- Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust: The Chain of Memory
In the first chapter of his book Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust, Christopher Bigsby lays out his thesis: "This book . . . is a meditation on memory, on the ways in which memory has operated in the work of writers for whom the Holocaust was a defining event. But it is also an exploration of the ways in which fiction and drama have attempted to approach a subject so resistant to the imagination" (4). While this gives the reader a good sense of the structure of the book, Bigsby's statement also underscores the difficulty in reviewing this text for Theatre Journal. As a work of scholarship on Holocaust, memory, and narrative, his work is exemplary; he profiles nine of the most prominent Holocaust writers, all linked through their use or exploration of memory, and examines the biographical and sociocultural connections in their work. From the point of view of theatre scholarship, however, the book is somewhat disappointing. While Bigsby includes several playwrights among his subjects (including Rolf Hochhuth, Peter Weiss, Arthur Miller, and Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who dramatized Anne Frank), he fails to develop fully the idea of theatre as a repository for memory and the challenges this presents. In order to do this book justice, therefore, I feel compelled to write this review in two parts, first from the standpoint of a scholar interested in memory theory and Holocaust studies, and second as a theatre historian.
Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust is an excellent work of scholarship in the field of Holocaust literature. Bigsby begins with a discussion about the simultaneous importance and unreliability of memory as a form of witness; this is a theme he will return to in examining respective authors' works throughout the book. He then includes chapters and analyses of major Holocaust writers who explore ideas of memory/testimony in their work; these include W. G. Sebald, Rolf Hochhuth, Peter Weiss, Arthur Miller, Anne Frank, Jean Améry, Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and Tadeusz Borowski. He follows these sections with a fascinating chapter titled "Memory Theft," which examines the writings of several well-known Holocaust impersonators—authors who falsely claimed to have survived the Holocaust—and illustrates how their works were originally embraced.
One of the strengths of the book is the number and variety of authors Bigsby chooses to study. He analyzes the use of memoir, documentary, and memory in works as diverse as Weiss's The Investigation, and Wiesel's Night, and the mnemonic stylization in the novels of Sebald. In addition, Bigsby's subjects span a range of nationalities and Holocaust voices, including those who had been interned in the camps, both Jews and non-Jews, as well as postwar German and American writers (again, some Jewish, some not) who felt compelled to address the issue. Bigsby's new-historicist approach accentuates the differing voices of each writer; it is fascinating to see how, for example, in the work of Sebald, a German gentile whose father served in the army under the Nazis, the desire for "restitution" surfaces in the actions and memories of fictional (yet autobiographical) characters. Bigsby also does the reader a tremendous service by demonstrating how these authors' texts and memories interact with one another. Undoubtedly, some of the controversies and dialogues will be well-known to Holocaust scholars and historians (such as Cynthia Ozick on the "ownership" of Anne Frank). However, presenting Sebald's comments on Weiss (much of the book uses Sebald's scholarship as a launching point) as well as the dialogue among the works of authors such as Levi, Améry, and Wiesel allows Bigsby to address the difficult nature of memory and history.
As a scholar of Holocaust literature, I find Bigsby's book an invaluable resource. However, as a work of theatre scholarship, Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust has a narrow appeal. As mentioned above, Bigsby does spend a significant amount of time on playwrights. The sections on Hochhuth and Weiss deal with the one...