- Crises of Memory and the Second World War
With Crises of Memory and the Second World War, Susan Rubin Suleiman offers an unusually judicious and humane contribution to a number of highly contentious and frequently polemical debates. Her point of departure is the insight that “how we view ourselves, and how we represent ourselves to others, is indissociable from the stories we tell about our past” (1). The chapters in this book focus on “specific instances where individual memories of the war, presented in the form of literary memoirs, complex autobiographical fictions, historical epic film, or personal documentary, intersect with collective or public memory” (4–5). As Suleiman clarifies at the outset, while making [End Page 753] “a strong case for the freedom of aesthetic shaping in memoir, I draw a firm line between artistry and fraud or delusion” (10).
In keeping with Suleiman’s core area of expertise, French case studies are at the heart of this book. Chapter 1 discusses Sartre’s role as a memoirist of occupied France, focusing primarily on three essays he wrote and published between August 1944 and August 1945. Suleiman emphasizes the extent to which Sartre’s narrative increasingly partook of the unanimisme (“unanimist rhetoric”) and résistancialisme (“resistencialist myth”) that prevailed in postwar France. Indeed, one is tempted to speak of a process of “cumulative resistancialization” as the initial self-critical overtones—evident not least in Sartre’s engaging discussion of antisemitism—retreat apace. Suleiman suggests that this process is best interpreted not as an attempt to mythologize his own role during the occupation, but rather as the programmatic formulation of a standard he had every intention of meeting in the future, whatever his shortcomings in the past.
The second chapter discusses the “Aubrac Affair.” Suleiman stresses the significance of what she calls the “narrative desire,” the yearning for “heroic aggrandizement or for its opposite, the toppling of heroes,” on the one hand, and for “narrative coherence and plausibility,” on the other (37). Yet “what if reality does not follow the logic of plausibility? What if reality is not coherent?” This Suleiman identifies as the real dilemma faced by Raymond and Lucie Aubrac, and she argues that “one cannot blame . . . individual witnesses for allowing their desire for coherence to shape their memories” (61). Chapter 3 contrasts André Malraux’s role in the “pantheonization” of Jean Moulin in 1964—and indeed the dynamics of his own “pantheonization” in 1996—with the skeptical approach of his Antimémoires.
Chapters 4 and 5 turn their attention to film, first to Marcel Ophuls’s Hotel Terminus and then to Istvàn Szabé’s Sunshine. Suleiman suggests that “the brilliance of Ophuls’s editing lies in its capacity to . . . force the viewer into uncomfortable subject positions in relation to the material.” In fact, “never—or at least, never for long” is the viewer given a chance “to bask in righteous indignation or moral superiority” (87). Yet these “uncomfortable subject positions” do not render the issues that are presented “undecidable; they are merely not to be resolved without a struggle.” Suleiman identifies Ophuls’s complex montage technique as “a good public use of memory, as opposed to manipulative, overtly instrumental uses” (88). For although individual elements in the film may be staged, “there is no deception involved since the staging is obvious” (92).
This judgment forms a crucial leitmotif for the three chapters on literary memoirs that follow and form the most interesting part of the book. [End Page 754] Chapter 6 discusses Jorge Semprun’s Buchenwald memoirs. Chapter 7 focuses on Wilkomirski’s Fragments (a memoir published to high acclaim but subsequently revealed to be fictitious) and Wiesel’s Tous les fleuves vont à la mer. Chapter 8 addresses literary memoirs by writers belonging to what Suleiman calls “the 1.5 generation”—those who survived as children, either in the camps or in hiding. Her point of departure for this discussion is not least the startling statistic that of all the Jewish children living in Europe in...