André Schwarz-Bart Schwarz-Bart, André (Vol. 4) - Essay

Schwarz-Bart, André (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Schwarz-Bart, André 1928–

A French Jew of Polish heritage, Schwarz-Bart is a novelist whose most recent enterprise has been the fictional exploration of the racial implications of négritude.

André Schwarz-Bart's own life story is exceptionally rich in human interest and his … Jewish novel [The Last of the Just] is probably the most ambitious French-Jewish fictional effort of all times. Schwarz-Bart is in no way the spokesman for Jewish intellectuals today, but his mood—and that of his novel—is in a way their mood. His novel telescopes the experiences of many others….

Schwarz-Bart's mood is one of gentle grief over Jewish suffering, especially that part which he himself witnessed. Very rarely does this grief turn into acrimony. Only when he speaks ironically of the Jesus of impossible love does he turn bitterly against others, implicating Christianity in the history of anti-Semitism and underscoring its unreal aspirations against a record of failure. Far more important than Schwarz-Bart's indictment of the Jew-haters of all time is his reaffirmation of the Jewish "mission," what French mystics have called the mystery of Israel. By enveloping his novel in the legend of the Lamed-Wow, Schwarz-Bart has supplied Jewish folklore as its frame and the ethical tradition as its theme. Stylistic and structural weaknesses notwithstanding, The Last of the Just ranks without a doubt among the great Jewish novels of all time.

Schwarz-Bart regards suffering as the distinctive feature of Jewish destiny and the actions of the non-Jewish world as responsible for this suffering….

Schwarz-Bart has publicly declared that there is no Jewish existence independent of Jewish religion. This factor, more than peoplehood or culture, constitutes the real common denominator for Jews everywhere. Nevertheless, The Last of the Just is perhaps not a full-blown religious book. It is, to be sure, rich in Jewish lore; its customs and ceremonies are presented authentically; its ideas fit into the mainstream of the Jewish tradition. Yet its major modern characters are not mainly inspired by the Torah. The last two generations depicted in the novel … were neither schooled in the Law nor particularly conscious of their heritage. They are peripheral Jews…. They are the Jews of today, not strongly aware of any positive quality to their faith, yet unconsciously living it and suffering for it.

Lothar Kahn, in his Mirrors of the Jewish Mind: A Gallery of Portraits of European Jewish Writers of Our Time, A. S. Barnes, 1968, pp. 212-15.

A stylist, slow and fastidious in his craft, André Schwarz-Bart was awarded the Prix Goncourt for his first book, The Last of the Just. His novels are like miniatures painted on ivory, and, perhaps because the author himself was a member of the Maquis who had been deported to an extermination camp and escaped, his stories are poignant with the cruelty which men inflict on one another.

Edward Weeks, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1973 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), March, 1973, p. 105.

A Woman Named Solitude manages to be simultaneously one of the most exquisitely wrought lyric novels of recent years and an utterly convincing representation of the reality of historical suffering. The two achievements, which may sound contradictory, are in fact inseparably linked. The texture of Schwarz-Bart's prose, beautifully rendered in Ralph Manheim's translation, is "poetic" throughout but never merely decorative, which is to say that it performs one of the primary functions of poetry, to make the strange familiar, to enable us to feel the imponderable experience of another on our own impulses. A Woman Named Solitude might be described as the study of a violated but heroically persistent perspective, that of black Africans torn from the organic wholeness of their traditional world by the white enslaver; and the novel's vivid metaphorical language, constantly rearranging the elements of experience in unexpected patterns, makes this perspective ours as we read….

The paradox of lyric beauty in an imaginative confrontation with slavery makes particular sense because Schwarz-Bart has chosen to represent the moral outrage of enslavement as a drama of consciousness. The artistic tact of this choice is admirable. I suspect that over the last few years our collective sensibilities have simply been numbed by the deluge in film and fiction of what Stanley Kauffmann once called "the pornography of violence." In A Woman Named Solitude, the chains and whips, the sundry instruments of maiming and torture, the sexual despoliations, are merely alluded to quickly in passing, in a matter-of-fact tone that is far more shocking than the conventional wallowing in gore of other contemporary writers. In any case, what one feels more poignantly than the references to physical torture is the continuous presence in the novel of a consciousness pitifully deformed by slavery yet doggedly persisting in its effort to be itself, something other than a shadow in the white man's dream….

In a 1967 interview, Schwarz-Bart said that after the war he had felt that the Holocaust radically isolated the Jews from the rest of mankind in an experience of suffering so profound that it could not be communicated to others. Only after his encounter with West Indians, he went on, did he realize that there might be bridges over the abyss to other islands of suffering, that with all differences recognized, there might still be a universal community of history's victims. The reader of A Woman Named Solitude marvels, and wonders, at Schwarz-Bart's unfaltering ability to project himself into another race, another sex, another age. It is only in the last words of the Epilogue that the author of The Last of the Just calls attention to his identity. The imaginative visitor, we are told, to the site of the slave rebellion's last stand might almost see human figures arise from the long-moldering ruins—just as other phantoms are said to rise before other travelers at the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto. This last gesture is, I think, a psychologically necessary one for the novelist, and with a little shock it throws a whole added perspective on the story that has been told. Schwarz-Bart in this book has brilliantly solved the problem of writing a novel after the great novel of the Holocaust by using Jewish suffering as a window of perception to the suffering of others…. It is hard to think of many living novelists who are able to use the novel so convincingly to bear witness for humanity in its harshest historical trails.

Robert Alter, "History's Victims" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1973 by The American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, May, 1973, pp. 94-6.

[For Schwarz-Bart], as for Herodotus, true history is that which gives us the past as it applies to our own present condition….

Having successfully synthesized the accounts of history and fable, ledger and legend [in A Woman Named Solitude], he has added a unique volume to that slim shelf of books whose words "hold up the house." Moreover, he has given a name to the millions who died as mere entries in a slaver's register, and a voice to those who freed themselves from bondage by swallowing their tongue.

Alan Cheuse, "Legacy of the Middle Passage," in The Nation, October 29, 1973, pp. 440-41.