“Love & Treasure”

For the Forward, I review Ayelet Waldman’s latest novel, asking some deeper questions about how holocaust fiction will change as the number of living survivors dwindles.

A historical novel, the Hungarian literary critic Georg Lukács argued, should reach only as far backwards as the era of the author’s grandparents. That is because novelists build not balanced panoramas, but rather individual portraits. Real human beings are unrealistic, because they are improbably idiosyncratic. Only contact with witnesses gives writers the thick detail they need to make the zany plausible. As Holocaust survivors die, this problem becomes acute for its would-be literary chroniclers. In 2004, a little over a million survivors were living, and that number has steadily dwindled. Witnesses are particularly crucial in the case of the Holocaust, artistic representations of which have often seemed suspect; the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas once denounced Holocaust art as turning “the Passion of Passions… into the vanity of an author.” Survivors not only feed the writer’s imagination but also morally authorize it.

Here is the rest.

2 thoughts on ““Love & Treasure”

  1. Hi, I just read this in the Forward and so came here to your blog. I found your analysis superb. In my own work on memoirs of women survivors and on second generation memoirs I have also often been concerned by the issue of how long can it go on & I think often even going back to the author’s grandparents nothing but kitsch is created when there has been insufficient communication with and understanding of the life of those grandparents, and this lack of understanding seems to be particularly prevalent among American Jews, who try to prop up their novels with skimpy historical research and romance plots. Another egregious example is Julie Orringer, The Invisible Bridge, 2010. She actually had survivor grandparents on her father’s side but little communication with them and zero knowledge of Hungarian language or culture. Nevertheless, the bulky romance novel that she created out of the Holocaust was immediately translated to Hungarian and avidly read by even some (female) Holocaust survivors.

    • Hi Louise—

      Thanks for reading, and for the positive comments! I’m really interested in the translation of an English-language holocaust novel back into Hungarian. Fascinating!

      To be fair, I think it’s true (though painful) that even survivors themselves can create bad art (I don’t know if you’ve seen “Stalags,” a short, peculiar Israeli documentary about post-war holocaust erotica in Israel, but it’s a good example). I was more interested in the technical problem distance creates; to be sure, I think Waldman found a cheap solution, but I hope there are less cheap solutions (Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything is Illuminated” is not 100% my favorite novel either, but I think he’s intelligently responding to the same problem of distance through his narratorial playfulness; I bet a good newer holocaust novel would be similarly “confusing,” written with a built-in sense of its own limits (“Maus” may be the ur-type of holocaust literature by non-survivors, and “Maus,” at least I think, does a really goood job highlighting how hard what it’s trying to do is, how much is lost).

      Anyway, so nice to hear from you!

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