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A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction by Ruth Franklin (review)

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 28, Number 1, Summer 2013
pp. 171-174 | 10.1353/abs.2013.0004

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The Holocaust survivor telling her story is caught in a terrible paradox, aware that her audience cannot—yet must—be made to understand her testimony. To tell is imperative, and yet telling invariably fails. Language simultaneously reveals and conceals. These strangling double binds may describe the survivor’s experience, but as Ruth Franklin argues in her compelling study, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, they must not govern the Holocaust writer or the literary critic’s response. Franklin, a senior critic at The New Republic, intervenes incisively in the ethical and aesthetic debates raised by Holocaust literature and its reception. During the past several decades, readers have approached Holocaust literature with naïve credulity, privileging the truth-value of autobiographical testimony above all. Franklin asserts that Holocaust writers have blurred the boundaries between memoir and fiction much more than we would like to admit: “Every canonical work of Holocaust literature involves some graying of the line between fiction and reality” (11). Given this, she argues against rigid categorizations of Holocaust literature based on an absolute definition of truth, and for the value of blurring the fiction/memoir boundary. Her study questions the privileging of autobiography over fiction and endorses imagination as a form of truth-telling. As her title, A Thousand Darknesses, suggests, she celebrates multiplicity and sees any given text as telling a Holocaust story, not the Holocaust story. Her study brings questions of aesthetic value to bear on Holocaust fiction, and she is attentive to subtleties of language, voice, and narrative perspective. For instance, she considers the effects of Thadeus Borowksi’s “relentlessly impersonal” (31) narration of horrors and of Primo Levi’s quest for a “supreme clarity of language” in the face of devastation (47). These aesthetic choices reveal the writer’s imaginative vision of humanity, suffering, and guilt.

A Thousand Darknesses is ambitious in scope. Its eleven chapters are divided into two sections: “The Witnesses” and “Those Who Came After.” This structure enables Franklin to highlight the generational shifts in Holocaust literature and its reception. Franklin situates herself among current scholars, such as James Young, who have taken issue with the prescriptive approach of survivor-scholars such as Elie Wiesel toward matters of genre, truth, and memory. Each chapter focuses on a Holocaust writer whose work limns the boundaries of fact and imagination. Franklin contextualizes her close readings with meticulous attention to the writer’s biography and reception history. (Curiously, all of the dozen or so Holocaust writers profiled in A Thousand Darknesses are male. Future work remains to be done on the relationship of gender and genre in Holocaust literature). Franklin’s biographical sketches are studded with astonishing details about the writers’ lives and how they negotiated their relationship to the Holocaust. Beyond her intervention in scholarly debates about representation and genre, her careful attention to these writers’ public and private lives is simply fascinating. A Thousand Darknesses will be of interest to the general reader, the student, and the scholar of Holocaust literature. Although Franklin’s study speaks to a broad audience, I do wish that it included a bibliography. The lack of citation does an injustice to Franklin’s no-doubt-meticulous research and leaves students and general readers without references for further study. For the scholar of Holocaust literature, it is surprising not to see recent and important work by Dominick LaCapra, Sue Vice, and Naomi Mandel cited, as these authors clearly inform Franklin’s approach.

Part One, “The Witnesses,” includes chapters on Tadeusz Borowski, Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Piotr Rawicz, Jerzy Kosinski, and Imre Kertész. Of particular interest are the chapters on Wiesel, Rawicz, and Kosinski. Franklin identifies Wiesel as the architect of popular understandings of the Holocaust as beyond language and representation. She takes issue with his well-known dictums about what counts as Holocaust literature. Although Wiesel’s approach to genre has been rigid and prescriptive, Night represents “an imperfect ambassador for the infallibility of memoir” (71), as its categorization has shifted repeatedly between fiction and nonfiction. Franklin’s critique of Wiesel may be the most refreshingly bold I have encountered: “I am also thinking of the problems inherent whenever a topic is deemed taboo...



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