselves with a multitude of problems for which no aesthetic can prepare us" (Howe 175). The problems posed by the question of fictional representations of the Holocaust lead some scholars, such as Berel Lang, to prioritize historical discourse as the most appropriate methodology of representation. Lang argues that in seeking to establish historical veracity, as it inevitably does, literary writing on the Holocaust essentially seeks to appropriate authenticity from historical discourse, and that "Holocaust writing characteristically 'aspires constantly to the condition of history'" (Holocaust Representation 20). In other words, under Lang's interpretation, historical writing sits at the pinnacle of Holocaust representation, with other representative models striving to attain similar heights through emulation (on this, see also Kisantal ). The dividing line between fact and fiction, or historical and imaginative writing, is rigid and clearly demarcated: the only intermingling of the two occurs when writers of imaginative literature seek to incorporate historical discursive strategies into their narratives in order to gain some semblance of authenticity. This is problematic in a number of ways. First, there is the question of what Lang perceives to be the aspirations of Holocaust writing. Although it is true that many texts written on or deriving from the Holocaust seek authenticity through their relation to historical events, and in doing so imitate the methodologies of historiography, it is equally the case that many texts, including some of those written by survivors, seek the opposite of this. Barbara Foley has explored in detail the preference for some Holocaust writers (such as Levi, Rousset, and Wiesel, to name but a few) to render the Holocaust experience, and the concentration camp in particular, in dreamlike, uncertain terms. As Foley notes, this methodology of antirepresentation can sometimes provide a much clearer link to the reader's imagination than an attempt at a historical reproduction : "The discontinuity between the experience of the camp inmate and that of the reader is partially mitigated by this open admission of irreality, indeed, the very invocation of the notion of the 'dream' serves to mediate, however incompletely, between the two realms, and to insist upon the existence of a stable reality . . . against which the nightmare of the camp stands in sharp relief" (340...


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Subject Headings

  • Jews -- Persecutions -- Europe, Central -- History.
  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Hungary -- History.
  • Kertész, Imre, 1929- -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Europe, Central -- History.
  • Hungary -- Ethnic relations.
  • Europe, Central -- Ethnic relations.
  • Jews -- Persecutions -- Hungary -- History.
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