Wiesel, Elie(zer) 1928–
Wiesel is a Rumanian-born American novelist, journalist, short story writer, and essayist who writes chiefly in French. A survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, he draws his themes from many areas of Judaic concern. He writes of the Holocaust, of the Soviet Jewry, and of the Six Day War, often incorporating elements of history and of Hasidic legend into his fiction. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
To a great many of his readers, Elie Wiesel is much more than just a writer. He is a symbol, a banner, and a beacon, perhaps the survivor of the Holocaust. More than outliving Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Wiesel, starting with a slim, terrifying volume called Night in 1958, has written about that experience and its aftershock with an anguished power that no living writer has matched. Reading his books—there have been more than a dozen—one feels the inexpressible nausea and revulsion that a simple recitation of statistics never manages to arouse. He seems to own the horror of the death camps, or rather, the horror owns him.
Yet even a writer as single-minded as Wiesel must eventually branch out, and this he has done. In 1972, he published Souls on Fire, a masterful, joyous retelling of the legends surrounding the Hasidic masters of Eastern Europe, and now comes Messengers of God, described as the successor to Souls and the result of ten years work, in which Wiesel recreates the stories of some of the Bible heroes, from Adam through Job.
As a reteller of tales, Wiesel has few flaws. His is a deliberate, elegant style, consciously elevated and poetic, and if he occasionally tries to pack too much into a sentence, to jam it too full of significance and meaning, it is an error easy to forgive.
Wiesel's primary purpose in writing Messengers, he tells us, is to at...
(The entire section is 467 words.)
[The seven short stories in Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends] are gems of mystery and suspense that draw upon material from the Bible and the vast ocean of rabbinic legend and commentary. God plays a central role in each episode, yet the characters Wiesel vividly portrays are the biblical Adam, Jacob, Moses, Job, who pulsate with complexities and paradoxes, strengths and weaknesses known to everyman. The author is not one to idealize biblical heroes. Jacob's deceptiveness and fear of real challenge are shown to be the consequence of experiences that are so poignantly rendered they throw light on the reader's own struggle for self-discovery. At the same time, Wiesel relates these characters' own experiences to his traditional concerns: the nature and destiny of the Jewish people, the holocaust, the mystery of God's way with man. In so doing, he has been at pains not to minimize the darkness in life and the enigma of man's behavior, and he also offers guidance. (p. 35)
Bernard Mandelbaum, in Saturday Review (© 1976 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 2, 1976.
Elie Wiesel is inexorably linked with the Holocaust, a storyteller determined to keep the world from forgetting the lessons of the immediate past. But there is another side to him—that of Biblical and Talmudic scholar—known largely to his students and lecture attendees. It is this facet which is limned in [Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends, a] series of capsule reflections on Biblical household names…. By blending ancient texts with commentaries and legends, Wiesel removes the patriarchs and prophets from the pantheon—as it were—and enables us to see them as ordinary men, with all their shortcomings and strengths—a contemporary view of what they were in their time, as well as what they would become in ours. (p. 153)
Michael J. Bandler, in Commonweal (copyright © 1977 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), March 4, 1977.
[Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends] is a strange creative achievement. At one level all he has done is collect and retell old legends. He has simply transmitted some of the many tales that the Jewish tradition has woven around the biblical figures. His book looks like an anthology of previously published material.
But at another level the words "all he has done is retell" and "simply transmitted" in the preceding paragraph are colossal understatements. For what he has really done is take the midrashim, the thousands of disparate, disorganized, disjointed commentaries on the biblical stories that are scattered all through rabbinic literature and weave them into hauntingly beautiful and coherent psycho-biographies and into models and mirrors of ourselves. Somewhere in this book Wiesel has a metaphor about what midrash does to Bible that also expresses what Wiesel has done to midrash. He says: "Midrash is to Bible as imagination is to knowledge." He means by that that the biblical stories are the base, the bare bones, around which midrash creates new realities. (p. 220)
And now see how gradually, imperceptibly, but surely the whole focus of our reading has changed. Suddenly we realize that we are not just playing detective games with a cryptic tale or doing intellectual exercises with a resilient text—we are confronting ourselves in the biblical-midrashic mirror. (pp. 220-21)
[To] make us see ourselves as we really are by means of the ancient words, is no "simply," no "merely" as we thought at first reading. It is art, and creative achievement of the highest order. It is the kind of art that draws us, pains us, and makes us grateful. To read this book is an esthetic and an intellectual experience, but much more than that, it is a voyage of self-discovery and self-recognition. Its pages can be read at two levels, as commentary on the ancient words and as commentary on our own situation, and perhaps they are the same. (p. 221)
Jack Riemer, in Commonweal (copyright © 1977 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), April 1, 1977.